It’s easy to think of running an ultra as something purely physical. Taking this approach, “recovery” from an ultra is all about giving your muscles, bones and tendons (plus other bodily parts which have taken a real battering on your run) time to recover. Of course this is an important element of recovery but I always try to take a holistic approach to recovery and how you feel mentally rather than physically is probably the best guide to how recovered you are. Being guided by your “desire” to exercise again after a race is a great indication of whether or not you should be exercising!
Having said all of this, there are a few guidelines which I think it is important to recognise when thinking about recovery. I’ve set my thoughts on these out below and split them into time periods from the moment you cross the finish line through to “long term”.
Immediately After The Finish
One point that is important to remember here is that even if you don’t finish your race, you’ll still have put in a big effort and it’s important to recognise that you’ll still need to follow these guidelines for recovery and looking after yourself.
When something hasn’t gone to plan, it’s so tempting to not give yourself the love and recovery time that you need. Do your best to avoid this!
Week Following The Race
The above elements: eat; drink; and sleep all continue to apply in the week following a race. Now is not the time to be restricting calories (please also note that getting sufficient fuel as an ultra runner is always critical and can lead to some serious health problems if you don’t) - it is the time to be eating lots of nutrient dense foods that you enjoy and treating yourself as well! Continue to focus on the sleep and generally minimising stresses in your life as far as you can. Try not to organise lots of things (work or social commitments) if you can, in the week following an ultra run.
In addition to these points, as long as you do not have any injuries from the race, you can and should start to get about and move. Initially this should be very light low intensity exercise such as walking or a very gentle swim. I tend to wait about 3 or 4 days after a race before I do any form of exercise. Start off slowly with around 15 or 20 minutes of light exercise and slowly increase this through the week. Take regular rest days and if you feel tired or you don’t feel like exercising then just stop! During this time some light mobility, stretching or foam rolling can also be useful. I tend to totally avoid running in the week following a big race.
If you have sustained an injury during the race, now is the time to get in touch with a physio/doctor/other medical practitioner to work out the next steps to help you recover.
1 – 4 Weeks Following The Race
If your recovery is going well and you have the desire, now is the time to start to think about reintroducing some light easy running – take regular rest days after you do start running and build it up from a low level of around 20-30 minutes. The objectives of these runs are not to make you fitter, rather to gradually get your body used to running again. During this time I would be wary about doing anything more intense than aerobic “Zone 2” running (running at a speed which you can easily talk at). You also need to be led in this time by how you are feeling and how much desire you have to get out running again. If you don’t have the desire then it’s a good indication that you’re not mentally or physically recovered. If this is the case, just continue to focus on rest, eating, hydration and minimising life stresses as far as you can.
One of the key things in running is to take a step back from your training plans and objectives to make sure you give yourself sufficient down time between races and across years. Lots of elite runners will take anywhere from a few weeks to a month away from running each year. If you just bounce from race to race and are always aiming for the next thing this can have serious implications for you which ultimately can force you to stop running through injury, illness or overtraining. To help with this you could consider getting a coach – this is someone that can tell you what you need to hear not what you want to hear and is able to take a step back and give you objective advice about how to train whilst also looking after yourself. I have now had a coach for over four years and it is the best investment in my running I’ve ever made – the training plans are great but the advice and objective approach that a coach can give you is where there is real value!