There are few things in life that trump the feeling of crushing a workout or finishing a long distance run. Just as much as we relish the satisfaction of pushing through the pain, many of us are very much aware of the soreness we’d all feel the next morning.
Regardless of your fitness level, muscle soreness affects all of us. And without proper treatment, getting out of bed becomes a near-impossible task, let alone taking part in a scheduled workout. To help you get through the pain, we had professional triathlete and USA Triathlon-certified coach Nick Chase, professional triathlete Michael Drackert and the good folks with Addaday share their favorite pieces of advice on all things muscle recovery.
Recovering After a Big Race
By Nick Chase
Relatively speaking, a “big race” could mean a 5k run event or Ultraman triathlon and for that reason, let’s try and grab some perspective. If you’re just starting out, never having run in your life, a 5k race could seem monumental and the rigors of training could be taxing while the Ultraman takes place over three days and challenges even the best-equipped athlete.
My point is, in spite of the race distance, we need to remember the mind handles stress and recovery independently from your muscles. While your race distance may be shorter, it may require more recovery than predicted. Furthermore, when we train for months and months in preparation for a “big event,” recovery is still mandatory and each person is unique in that stepladder-type process.
I always like to think of recovery like a ladder that you need to come down from. Climbing down from the top means precise moves between your mind-body coordination so it’s super important to get it right.
Also, I like to think about the type of race and visualize a bigger ladder for longer events since naturally, they do tend to take longer to bounce back from.
Seriously, A Ladder?
In order to keep things standard, I’ll speak in terms of myself. I’m a five-year professional triathlete who spends 18-35 hours a week training and usually race 8 to 12 times per year over Olympic, 70.3 and 140.6 distance triathlons.
For me, a 5k race would be a four-step ladder. For me, this would be a 110-percent effort and really tax the legs but wouldn’t kill my immune system or mental focus:
- Step 4: Active recovery via light bike ride or swim, massage or foam roll/yoga
- Step 3: Light jog, likely 25 min mixed with drills, still focusing on personal stretching
- Step 2: Moderate bike session/hard swim session/core exercises
- Step 1: Resume regular run volume and add strides at the end of the run
*I wouldn’t expect a large change in nutrition during this period, just eat clean.
In contrast, I would look at an Extreme Triathlon like Patagonman, which I just completed. I think this example will mimic that of most age group athletes in the sense I’ve toed the line at four other Ironman 140.6 events and 70.3 events this year. My mind was a bit tired and so was my body – but a quick taper pre-race meant I was feeling decent. The aftermath of a 140.6 event is usually a few weeks but for this race, it’s even more. An extreme event like this was an additional 90 minutes to complete and had a ton of mountain terrain. Factor in a much-earlier morning start, which meant a long day. Overall, I was awake for 20 hours.
This meant I had to follow a 10-Step Ladder after the event:
- Step 10: No Training, light stretching if possible. Heavy in clean carbs, veggies to recovery immune system. 100% focus on getting in a nap and extra hours of sleep. If you like sweets or desserts, eat some sweets because you’re awesome.
- Step 9: Maybe a dip in some water just to float about, possibly a light, 15-minute road bike spin or nothing at all. Keep eating clean carbs and tons of veggies. Also, keep protein intake up and boost your omega’s to help clear some inflammation. Daily onset muscle soreness (DOMS) should be kicking. Take a nap.
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- Step 8: Today should peak with DOMS and the key is to keep moving. Go on some low-effort walks and swim, if possible. A bigger appetite is still fine to indulge but keep it clean. Today would be a good day for light yoga even if you are only hitting 60-percent range of motion (ROM). Keep up the blood flow and maybe get a massage if you can handle someone touching your muscles gently. Consider a deep water run today.
- Step 7: Go on an easy ride on the bike for 60 to 90 minutes. Higher cadence, low heart rate or a 30-minute swim with light kicking and pulling individually. Taper down your food intake and try to get your hunger under control by increasing your fluid intake. Today is a good day to reflect on your race and get some mental clarity on what went right or wrong. Have a long talk with your coach.
- Step 6: Light swim or bike and maybe some quick activation with walking drills to work the ROM. Back to regular eating and maybe even looking at your next set of events, preparing for the next build or even off-season. Keep salad and veggies as your focus and if you haven’t done it yet, GET A MASSAGE. Nothing deep, just relaxation – you need to work on your mental recovery. Take notes, make lists and just get your thoughts organized. Consider deep water run today.
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Self-massage product manufacturer Addaday recommends all athletes to give several small massages throughout the day, especially after a hard workout or a race. Ideally, you should massage right after the workout, a few hours after and then once more before you go to bed, Addaday said.
Addaday said the more pressure you apply, the slower you should roll. When doing fast roll, the massage pressure should be medium to light. Think of massing the muscles and not just rolling them.
The marble roller is a great tool for upper body recovery. Portable and small enough to fit into any workout bag, the marbles are made from magnetic material believed to help stimulate blood flow.
Another product worth checking out is the Uno massage roller. Its single-roller design allows for easy self-massage on the back of the neck as well as all over the body. Uno’s indents on the roller ball help warm up and loosen muscles.
Step 5: If this is a Saturday or Sunday, now is your chance to do what you feel on the bike or swim (but still no running). I would even go as long as 2.5 hours on an easy road bike spin with friends. It’s totally cool to hit a coffee ride. Get in a long walk and get ready for a jog in a few days. Make sure your race bike is clean or has been to the mechanic after your race.
Your racing wheels should be off and maybe you’ll think about getting back on the time trial bike soon, if you have another race coming up. Either way, enjoy the road bike (unless you’re stuck with 1 TT bike, sorry).
Step 4: Today, you can think about your first jog outside but keep it under 30 minutes with plenty of drills and stretching. Also, you may need to lay off the bike but you can swim and add some light bodyweight core work.
Step 3: Resume hard swimming or take another day off to shed any last bits of fatigue. Make sure you’ve discussed your next build with your coach and know what is coming ahead. If you need to further discuss your race or review race data, finalize those thoughts and plan accordingly.
Step 2: Back to some intensity on the bike and swim for sure and still keep the running slow and steady under 60 minutes.
Step 1: Your last day should be close to normal and hopefully without a lot of structure in your training schedule. A hard master's swim would be nice to jolt the body back and prime the mind for hard work and some short bursts on the bike will tell you if your legs are feeling better.
I would use one last run to verify you don’t have any niggles and make sure your hips are ready for some work. Be patient! Keep listening to your body and if the legs say go, then go. Otherwise, talk with your coach and don’t force it.
Take It Slow
As you can see, taking it slowly is of the highest importance. Coming back too hard and too early is something I’ve been guilty of and at times it’s been necessary since I’ve had 2 x 140.6 events within 4 weeks. However, I still practiced light sessions of active recovery for 10 days or so until I hit the gas again. You only have a finite amount of willpower and even if you feel good five days after your race, you can still cause another big lull five days later if you don’t allow recovery when it’s needed most.
Finally, be good to your mind. Even if you didn’t have the best race, you still need to give yourself the respect to appreciate what you’ve accomplished. Training for any race takes time, planning and mental energy. If you’re juggling 2 jobs, kids and life-stress then 30 minutes of training per day might be all you can muster. This means your 5k race should still be taken seriously and all consideration given to the work you have put in. Your mind is your biggest weapon in endurance racing and with adequate recovery,you can prevent a crash or panic because your nervous system isn’t pushed beyond all limits. Also, your family will be the first to tell you when you’re being an ass, so take that as a sign you need some Zen. If you haven’t ever meditated before bed, I promise it will help you get those eyes closed faster for longer. Happy racing and I wish you the BEST recovery.
Recovery Rule of Thumb
By Michael Drackert
Multisport endurance athlete and USAT Cross Age Group National Champion Michael Drackert knows a thing or two about brutal racing conditions. Below is a list of his recovery rule of thumb.
Stress is Stress: Our bodies react the same way to stress no matter if it’s from physical training or if we're emotionally stressed from work, family, or other areas of our lives.
Stress is Cumulative: It adds up. We need to adjust our physical training and recovery to accommodate additional and unexpected life stress loads.
The Body Doesn't Lie: Becoming more aware of the feelings, sensations, and emotions we experience are good signals for determining the best path forward to short-term and long-term recovery.
“Get a lot of sleep, eat a lot of food, drink a lot of water, take a lot of deep breaths,” Drackert said. “That's pretty much my cure for everything.”
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- No Screen Time for at least an hour before bed (better yet, minimal screen time at home) and add a blue light blocker app.
- Eight is Great: Wake up and go to bed around the same times every day, even on the weekends. Try to shoot for 8-ish hours of sleep.
- Keep your bedroom between 62 to 68 ℉ and as dark as possible.
- Take three conscious breaths in bed: inhale 7-count, hold 5-count, exhale 3-count.
- Check Blood Sugar: If you're waking up in the middle of the night during heavy training periods, it might be because your blood sugar is low. If this happens to you, try eating a little scoop of nut butter before bed so your body can metabolize the fat all night.
- Taking supplements? Try a magnesium supplement, especially if you sweat a lot during training.
Breathing and Reducing Stress
- Biology 101: We breathe because oxygen is necessary to burn the fuel in our cells to produce energy.
- Breathing: Get in the habit of taking three deep, full breaths whenever you can. Do this before you get out of bed, in the shower, in your car, as soon as you get to your desk, at lunch, before training, after training and before you fall asleep. This practice has massive amounts of research showing stress reduction, lower blood pressure and detoxification. It’s literally something everyone can do and it works.
The above practices are to help our bodies be healthy during the times we are not physically stressing them through training. It's all about building reserves of energy that we can then use in the pool, on the bike or running.
Finally, a few practices to directly address the stresses of training:
- Maintenance is Better Than Repair: Keeping the body mobile and balanced will help avoid chronic injuries after training.
- Stretching and Opening Routine: Mine takes just 10 to 15 minutes and I do a version of it every day. It’s usually three yoga sun salutations, hip flexor openers, a few rotational poses for lower back, glute stretch, and side angle stretch. Then, I'll follow it up with some standing leg swings.
- Foam Roll or Myofascial Release: Spend 5 to 10 minutes on it each day. My personal experience related to this was my right adductor was cramping late in races. I went to a physical therapist. He said my glute medius and I.T. band were so tight, that it was making my right leg 1/2-inch shorter and rotating outwards. The adductor was trying to compensate. This is why foam rollers are helpful in order to break up adhesion, elongate and help keep things in alignment.
- Mobility Strength Drills: Spend 5 to 10 minutes on lunging forward, back and side, doing fire hydrants, donkey kicks, pushups, pull-ups.
- Active Recovery Instead of Days Off: If your training plan says "Day Off," then go for a hike with the family. Do your stretching and mobility routine. Move your body through a full range of motion and don't just lay on the couch.
- Dog Walk Cooldowns: Spend 5 to 10 minutes on this. These are my favorite. Finish your ride or run and then grab your dog and take them for a walk.
- Mile Check: Lay on your back with your feet up against the wall for at least a minute for every mile of your run.
- Keep Moving: Whether you’re at work or home try to stand and move around every 20 to 30 minutes.
- Feet are the Key: Always take care of your feet. Get a FootRubz or golf ball and roll out the bottom while sitting at your desk. Or ask your wife to save the toe spacers from her pedicures and then wear those around the house while you're cooking dinner.
- Epsom Salt Baths: Do this for 5 to 10 minutes. I'm sure ice baths help but warm Epsom salt baths are so much better. Fill up the tub. Add 2 cups of Epsom salt. Grab a book, take three deep breaths and soak away the training. Plus the magnesium in the Epsom salt will absorb through your skin to help with a great night's sleep.