Ask the coaches: Race recovery

Evergreen Endurance recently teamed up with Alison Naney of Alpenglow Running to do an online Q&A session for the High-Heel Running Group. See below for the second question and our answers.

Question: After a significant race, how long should you rest/recover and what does that look like? Is there a general guideline such as # of hours racing = # days? What activities are recommended? (Thanks for the opportunity to ask!)


Jessica: Unfortunately, there is no specific equation that relates number of hours spent racing to number of recovery days (although that would be super cool – I kinda like it when there is “one right answer” to these sorts of things!). The amount of time it takes you to recover depends on a lot of different factors, including your training leading up to the race, how hard you pushed yourself during the race, how much running vs. walking you did during the race, and how well you nailed your post-race recovery.

Obviously, training leading up to the race should have prepared you for the distance and elevation gain, yet also allowed time for a well-executed taper. And remember that tapering isn’t just about cutting volume – it’s also about including a touch of intensity (assuming you’ve been doing that in training as well) in order to keep your legs sharp.

As far as how hard you pushed yourself during the race, I think it’s worth noting that time spent running vs. walking is not always related to whether you were pushing yourself. Some races have so much elevation gain that you might be working extremely hard while power-hiking/crawling up a steep grade. That said, generally speaking, a race in which you did a lot of running generally requires more recovery time than a race in which you did a lot of walking.

Alison: I’m actually relieved there isn’t a formula for recovery; that sounds so complicated and limiting! But I digress…As Jessica said, recovery really starts before the race by training properly. Assuming you’ve done that, I recommend starting your recovery immediately after the race finishes. Getting something to eat as soon as your body allows, and even doing a little walk to flush out waste products if you’re able, will give you a good jump-start. Especially if you need to get into a car for a drive home, minimizing sitting down right away will help keep you from stiffening up. If you need to drive for a bit, take breaks to get out of the car and do a couple laps around the car, or some light stretching. When you get home, try to get a good night’s sleep, so your body can start the repair process. While research is mixed about ice baths and compression garments, I’m a big fan of trusting your body and “if it feels good, do it.” If you feel revitalized by sitting in a creek or taking an ice cold bath, then it will help you. If you don’t, then it likely won’t help you and you’ll be better off doing the things that sound nice. Running gives us an opportunity to get more in tune with our bodies, so trust what feels right.

In the days following your race, walks, gentle stretching or yoga, and foam rolling will help get blood flowing, which is how our bodies bring nutrients and oxygen to muscles, and take away waste products. Increasing circulation will also help mend any microtears that cause muscle soreness. Getting a massage during the week after a race increases blood flow, increases your range of motion that is most likely diminished, stretches out muscles or even parts of muscles in a very specific way, and helps “reset” your body after your event. While good nutrition is important all the time, it is especially important after a big effort. In addition to replacing the calories you’ve burned to complete your race, your body also needs nutrient rich food to repair and rebuild tissue.

Jessica: [Alison won’t plug her own business, so I’ll do it for her :): If you need a great massage, Alison is an LMP:!]
As for knowing when you’re ready to start running, in terms of physical signs, a big part of it is how you feel. For instance, I know that if I can’t take the stairs without pain, then it’s not time to run yet. Walking is a great form of active recovery, and also a great indicator of when you’re ready to run again. If you can’t walk for 30-60 min at a brisk pace, then it’s not time to run yet.

You can also monitor your resting heart rate to determine if you’ve gotten enough recovery. This requires establishing a baseline resting HR over time by measuring your HR when you first wake up for several weeks before your event. After the event, a resting HR that is more than 7 bpm above normal suggests that you need more recovery time before you get back into regular training. Note that if you’re going to use your resting HR as an indicator of recovery status, it seems best to look at weekly averages rather than daily values, as described here (with a link to primary literature): Collecting this kind of HR data isn’t for everyone, but if you’re a numbers person, this is one way to quantify your recovery.
That said, if your resting HR is normal but your legs aren’t back to normal, then it’s not yet time to resume normal training!

When you’re ready to do your first post-race run, I often recommend that people try some run/walk intervals, and if those go well, then you can run straight through your next workout. Essentially, I recommend a reverse taper out of the event (except without the intensity that’s sometimes included in tapers). Just as you gradually dropped your volume leading up to the event, you should gradually increase your volume as you recover from the event. Of course, all of these guidelines are just that: guidelines. And conservative ones, at that. As you gain more experience racing, running, and recovering from endurance events, you’ll get a better sense of when it’s OK to start running and may not need to be as conservative.

Alison: Yes, I love using heart rate as a measure of recovery (and also training properly, but that’s a whole other blog topic…or seven). Mental recovery is also an important piece not to forget. Likely, you’ve spent a lot of energy figuring out how to train, prioritized running over other things in your life, thought endlessly about the race, then did mental calculations during the run about eating, how far until the next aid station, pondered why you decided to do this crazy sport, or the meaning of life: all of which take a lot of brain power (I’m tired just writing that). Take enough time after your race to relax and let your mind recover before doing it all over again. Doing things like yoga, getting a massage, reading a book, or spending time with friends and family will not only help you get back to being able to train, but also enrich your life.

Jessica: And finally, in addition to your physical and mental recovery, don’t forget to consider your personal/work life. We all have obligations outside of running, and it’s important to balance our passion for running with all the other things we’ve got going on. For instance, when I go out and do long endurance runs, my husband is left as a single parent. Therefore I try to intersperse my “Mama-ventures” with quality family time. One weekend I might disappear for 48 hrs to go camping/running, but the next weekend we’ll take a family trip to San Juan Island, where I do minimal running (good for mental and physical recovery!) and instead focus on family.

Alison: I totally agree. My family is super supportive and while running is an integral part of my life that makes me a better mom and wife, we have an understanding that it can’t take over. Figuring out how to fit it all in is challenging at times, but makes it all that much more rewarding to prepare for something, execute it well, and then allow for some well-deserved off time, no matter how long that ends up being. One final note: there’s a great book called The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery that has other ideas as well, if you’re a book geek like me.

Alison Naney taking recovery seriously. (photo credit: Hannah Dewey Photography)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: