At this point in the season all but a handful of athletes will have completed their goal Ironman for the season. There will be a lucky few with a trip to Hawaii or somewhere similarly warm booked for later in the year, but the majority of us are now looking at recovery and speculating about our goals for the coming year. It’s tempting to kick back and relax the moment you cross the finish line of that final race – no training, eating whatever you want. There’s no problem with this, it’s important to have some form of break, but taking a more disciplined approach can aid recovery. I thought I’d look at some of the ways I’ve helped myself recover.
During my most intensive race season doing something, be it swim or bike – never running – the day after a race became a ritual. An easy spin for coffee, or a casual swim before breakfast with friends, a social event as much as the first opportunity to get blood flowing. Easy was the important word in that sentence – this was as light as I could make it without falling off the bike or drowning. One of my best recovery blocks followed Ironman Western Australia, I rode at an embarrassingly slow pace every day for the entire week after that race and was amazed how much better my legs felt by the end of it; the usual swelling and soreness that followed a hard race vanished in a matter of days. It needn’t be quite as structured, but I encourage athletes I coach to be active following a major race, even when their season is over and there are no more races to prepare for. The only rule I would enforce is: no running, a swim or spin is much easier on the body.
I also advise athletes to eat well after their Ironman, meaning to eat healthily, although I have to confess I struggled to follow this myself. But on those rare occasions when I have abstained from or at least moderated my usual binge on junk foods – a combination of burgers and cakes for me – I typically find my recovery improved. The starting point is rehydrating – as quickly as possible after the race, often easier said than done, but I feel much better the next morning if I’ve made the effort to drink the night before. Alcohol is not the best choice for this process, although a little bit has helped me sleep through the aches and pains on race night. My most successful recoveries have seen me postpone that binge by at least a week. I eat more, but I stick with my regular diet of predominantly unprocessed foods, nothing particularly radical. It makes sense that when your body is at its busiest repairing itself you want to ensure it receives a diet rich in nutrients.
Of course it is a recovery period and potentially the breaking point between one season and the next so I do encourage some form of break. It doesn’t need to be a total abandonment of sport, as I’ve said I prefer breaks to be active, but it’s both mentally and physically beneficial to remove yourself from the stresses of a strict training regime. There comes a point when even the most focussed athlete needs time off and while we may fear loss of fitness a few weeks away from intensive training will do no harm in the long term. After two years of almost continuous training and racing I came back much stronger for a full winter’s break with a few months of light, unstructured exercise. The next season was one of my strongest on the bike, built in spring after a winter barely maintaining fitness.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to recover – there never is – it’s very much a case of personal choice. I entirely understand those who feel the need for a month away from the sport to recharge, it can be as much a mental as physical requirement; you should not allow a fear of lost fitness to deny your body and mind the recuperation they may need. On balance you should be aware of the benefits of keeping active and controlling your recovery period in order to enhance the process and improve your experience. That said after months of hard work no one will begrudge you a little indulgence.