Most triathlon race recovery articles talk you through the science and theories without actually giving you the answer: what actually works and to what extent? Here I’ll give you the run down on my own experiences, as a so-far unbeaten ultramarathon runner and pro-triathlete.

Racing is different to training in that you should throw everything at that event. Training should be consistent and not too intense as to cause damage that affects training the next day, whereas racing, that’s the next level. Be prepared to have legs like lead – if you race hard, there is no hope that fatigue will not get you. It’s how you manage it that determines how quickly you are back to full training.

Here are some realistic steps you can follow to help you recover from racing, be it a running or multisport event:

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Warm down:

Immediately after the race, try your best to swim/bike for 10-15 minutes. Jogging is still relatively high impact but if there’s no chance of accessing your bike or a pool/lake, then mix jogging with walking just to keep the blood flowing after your hard effort. This will help (but won’t prevent) muscle stiffness developing later.

Rest:

The single-most important thing you can do! The body is very good at repairing itself if left to its own devices. If it’s forced to train on inflamed joints or damaged muscles, that’s when ongoing fatigue and injuries undoubtedly arise. Sleep is vital as this is when the body repairs properly, so hit the hay as much as possible in the few days post-race. Rest does not mean complete inactivity and you should incorporate some very light exercise to reduce stiffness and speed up recovery.

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Stretch:

Stretching will not help knots (tight muscles often lose their striation and become knotted and shortened as a result), so this is where massage takes precedence (see massage point). Dynamic stretching (leg and arm swings) is fantastic for releasing tight muscles and the surrounding fascia, as well as aiding circulation, so it’s a great idea to spend a few minutes on this first thing in the morning as well as before any exercise. For static stretching, any areas of tightness need a good 2 minute hold twice a day to make any real improvement. A cursory 20 second stretch will do nothing of benefit! You should actually feel the tension start to dissipate before you stop the stretch and this can take some time.

Ice:

Areas that are swollen or inflamed need ice asap – it does reduce swelling. Swelling is BAD and you’ll need to rest and let that settle before even thinking about training hard again. I have iced religiously before and still needed cortisone, so it is not a miracle cure, but it does help. Any slight niggle you feel should be addressed as priority – it’s often a case of getting on top of these things early on to avoid ongoing issues.

Consume:

Drink copiously. Better to sip frequently than down a 2 litre bottle in one go and stick in a salt tab to replace all that lost sweat. Protein and anti-inflammatory foods are what you should seek (although in reality; chips often win!). Anti-inflammatory foods? Yep, that’ll include grapes, blueberries, strawberries, oranges, kiwis, olive oil, celery, ginger, garlic, curry powder, nuts, tuna, salmon, mackerel, green tea, and red wine (1 glass only!)

Compress:

The more you can resemble a morph-suit, the better. We want to compress everything! Due to the forces of running and the duration of cycling in triathlons, it’s usually the lower half that needs the most attention, so leggings or leg sleeves are a priority.

Massage:

Do not seek sports massage straight away. Your muscles are damaged, inflamed and dehydrated, and massage breaks down tissue even more, albeit temporarily. A very light rub aids circulation, but I have never been able to feel the difference whether I have had a ‘tickle’ or not. 48 hours after is the best time to get on the couch with your massage therapist. Bring a wooden spoon to chew on: for best results they need to go deep.

Things to avoid

Sitting:

This simple act compounds tightness in the hip flexors and pelvic region (not to mention being terrible for posture). Try and lie down or walk around rather than sit for too long. This is often easier said than done in our everyday lives (Lie downs in the office? Never gonna happen until I am Queen) but it’s something to be aware of. From a practical point of view if you are deskbound, try to take frequent water breaks (the athlete’s equivalent of fag breaks) so you get up and move around as frequently as possible. Being still for too long certainly impairs recovery, thanks to blood pooling.

Hard partying:

Beer or a glass of wine is actually said to reduce inflammation and aid recovery (although effects are not actually noticeable in my experience). Any more than this and you certainly will increase recovery time, as the muscles will remain dehydrated and the repair process will be compromised. Fine if it’s a big race worthy of a big celebration, but be prepared go easy the few days after.

Running:

Should be the last activity to reintroduce. Cycling and swimming are great as they are non-impact and you’ll actually feel looser for doing something. As far as I am concerned though there is no such thing as a ‘recovery run’ due to its high-impact nature. If you simply want to loosen off, it’s far better to do something else! Keep the running at a minimum for the first few days.

Time to Recover For me, a seasoned triathlete, a Sprint distance triathlon takes around 5 days to fully recover from, which is probably more than people think. For longer distance races or an Ironman, it can be a good 2-3 weeks, with ultra running even longer (distance dependent). Everyone is different and my recovery is on the slower scale, so learn to listen to yourself. Most coaches just make educated guesses, so it’s up to you to get to know your body.

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How do you know you are recovered?

Well, muscles should not feel sore to touch or walk on. They may still have a slight stiffness but after the warm up this is alleviated. You’ll be able to push yourself so you are out of breath (if you are fatigued, you just won’t have that top-end) and your motivation and sense of wellbeing will be good (fatigue can cause mental lethargy and it’s vital the brain is refreshed and ready too).

As a general rule of thumb, for any event that you do, take a few days where you do exercise only for enjoyment and err on the easy side. If in doubt, cut it out! There is a time and place for the hard stuff and it is not post-race (even if you have a bad one, do not try and vent it by beasting yourself the day after… said from experience).

Just remember that recovery is as much a part of the training process as training itself and in any sport, success only comes with consistency. Look after yourself and that will come.

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