Post-Ironman Recovery for the Average Normal-Person Non-Pro Athlete
What often gets missed when we talk about Ironman training is the week after the race. Your body is beat up and you’re exhausted. But now what? You want to recover, but you’re not a pro. You have a life to get back to. And you have work to do. So, let’s talk about the art of recovery for the normal person.
We finished Ironman. And luckily, we weren’t totally wrecked. I had some toenail issues and blisters, and my stomach was a little shaky, and my muscles were INSANELY sore the next morning, but overall, both Peter and I were functional human beings. I wasn’t about to take on a 5K or anything, but I wasn’t feeling like I needed to sleep for a week. Which was the game plan (not feeling like that, I mean. Not sleeping.)
How did we handle our post-Ironman recovery and what should you do after your major race is over? We don’t all have access to fancy recovery tools, or motivation to do serious mobility work, or the willpower to avoid ALL THE SNACKS. But I do have a few suggestions!
I bought two bags of salt and vinegar chips the day before Ironman. I knew I was going to be craving something to that effect, and that I wouldn’t want to deal with hunting them down—and that if I did hunt them down, I’d likely end up with even more crap. So, I had the bag of chips ready. And man, did I appreciate my past self when the next afternoon rolled around! Peter tore into them post-race and was grateful—you don’t realize how exhausted you’ll be, and having a bit of prep done goes a long way. And beats being that guy, staggering into the grocery store covered in sweat and sunscreen and general grossness.
In the Day After
I wrote about this for Bicycling, but seriously, if you feel like total crap post-race, get in the damn shower. I promise you that you will feel 20 times better almost immediately. You’re just so covered in sweat and sunscreen and spit and all the other fun stuff like Gatorade, and while that might not be what’s making you nauseous, at least if you’re clean, you’ll feel a lot less like laying on the bathroom floor (ahem). Lay in the shower if you must, but get clean.
The next morning, my body did not want to move. So, naturally, I moved it. The first bit of walking we did sucked big time, but after a few minutes, the walking really started to help loosen everything up. I think had we skipped the 12,000 steps we put in on Monday, the rest of the week would have gone a lot worse. It also helps get your digestive system back on track, and I do think it soothes your nervous system more than taking a day of total sloth on the couch.
Again, we’re not all perfect with mobility. This is where having a quick yoga routine that you do on the daily really helps. I love mine, and I found that having the routine already in place made it automatic to do it—so if you haven’t already started doing a few minutes every day, start now!
Even if your stomach is feeling a little F-ed (mine definitely was), you shouldn’t take the day after Ironman off of eating, especially not in the morning. Instead of a full eggs-and-potatoes breakfast that sounded like THE WORST THING EVER, I mixed up some collagen powder into ginger-turmeric tea for a stomach-settling protein boost. That helped get me moving a little bit, so an hour later, I was able to eat a more normal breakfast and get back on track. You burn thousands of calories racing an Ironman, so in my books, a day of eating whatever the hell is totally reasonable. But don’t extend that for too long! In fact…
In the Week After
OK, what I just said about eating whatever? After a day, tone that down. You might still be super hungry and that’s just fine… but focus on filling up on healthy foods, heavy on the anti-inflammatories and the clean proteins. You don’t need a milkshake every day for a week. And you did just spend a year of your life getting into your fittest shape ever, so try not to lose those gains by eating 5000 calories per low-exercise day of pizza and milkshakes. Some fun snacks = great. Too many fun snacks = say hello to a grumpy, puffy midsection. (You obviously can’t stay at race weight forever, of course, but you also don’t need to gain back those 10 pounds in the first week post-race.)
You finished a freaking Ironman. Even if you didn’t have the world’s best day, you still worked your ass off for something. And that deserves a week of *active* recovery. The first time I did one, I went to cyclocross practice the night after. It wasn’t fun. This time, we were camping in Fernie, BC, and so I did a ton of big hikes and slow runs, plus some yoga every day. It was enough movement that I felt great, and was using that endurance base for something really fun, but it wasn’t so brutal that I felt cracked. Plus, TBH, my toes were so wrecked that regular running for the first couple days was too jarring. Hiking was a little more reasonable.
OK, bask a little. You earned it. (And you paid for it—Ironman isn’t cheap!) We made time to camp and hang with friends, go out to dinner a couple times, and generally bask in the warm glow of being freaking done. We were still working during these days, of course, but we tried to carve out more down time. Even if that means a couple of extra date nights with a spouse who’s been ignored for a few months because of training, or a ‘sick day’ so you can stay home with your kids/dog/self, make some time for what will make you psyched.
Now that the adventure is fresh in your mind, take some time to write out a few journal entries/race reports/letters to your future self with thoughts about how the race went, what you would do differently, and what you want to do now. It’s easy to forget that you really didn’t enjoy the race itself after you’ve had some time to bask in being done with it, but maybe the long distance event left you craving some sprinting instead. Take note of that, and in a couple weeks, come back to it so you can plan your next goal event or the rest of your year with a better idea of what you really want.
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