Recovering from the exertions of an Ultra Triathlon should be easy. Rest, Sleep, Eat, Drink, Enjoy. Somehow I have made it extremely complicated.
The 3 months following the Ultra Triathlon have been both interesting and challenging. It has to be said that I am not known for my willingness to let my body recover through complete rest. I had decided that once the Ultra was done I would take it easy for the 4 months up till New Year, only doing stuff that was fun and not too taxing on the body. True to form this lasted about 4 days. Pretty much as soon as I was able to move at all I was trying to get back into training and if I was back in training I was back being competitive both with myself and with those around me. Bad mistake.
We had arrived back from Wales on Monday and it was Friday when I decided that I was good to go with the club swim session. I was proud of myself when I diligently sat out the 30 minute core session before swimming and even enjoyed watching others struggle through the sets of sit ups, v-sits, squats, planks, Spiderman press ups and my favourite – Bastards. I can’t say my body was missing this session, but it was quite keen to get back in the pool and do some easy drills and technical work.
As core was finishing I made my way down to the swim changing area to get a few lengths in before the others came down. I should have heeded the warning sign when, in the cubicle I dropped my goggles on the floor and when trying to bend down stiffly to pick them up, lost balance and head butted the door. I had to sit down on the bench for a few seconds and gather myself and I remember clearly questioning whether this was a good idea. Probably not I thought, but then I decided that it couldn’t do any harm to do a few lengths and if I did’t fancy it I could always just stop and get out. Decision made I headed poolside and said hello to Denise our Swim Coach. If she showed surprise at me being there she didn’t show it, and just told me to swim ten lengths to warm up. I set my watch, dropped into the water and pushed off to start smooth, long and easy. Well that was the idea. The reality was I pushed off and immediately felt my back twinge. As I rotated my right arm out of the water I could feel my shoulder grinding in its socket whilst the other arm, as it tried to get some kind of grip on the water to propel myself forward just went limp. This was not looking (or feeling) good and I could imagine the look Denise was giving me as I crabbed my way up the lane. All the fine work she had done on my swim stroke over the last couple of years was being brutally torn apart with every flailing swing of the arm, twist of the hips and bent kick of the legs. I turned at the far end determined to make the next 25metres smoother and concentrated on trying to do a wide catch up drill which normally gets me swimming with some kind of rhythm and technique. It worked to a point but the bit that then got me was fatigue. Fatigue! I had swum 12km exactly a week ago and here I was starting to struggle to breathe after 40 metres. Rather than entertain the fact that I was completely knackered and should get out, I convinced myself that I just needed to keep going and that I needed a good few lengths to warm up. This was partially true as there is no doubt that over the past year I had needed longer and longer to get the body warmed up to operating level. Whether this was mainly due to the long distance training I had been doing or just the fact I am getting older I still don’t know, but what had been happening is that prior to the UltraMan race any session of around an hour or so I found I was only starting to get into top gear at the very end. This was often quite frustrating as I would struggle along for 55 minutes trying to keep up with people and then the last 5 mins would see me breezing past everyone ready to take on the world and then the session would finish. (That’s possibly a slight exaggeration but it is how I often felt).
Back to the pool and I finally returned to the start end. I noticed the others were now coming through from core and so I strategically stopped and ‘adjusted’ my goggles, pretending they were leaking and fogging up. This took just long enough for a couple of guys to get in and start their swim giving me the chance to sit in behind them and thus expending much less effort. My tactic worked and I was able to hang in to the end of the warm up.
Whilst everyone was taking a drink and waiting for Denise to dish out the evenings swim drill delights I hung onto the side of the pool and tried to get my breathing back to some kind of normal level. I was aware of a bit of an argument going on inside my head with one part letting the other know that the body was knackered and needed rest. The other (more dominant) part, was putting together a coherent case for carrying on by saying that I needed to use my body and as long as I took it easy I would recover quicker. The internal discussion was cut short as the group set off on 6 x 100’s off 1 minute 45 seconds. I had to make an decision and as usual dominant brain won out and I joined in at the back determined to keep on the feet in front of me. By the third hundred I was going flat out to keep up, the fourth hundred I was adrift, and as the first swimmer in the lane finished their last hundred I was just turning at the other end 25m behind the group. It was time to call it a day and as I reached the other end I made some excuse about needing the toilet and exited the pool. When I say exited it was not as you might envisage. Normal exit would involve just springing up out of the water and onto the deck in a single fluid motion. This exit required me to lie forward onto the deck and walrus like lever myself up and over bit by bit until I was prone on the side of the pool. I then had to work my way onto my feet inch by inch via my hands and knees much to the amusement of everybody. So much for the quiet exit. Back in the changing room dominant brain started telling me I could have continued and that now I had had a rest I could go back and do some more. So persuasive is this side of my brain that I found myself heading back through the showers and back to pool side where luckily Roy (Coach) saved me. Whether he did on purpose or not I am not sure, but he just started talking to me and chatting about the great week end we had just had at the Ultra. It was great to hear how much he had enjoyed himself given the sacrifice he had made to be there, but mostly it was great because it prevented me getting back in the water. By the time we had chatted through the whole three days there was only 10 minutes left in the session and I was now cold, so I headed off to the shower to listen to dominant voices berate me for being lazy.
And so it went on for a week or so. Everyday I planned to do some light training and everyday dominant voice would try to push whilst what I now call body voice tried vainly to reign me in. The only real concession dominant voice made was Wednesday night hill sessions, even DV realised that was a step too far. Two weeks after the event and I decided to go out on the gravel bike on the Saturday. I had been keen to get off road and as the weather was looking good I decided today was the day. I contacted a friend Will, a great cyclist, who had recently turned to gravel biking, for a route, and he mentioned he was going out with another friend Alex, that morning. They invited me along and so a couple of hours later we headed off from Wills house and along the sea wall to the Strood.
This was a nice introduction back into being off road, enough to keep me focused but not overly challenged and as the ride continued from road to track I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Both Will and Alex are great company and it was nice to be able to have an easy chat whilst riding as oppose to the normal head down and charge cycling I am most familiar with. From Abberton reservoir to Friday Woods we meandered back and forth, making it up as we went along. I was completely in the hands of Will and Alex, very happy for them to lead the way and to follow in the their tracks.
As we started to make our way back we followed a track out of Wivenhoe which became a little challenging as it was fairy narrow and rutted. I was getting a little tired and having to concentrate so as not to fall off the side of the track into the stream. There was no way I was going to give Will and Alex the satisfaction of seeing me come a cropper so I slowed a little and let them go ahead just in case I did go over. Going slower and not now worrying that I would be spotted making a fool of myself worked and I managed to navigate the track without getting wet. Something I gather another newbie Gravel Biker, Pete Bessey, failed to do a few weeks later.
As I came off the path and into woods I could hear the boys up ahead. Not wanting to get lost in the woods I picked up speed and followed their voices up a steepish crest and then down the other side. As I picked up some good speed I saw at the bottom of the slope was a wooden bridge across the stream I had so skilfully just avoided. I could see that there was a slight step onto the bridge but nothing I couldn’t easily just lift my front wheel over as I approached. Trouble was I was going a little to fast and my body and brain re-acted just a little too slow. As I went to hike up on the handlebars to list the front wheel it slammed into the step and stopped dead somersaulting the bike and me over and smacking my face and chest onto the cold, wet but mainly, very solid wood bridge. I lay still for a good few seconds, part in shock, part in apprehension of moving and finding pain. Somehow there didn’t seem to be any and I drew a large breath of air in relief. The excruciating pain that arrowed through my chest with the breath took me by complete surprise and caused me to immediately stop breathing which thankfully stopped the pain. Only problem now was I couldn’t stay like this, I had to breathe, I was only at half breath so I had a choice to breathe in some more or trying breathing out. The in option hadn’t been so good so I breathed out and whilst extremely painful was not in the same league as the inward breath. So as I tried to extricate my face from the bridge, untangle the bike off my back and get my shit in general back together, I did so with Zen like breathing. Each intake of air was slowly and carefully drawn in to the point where the stabbing pain started and then just as slowly exhaled just enough to enable my body to get the bare minimum of oxygen to function. I had recently read a book called the Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown and he has a technique Called ‘Breathe Light to Breathe Right’. This technique came to the rescue right then and enabled me to get back on my bike and peddle toward Will and Alex who were now calling and asking if I was ok. I managed to grunt “I’m fine”, and as I appeared out of the trees into the clearing where they were waiting I smiled and lightly mentioned I had had a small altercation with the bridge. “You OK?” Will asked noticing the blood on my knee and elbow. “I’m good”, I said following Wills gaze and noticing the blood for the first time, just a couple of scratches. What the boys couldn’t see was the bloody great knife that was being shoved into my right upper ribs every time I breathed and I was buggered if I was going to tell them. “What are we waiting for” I said and peddled off not wanting to talk anymore as it hurt too much.
Luckily the next bit of the was relatively easy and once the body had adjusted to its new situation everything became just about manageable, to the point where as we got back on road and headed up a gradual hill, I took the front and pushed the pace a bit. It seemed that as long as the body was warm and I wasn’t moving too much above the waist I was ok and at this pace we would be home relaxing in a hot bath within 30 minutes. Except that would have been easy and as we all know its never easy. when you have one misfortune another is sure to be coming right behind and sure enough as I started to find a good rhythm and attack the last 250 metres of the incline I heard, then felt, the air exit my tyre with a certainty I wish I could have had with my own breathing. Within a second or two I was riding on the rim and so had to call Will and Alex to stop before they crashed into the back of me and pull into a farm entrance for repairs. I am not sure how impressed they were with being held up again by this amateur, particularly just as the hill started to get steeper and they were needing to get home, but I think that’s just the way I think. They were both sympathetic and as I went about changing the tube they chatted away about the benefits of tubeless tyres making me feel even more of an amateur. Normally a tyre change would take a couple of minutes but now I had stopped my ribs were making sure I hadn’t forgotten about them. Every twist and bend of my torso as I fixed the wheel caused me to gasp to the point where Will and Alex stopped talking and asked again if I was ok. “Just a little pain in my chest”, nothing an Ironman can’t take, I said with a (forced) smile and started to pump my tyre up. It was blatantly obvious I was in no condition to manually pump my tyre and Alex being the perceptive kind of guy he is reached into his back pocket, pulled out a CO2 canister and passed it to me without saying anything. I am sure the look I gave him passed on my thanks much more deeply than the casual thanks I voiced and with a quick press onto the valve the tyre immediately inflated allowing us to continue up the hill and head home.
As I bade Will farewell and turned down Kingsland road I felt my whole body go into revolt and I wobbled to the point where I veered across the road. I had managed to hold things together for a while but now I was on my own everything seemed to give up and I barely had the strength to peddle up the last little hill. I made it to the driveway and as I laid my bike against the garage door I slumped down to sit on the floor next to it. My ribs were one thing but what I was now experiencing was more concerning to me. I was absolutely exhausted, I had in the past 5 minutes gone from being ok to feeling so tired that I could happily have just lain where I was and gone to sleep. 2 hours 30 minutes of relatively gentle riding had left me in a complete and utter physical mess which left me told me one thing. It was time to take a proper rest. Luckily I now had an injury that would prevent me from doing anything for a week or two even if I wanted to. It was time to now allow the body some time to recover. Trouble was, rather than just recover from the UltraMan event it was now going to have to recover from injury, compounding an already complex process of recovery.
How To Recover Properly
I dragged myself up and after swallowing a couple more Neurofen than is recommended relaxed into the bath where 2 hours later I was woken by Madison. I felt crap and was annoyed that I was not now going to be able to do any meaningful training for a week or two, but at least now it gave me some time to really think about that I should do, (have done), in terms of proper recovery. This was easier said than done as there is little I coud find on recovering from an Ultra Triathlon. There is lots written about recovering from an Ironman and I suppose much of the same practises apply, but I have never struggled with Ironman recovery whereas the Ultra left me in bits. What I have cobbled together below comes from what I have found but it is important to stress that recovery depends on a number of factors including as:
- General Health
- Degree of effort during event
- Distance of event
- Accumulated psychological stress
- Climate raced in
I had always worked on about a months recovery from Ironman but to be honest I have always felt I am recovered within a couple of weeks. People said expect to take 2 – 3 months for the Ultra which made sense but does that mean do nothing at all physically or just less frequent and lower intensity? In which case does that have any value at all or is it just unccesary ‘junk miles’?
These things I pondered whilst the ribs healed and by the time I felt ready to take on some light training I had the makings of a recovery plan for the next time I go long.
Top 10 Tips for Recovery
Heres my ten point physical recovery plan. In terms of time scales this programme is for Ultra Triathlon and so is based over 2 months. As a rule of thumb I intend to half the durations for full Ironman recovery and half again for half Ironman recovery.
- Complete Rest
First and foremost the body just needs to rest. This basically means keeping the heart rate down and exerting minimal effort. This doesn’t necessarily mean lying on the sofa all day everyday (although I don’t think that’s a bad thing for a short period), but it does mean avoiding lifting weight and do anything more than walking. The more you can literally put your feet up the better for the first few days and in the case of an Ultra I would recommend a week of this. This is particularly worth thinking about if you have a physical job and may be worth factoring a few extra days off work if possible to get the early rest needed for proper recovery.
Sleep is separate from rest insofar as when resting you are aware of whats going on around you and when sleeping you are not. Good sleep is critical to good recovery and both quality and quantity are important. 8 hours in the general recommended norm but I would aim for 9 – 10 for the week after an Ultra. Getting enough sleep is one thing I do well and is a major factor in being able to do what I do.
For efficient recovery, increased blood circulation is essential. As a natural defense mechanism, the body’s blood vessels expand when we hold our breath (CO2 increase) so that oxygen and glucose can continue to distribute to the cells in the tissue and the brain. And of course, if we hyperventilate (CO2 decrease) the opposite happens, the blood vessels contract and the nutrient exchange is halted. (Gilbert 2005).
Most people think that breathing deeply, particularly after exercise is good for you. Deep breathing is good, Big breathing not so good. For those that want to know the difference and really get the benefits that ‘good’ breathing can bring have a read of ‘The Oxygen Advantage’ or have a look at the website ‘Recovery Breathing‘.
- Foam Roller
Essentially, foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release, or self-massage, that gets rid of adhesions in your muscles and connective tissue. Foam rolling also increases blood flow to your muscles and creates better mobility, helping with recovery and improving performance.
Foam rolling has often been one of things that I have not done enough of, mainly due to time and other priorities. Yet when I do get into the habit for a couple of weeks I notice a big difference in how I feel and what I am capable of. As a recovery tool after any exercise never mind an UltraTriathlon it is a no brainer and one I won’t be ignoring in the future.
One of the commitments to myself for the off season this year was to give Yoga a proper go. I had tried a few classes and followed a few You Tube routines in the past but never really got into doing it consistently and therefore not really reaping the benefits of strength, balance, flexibility and consistent movement that it can bring. I started using an app called Daily Yoga which I still and now also attend classes once or twice a week. Apart from the all round stretch my body gets, the most important thing I have found is that I am starting to use the right muscles for the right things rather than overusing some muscles to compensate for other weaker ones. This has really helped with hip and back issues.
I made the mistake of going to a masseur on-site after an Ironman event last year. I should have guessed this was not going to go well just by looking at him as he was built like the proverbial brick outhouse. Sure enough, he went about enthusiastically and systematically assaulting me, pummelling and squeezing my already destroyed muscles in the vain belief that it was doing good and I would thank him for it. It may or may not have been the right thing to do in terms of muscle, I am no masseur but I had already gone through 12 hours of pain and didn’t need any more.
Having said that I would definitely recommend a series of massage treatments as soon as possible following endurance activity. My recommendation is to go for a soft gentle relaxing massage and then gradually have the depth and pressure build over a week or two. This may be a bit costly but definitely worth art if you can afford it. Otherwise getting partners / kids to rub back and legs is better than nothing. (Having said that it can be more costly than a professional masseur if my daughter Madison is anything to go by!)
According to a study from the International Journal of Sports Medicine, swimming is one of the best recovery techniques around. Researchers at the University of Western Australian monitored triathletes and saw they recorded considerably better running times after going for a recovery swim. The study also showed that swimming as part of recovery produced lower levels of c-reactive protein, which is linked to muscle inflammation.
The swim is the first of the 3 Triathlon disciplines that I would return to. first sessions in the pool a week or so after the Ultra were simply to begin to work the body and the gentlest of ways and so 30 minutes of easy swimming and using a variety of strokes was the order of the day.
I then aim to add 10 minutes per session with increasing intensity per week. IT is 3 months since the Ultra and I am only now back to full swim training.
There are also myriad of activities you can do in the water instead of laps. Aqua aerobics, aqua-fit, diving and even yoga.
I was back on the bike way too soon and my legs still have not truly recovered. I am good until I need to go hard up a hill or in a sprint and I then just don’t have what I did. (Which to be fair, in a sprint, was never a lot). Many will say that you can get back on the bike quickly as long as you take it easy and only spin for 30-45 mins. I would say 10 days to two weeks off the bike won’t do you any harm and probably a lot of good. What I have really enjoyed is getting off road and onto the gravel bike. Less focus on speed and more on technique has been great for me and helped me enjoy cycling again after losing some of the joy due to the long hours spent on the road bike this year.
There is a definite psychological benefit to recovery and getting off road that I will talk about in the Recovery Blog part 2 – Psychological.
No great surprise that running should probably be left well alone for at least a couple of weeks and when started should be short, at low heart rate and preferably on soft ground. In the traditional road running world, some experts recommend taking one day of rest per every mile raced, which kind of makes sense but as you get into ultramarathon distance may be a bit too long for many to keep off their feet. However it is worth remembering that running takes its toll on the body and damage can include:
- Changes in hormone levels, such as increases in cortisol, increase in estradiol (for females) and a decrease in testosterone (for males).
- Skeletal muscle damage.
- Bone damage, including increased bone resorption and a reduced bone formation.
- Damage to internal organs, like liver, kidney, stomach, digestive system.
- Decreased immune system.
- Acute and potentially even long term heart damage.
I definitely started back running too quickly as even though I went back fairly easy, I did so still with significant aches and pains in my hip, back and particularly ribs that really needed at least a coupe of weeks longer of complete rest. The old adage of listen to your body is something I still haven’t learnt to do well and is probably the most important thing I need to do if I want to improve.
X-Train in my book means do something different. By all means swim differently by doing other strokes (not sure butterfly is a good idea though), run differently by doing more cross country, bike differently by getting on a gravel or mountain bike and hitting the trails. If you go to the gym, go do something you don’t normally do. Mainly though, do something completely different. There are hundreds of other sports and activities that are not only thoroughly enjoyable but will also do your body good.
As I have said, I definitely don’t have this recovery bit sorted but realise that I need to be better especially as I get (even) older. I would love to hear from anyone with an opinion on it so feel free to pull my list to bits and send me your ideas. It would be great to publish your strategies for what works for you.
So, with physical recovery started, I had time some to think and with that came the challenge of Mental recovery.
Keep an eye on my Facebook Page for the next instalment.
Recovery Part 2 – Mental
This blog will document the thoughts, feelings and emotions that emerged post UltraMan and which proved to be every bit as much of a challenge as the recovery from fatigue and injury.