You did it! You just accomplished a huge physical challenge! Now comes the not-as-easy-as-you-might-expect part: Recovery.
Contrary to what you would expect, the last thing you want to do after a big athletic event is to transform into a potato lying on the couch. It’s important to prevent unnecessary stiffening of your muscles and joints by periodically moving your sore joints and muscles through the available, pain free motion.
If you have some sort of injury or just a lot of soreness/pain in an area, it’s still important to move within that pain free motion to help bring more blood flow to the area.
With increased blood flow, you allow that site of your body to be flushed of the cell debris accumulated via the physical exertion throughout the event. The blood flow also brings valuable healing factors and energy in the form of glucose + proteins for rebuilding of the injured structures.
As a result, you will have a much faster recovery time than if you were just sitting still.
Low level yoga exercises and stretches will promote flexibility and avoid stiffness while simultaneously bringing blood flow to all parts of the body.
Balance exercises will also be helpful as long as they are pain free because the instability will cause all of your postural muscles to maintain your balance and therefore promote additional blood flow.
Depending on how you are feeling, easy walks are also a great way to keep the body in motion and feeling good. It is important to avoid repetitive activity like walking after a running race because most of the issues impacting recovery will be worsened with more repetitive activity. In that case, stick with yoga and balance!
If you have any sort of swelling in an area related to the event, you will want to elevate that part of the body above the level of your heart. In this case lying on the couch is not a bad move! You will also want to avoid walking if the injury site is below the waist.
You will want to keep that area in motion (something like tracing letters of the alphabet with the toes), or perform a retrograde massage, which consists of a massage bringing fluid from the site to the heart. For example, a swollen ankle will benefit from elevation on the couch and gently massaging from foot to knee to reduce buildup of swelling.
Managing swelling is important, because the prolonged presence of the fluid will actually minimize the speed of recovery. It is a suboptimal environment for tissue to heal. The first few days of swelling do, however, benefit the injury site because it breaks down injured tissue to be replaced with new, stronger tissue in the future.
The inflammatory phase of an injury usually lasts for around 3 days or so, therefore if you have swelling lasting longer than that, you will need to prioritize reducing that as best as you can with elevation, massage, pain free movement, and compression. Icing does not make much of a difference with long term swelling management, but can help pain in the moment according to more recent research.
Once the swelling and pain has dissipated, the exercise that you will want to incorporate will become more intense and involved. It depends on the type of injury, but generally you will progress to increased range of motion and introduce resistance to the exercise.
If you were not performing as much exercise on your feet, now is the time to increase weight bearing exercise. This is the natural progression because the mechanical force going through the injured sites will allow for the new healing structures to be built in the correct orientation: along the direction of the force you are introducing.
This is also important for recovery of muscle, which happens much more quickly than any other structures because of their rich blood supply. If you only have muscle soreness, you will want to progress to increased resistance of exercise as soon as you can.
In general, you would want to get back to running 1-2 weeks after the event at a super slow and easy pace to help the body get used to the forces again. Be careful you don’t do too much too fast! This is how many people (myself included) have gotten overuse injuries after racing.
Your body will be requiring proper hydration and nutrition to help heal broken muscle fibers as well. I mentioned glucose and protein, so it will be very important that you eat the required amount of protein throughout the day.
As mentioned previously, protein can only be absorbed in 20-30g increments every 1-2 hours depending on your body size, so it will be important to eat consistently throughout the day with protein coming from snacks between the bigger meals.
The protein provides the building blocks required to rebuild the muscles and other structures that get damaged from prolonged exercise. Carbs and fat ingested will provide the energy the body needs to actually perform the rebuilding.
Especially if you participated in an endurance event, you will need to restore the stores of glycogen in your body that is stored in the liver and muscles. This is important, because once you start exercising or fasting overnight, these stores will be used to maintain proper blood glucose levels and will maintain your muscle mass.
This is very important because protein will be broken down to provide energy if you do not recover the correct number of calories following a race, which leads to muscle wasting and decreases in strength + performance. Don’t let your hard work go to waste!
Adequate hydration is also important for so many reasons, and this is a concern because we often do not drink the required amount of water during a race, especially in the heat.
Drinking enough water will allow for faster recovery, better mental processing, and improved sleep quality because the body will be able to perform all the processes of recovery overnight without having to deal with suboptimal amounts of fluid.
As you can see, even though you may be resting after the big event, your body is certainly not! The body is actually in super recovery mode trying to repair all the damage that occurred. It is so important to let the body follow through on that process as efficiently as possible. Sleep is where the majority of this will occur!
Since sleep is when the body does most of its recovery magic, we want to provide it with the most optimal conditions for recovery. This includes consistent bedtimes, cool bedroom temperatures, long periods of sleep, no large meals requiring digestion right before bedtime, and many other factors that impact quality of sleep I mention here:
Your body will still feel the physical toll of the event, but proper sleep and nutrition will help you stay alert as you get back to the daily routine of work and/or school. Ideally, you will want to give yourself some time before these sorts of commitments so you aren’t limited in your ability to perform the recovery techniques mentioned in this blog post!
Please let me know if you have any questions or comments about this blog post! I am also happy to discuss possible methods to help with your recovery if you want to take advantage of my free discovery call offer! Thank you for reading and stay well everyone =)