How to speed up recovery from racing

Your ability to compete successfully multiple times over the course of the year depends on how quickly your body recovers from racing. The toll that racing takes on your body is related to: 1) the distance of the race; 2) the terrain; 3) the environmental conditions; and 4) how fatigued from training you are going into the race. Once you reach the starting line, these factors are out of your control, but they have major implications for your body’s need to recover. What you do in the first few days after the race, on the other hand, affects your body’s ability to recover. 

Let’s consider each of these factors and what you can do to recover more quickly from racing.

1. Race distance: Any race lasting more than 90 minutes can deplete your body’s glycogen stores. Glycogen is the body’s storage form of carbohydrate, and when your supply runs low your muscles are forced to rely more on fat, which is a less efficient energy source. If you do a good job of carbohydrate loading before the event, your muscles and liver can store 1,500 to 2,200 kcal of glycogen. Even after factoring in the contribution of fat to the energy utilised during competition, races of a half marathon or longer may require more carbs than your body can store.

Research has shown that muscles replace their glycogen stores at the fastest rate during the first one to two hours after an exhausting effort. Glycogen resynthesis continues at a higher than normal rate for 10-12 hours after glycogen-depleting exercise. This means that you will recover more quickly if you take in carbohydrates soon after you finish the race. If your stomach doesn't feel up to a meal, eat a banana, and have some carbohydrate drink to get the replenishment process started, then eat more when your stomach can handle it. For optimal recovery, continue to eat carbohydrate-rich foods for the next two days, because it takes time for your muscles to fully re-load. In addition, during recovery from racing eat 0.5 to 0.7 grams of protein per pound of your bodyweight per day to provide the raw materials for tissue repair.


2. Terrain: During running your muscles, tendons, and ligaments must deal with forces of over 4 times your bodyweight. After a race that includes downhill running, you experience delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which is believed to be caused by microscopic damage to muscle fibers and the surrounding connective tissue as a result of eccentric muscle contractions. An eccentric muscle contraction is a lengthening or braking contraction. When you run downhill, your quadriceps muscles contract eccentrically to keep your knees from buckling when your feet strike the ground. The steeper and longer the downhill, the worse the damage.

DOMS is generally most severe 24 to 72 hours after exercise. The reason for the lag is that it takes a while for the process of damage/inflammation/pain to occur. If you run with DOMS, you will delay the repair process. In addition, your muscles’ resiliency is at an all-time low, so your risk of injury is high. A light massage while your muscles are sore may reduce the symptoms of DOMS. Wait until the soreness passes before having a deep massage (otherwise you may kick your massage therapist). You should avoid running until the soreness diminishes. Swimming and cycling during this time, however, will increase circulation through the damaged muscle fibers, which will remove waste products and speed the repair process.

3. Environmental Conditions: Your body undergoes substantially more stress when you race at 80 degrees and 80% humidity, than at 60 degrees and low humidity. The stress is due to two factors: increased core body temperature and dehydration. Your body normally regulates your core temperature within a very narrow range, but when you compete on a hot, humid day, the heat you generate can overwhelm your body’s ability to eliminate heat, causing your core temperature to climb. This disturbs many of your body’s functions (including fairly important parts like your brain), and depending on how high your core temperature is elevated and for how long, can greatly increase recovery time. Avoid racing under hot and humid conditions whenever possible.

Becoming severely dehydrated also puts a great strain on your body’s ability to recover. When you lose 2% or more of your bodyweight due to dehydration, your performance is affected. The more dehydrated you become, the more your performance is compromised and the longer it will take to recover from the race. When you are dehydrated your body is also less able to prevent an increase in your core temperature.

To speed up your recovery, drink fluids containing 4 to 8% carbohydrates and at least 400 mg of sodium per litre. Remember that your thirst mechanism is imperfect. When you are no longer thirsty, your body may still need more fluids. Because you will eliminate some of the fluids as urine, you will need to drink about ¾ of a liter of fluid for each pound you lost during the race.

4. Pre-race fatigue: If you are tired going into a race, your recovery will take longer. Obviously, your performance in the race will be affected, but your recovery time may be affected even more substantially. Since you were not fresh at the start of the race, your glycogen stores were likely already partially depleted, you may not have been fully hydrated, and your muscles were likely still repairing damage from the rigors of training. The result is increased recovery time. Tapering your training before competition will not only improve your racing performances, but will also get you back into full training more quickly after the race due to improved recovery.


Related articles:
How to plan your racing schedule
Tapering, dehydration, glycogen stores

Text copyright © by Pete Pfitzinger
Pete Pfitzinger is an exercise physiologist with over 20 years of coaching experience, Pete adheres to the principle that every runner is unique and that training programs must be tailored to the athlete's individual strengths and weaknesses. 

Pete Pfitzinger is co-author of two successful books:

Road Racing for Serious Runners
Road Racing for Serious Runners
Buy it here

Advanced Marathoning
Advanced Marathoning
Buy it here

This article has informational purpose and  isn't a substitute for professional advice.

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