How to recover after an Ironman

With hands in the air, you triumphantly cross the finish line of your Ironman race. Your adrenaline is pumping and you can hardly believe what you’ve accomplished.  You hear the announcer bellow the legendary “you are an Ironman” and realize he’s talking about you. Life is great.  But then it happens. As you walk to meet your smiling support crew, you realize that your walk is more of an uncoordinated hobble. After hugging your friends and family, you declare that you are never going to do another Ironman.

This is normal. After all, you just put your body through a lot of trauma and to want to do it again would probably signal that you have some masochistic disorder (really, though, don’t we all?).  But give it a day or two and you’ll want to sign up for another Ironman and, at that point, you’ll probably wish you paid more attention to recovery. By focusing on three items -- replenishment, rest and intelligently beginning the next phase of training, you’ll recover from your Ironman faster.

1. Replenishment: It’s essential to hydrate and consume sufficient calories (a good balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat) immediately after the race. If you’re nauseous, try to drink calories. The all-too-famous chocolate milk option is great, as are protein or meal-replacement drinks. You should also aim to have a real meal as soon as possible after the race--but if you’re particularly nauseous, just eat whatever you can keep down.  You’re depleted and you need to consume macronutrients so that your body can commence the repair process. I’m not going to tell you not to have a celebratory drink, but do save it until you have some food in your stomach.

In the days following the Ironman, it’s important to continue to emphasize good nutrition.  Your body needs nutritious food to repair itself, so the week after an Ironman is not a time to go on a crash diet.  Listen to your body and eat enough--but don’t gorge yourself.  It’s  fine to gain a couple of pounds, but don’t eat the same amount you did during peak training.  You don’t need to be carrying around an extra 20 pounds when you commence the next training cycle.  

2. Rest:The next item you should focus on is rest. For at least the next week, any physical activity you do should be done with the intent of simply getting the blood flowing. Do not approach workouts with the intention of gaining fitness—especially as it relates to the run. The day after an Ironman, most people should not do anything except walk. Embrace the fact that, for once, it’s OK to be a lazy bum. Watch Netflix, sleep in, take relaxing baths, etc. You earned it.

3. Intelligently beginning the next phase of training: The last consideration as it applies to recovery is the strategy for implementing training again post-Ironman.  There are two general approaches, with each depending on where you are in the season: specifically if you’re beginning your off-season or if you have another race.

If the Ironman is your last race of the season

If the race you just completed is your last race of the season, then you should be a bit more lax about resuming training. Now is the time to recover.  Rest allows your hard and soft tissues to heal and for your brain and endocrine system to reset. Don't fret -- you won’t lose all the fitness you gained by taking it easy. For most of the athletes I coach, I usually prescribe three days entirely off and then two-weeks of no structured training, but feel free to take up to a month or more--especially if you are older or put in a supreme effort. Most people feel like they are going crazy after two weeks and, at that point, it’s generally fine to begin light base work. Before that, keep the exercise short and light, limited to walks, easy swims, or gentle spins.  Alternatively, you could do absolutely nothing for two weeks, which is also fine.

If you have another race after your Ironman

If you’re one of the insane athletes who does additional race(s) within a short period of time after an Ironman, you need to be hyper-focused on recovery immediately after you cross the finish line. Your body is going to be smashed and you should approach the next week gently. For a typical well-trained athlete, I prescribe a kind of reverse taper. The first week is exceptionally easy with two to three days completely off, followed by very easy swimming and cycling. There is no running until the weekend after. After the easy week, the athlete then enters a short build period, the duration of which is dependent on when the next race is.

As an example:

Week one:  Monday and Tuesday off. Wednesday easy swim. Thursday easy bike (Z1). Friday easy swim and bike brick. Saturday: easy bike and short easy run. Sunday: easy run or swim

Week two: build week

Although everyone recovers at different rates after an iron distance race, the concepts of recovery are the same.  The main thing to remember is that it is OK —even essential— to relax in the week after the race. Take the opportunity afforded by a reduced training load to enjoy the other passions that you’ve put on the back burner. Above all, strive to let the important people in your life know that you appreciate them. With any luck, they’ll get sick of you and encourage you to begin training again, allowing you to reach new levels of fitness after you’ve fully recovered.

Conrad Goeringer is an Ironman Certified Coach based out of Nashville, TN. He is the founder of Working Triathlete and author of the book The Working Triathlete. His passion is helping athletes of all levels and with all schedules achieve their endurance goals. Reach out to learn more about coaching packages and for a free consultation.