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Ultramarathon recovery – How to Bounce Back Quickly and Effectively

Introduction

You ran an ultramarathon. You endured for hours and finished; well done!

But what does it take to bounce back from such a tough event? How do you prevent injuries or burnout? How do you prepare for your next venture? These are frequent questions that ultramarathon runners have to deal with. 

Recovery is the key to better performance, whether you train casually or professionally. It helps you heal quicker, rest shorter, and achieve more.

Don Reichelt is an elite ultrarunner who wins and sets records.

He says:

“Recovery is not just about resting. It’s about doing the right things to help your body heal and adapt.”

Therefore, we have gathered some tips from our own experience and our ultra-running community that we hope will help you in your journey.

First, You Need to Understand the Ultra marathon Recovery Process

How long and how well you recover from an ultra depends on many things, such as:

  • How far and how long your training block was and the event itself
  • How tough and varied the race was
  • How fit and conditioned you were
  • How well you ate and drank before, during, and after the race
  • How you prevented and treated any injuries
  • How you dealt with stress and emotions

The more demanding the race, the more time and care you need to recover.

Research suggests that ultrarunners feel recovered after about a week, but some signs of muscle damage, inflammation and nutrient depletion can last for weeks or months.

That’s why you need a comprehensive recovery plan that covers the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of running an ultra.

How to Recover Quickly After an Ultramarathon?

Recovery has two aspects: physical and mental. Let’s look at each of them. 

1. Physical Recovery

The first few hours after finishing an ultramarathon are crucial for kick-starting your recovery process. 

To hasten your recovery, you can try these tips:

  • Hydrate and replenish your electrolytes

When you run an ultramarathon, you need to keep your hydration and electrolyte levels in check. As you sweat, breathe, and pee during the race, you lose fluids and electrolytes like sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium.

If you don’t replace them adequately, you may suffer from dehydration or hyponatremia (low blood sodium), impairing your performance and health. 

Here’s what to do:

  • Drink fluids until your urine is clear or pale yellow. 
  • Check your weight before and after the race to find out how much fluid you lost.
  • Try to drink 1.5 litres of fluid/water for each kilogram you lose during the race. Do this in the next few hours.
  • Refuel your body with nutrient-rich foods.

Race depletes your glycogen stores (the main source of energy for your muscles) and breaks down your muscle proteins (the building blocks of your muscles). 

To restock your glycogen stores and repair your muscle proteins, consume nutrient-rich foods that contain carbohydrates (such as bread, cereals, fruits, and vegetables) and protein (such as eggs, milk, yoghurt, cheese, meat, fish, nuts, and beans) after the race.

How to Replenish Your Calories

  • Ultramarathon runners use up 600 to 1,000 calories per hour on average. No matter how much they eat during the race, they can’t replenish all the calories they burn.
  • One of the challenges of ultramarathon racing is that your appetite may be weak after the race, making it hard to refuel. Refuel early and often: replacing the nutrients and tissue lost during a long ultra race may take days or even weeks.
  • Listen to your cravings! They may indicate what nutrients your body needs. Don’t use a big race effort as a weight-loss strategy, as it may hinder your recovery. Your body needs a lot of calories for fuel and repair.
  • Don’t be afraid to gain some weight after a hard race or at the end of a competitive season. It is good and healthy to gain some extra weight to ensure full healing. You can lose the extra weight gradually over time.

What Nutrients and Supplements to Take

Meredith Terranova is an experienced dietician who guides endurance athletes in the nutritional-recovery process.  

She recommends the following for the hours and days immediately after a race:

  • 2 grams per kg of weight or more per day of protein. Protein helps repair muscle breakdown and provides amino acids essential for many body functions.
  • Avoid simple carbohydrates. Sugar is vital for fuel during the race, but it can cause inflammation after the race. Inflammation can affect many body systems and delay recovery. Aim to consume about 1-1.2 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight. Also, eat balanced meals and snacks every 3-4 hours for the next 24 hours.
  • Hydration. Hydration is crucial for disposing of metabolic waste, aiding digestion and repairing the whole body. Drink plenty of water and fluids after the race and in the following days.
  • Watch the trace elements. You may lose trace elements like magnesium through sweat during the race. Magnesium is important for sleep quality, which is essential for recovery. You can take a multivitamin or soak in a bath of Epsom salts to replenish magnesium.
  • Avoid food with MSG added. MSG can dehydrate you and affect your recovery.
  • Become fat adapted: Carb stored in your body is around 2,000 calories, whereas the fat stored is around 40,000 calories. Consume fats! Fats are important for many body functions, such as enzymes, neurotransmitters, and nervous system health. Fats also help absorb fat-soluble vitamins, which are vital for recovery. Don’t skimp on fat, but choose healthy sources of fat. This includes meats, dairy, and plant sources. Avoid processed foods containing unhealthy fats or refined grains that cause inflammation.
  • Do some gentle stretching and cool-down exercises.

Ultramarathon causes micro-tears in your muscle fibres, which leads to muscle soreness and stiffness. 

To reduce muscle damage and enhance blood flow to your muscles, you should perform some gentle stretching and cool-down exercises after the race. 

Stretching increases your flexibility and range of motion and reduce muscle pain and stiffness.

Here’s what to do:

  • Stretch your major muscle groups (such as calves, hamstrings, quads, and glutes) most involved in running. 
  • Stretch for 30 seconds and do 2-3 times on each side. Cool-down exercises can help gradually lower your heart rate and blood pressure and prevent blood pooling in your legs. 
  • Perform low-intensity activities (such as walking, jogging, and cycling) for 10-15 minutes after the race.
  • Manage your sleep 

Research on the resting state shows that sleep’s main function is to restore and repair the nervous system.

This is especially important for ultramarathon runners, who subject their nervous system to extreme stress for hours, which affects their immune system and cognitive performance.

How much should you sleep?

People have different sleep needs, but on average, aim for eight hours of sleep every night. Sleeping less than six hours can harm your health in the long run.

However, post ultramarathon race, we suggest a new rule of thumb:

For every 16 km you ran, sleep an extra hour per night. This means that after a 100-mile race, you should try to sleep an extra hour per day for at least 10 days. You can achieve this by napping, going to bed earlier, or sleeping in later. Even if you don’t fall asleep, just lying down and resting your feet can help.

You can track your REM and deep sleep stages to measure your sleep quantity and quality. To create a conducive environment for sleep, you can also use IPC (intermittent pneumatic compression) before bed to improve your sleep quality in some cases. 

Additionally, you should:

  • Stick to a regular sleep schedule
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine before bed
  • Keep your bedroom dark, calm, and quiet
  • Practice relaxation techniques (meditation, breathing exercises, or progressive muscle relaxation) before bed.
  • Turn these Off

What are ‘these?’ two things:

  1. Your brain: Listening to your body is essential, but it can sometimes give you confusing signals, especially when you must distinguish between what your body needs and what your spirit wants. After a race, our competitive spirit can be loud, regardless of how we performed. If we ran well, we might want to keep up the momentum: to train more, work harder, and run faster. But if we ran poorly? We may want to ‘reset’… which often leads us to–you guessed it–train more, work harder, and run faster! Roes explains this conflict between body and spirit: “We really need a day (or more) off, but we are emotionally driven and nourished by our sport, and we persuade ourselves that our bodies are telling us that we have recovered enough from our previous efforts and are ready for more. Our reasoning and analytical skills are good at interfering with our intuition.” You must turn off your brain no matter how your race went–good or bad. The competition is over. Follow the rules, regardless of what your spirit says. Focus on something else–on recovery, on others–and save it for the subsequent build-up.
  2. Social Media: There was a time when only six 100-mile races existed in the world. I don’t remember that time, but it was true. Now there are more than 100 in North America alone. With so many races and long adventures happening, someone is doing something amazing almost every day. Resist the urge to train, race, or do anything incompatible with recovery–which might mean keeping your social media posts to a minimum. Reduce how much you’re browsing through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, especially if you tend to feel FOMO, the ‘fear of missing out’ inside you.
  • Do Massage and Foam Rolling

Massage and foam rolling involve applying pressure to your muscles and connective tissues. Massage and foam rolling help reduce muscle tension, pain, inflammation, and adhesions (knots) that may impair your range of motion and flexibility.

Massage and foam rolling are similar methods of breaking down scar tissue and lengthening muscles that get shortened due to repetitive movements. The ideal frequency is one or two times a month.

It helps relax your nervous system and promote mental well-being by stimulating sensory receptors in your skin. 

Visconti et al. (2014) studied the effects of massage on pain and recovery in ultramarathon runners with delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). They found that massage reduced pain and increased improvement in most runners. They also calculated the minimum pain reduction that was clinically important. They suggested that massage controls pain by stimulating nerve endings and receptors.

Here’s what to do:

  • You can get massage from a therapist who specializes in sports massage or use a foam roller at home. 
  • Focus on massaging or rolling out your major muscle groups most affected by running (such as calves, hamstrings, quads, and glutes). 
  • Apply moderate pressure for about 10 minutes per muscle group and avoid any areas that are bruised, swollen, or injured.
  • Take care of your blistered areas.

Blisters are common among ultramarathoners due to friction between the skin and shoes or socks. Blisters can be painful and increase the risk of infection if they burst or get infected.

Here’s what to do:

  • Don’t pop or peel an intact blister. This prevents infection and heals faster. Cover it loosely, and don’t press on it.
  • Drain it with a clean needle for a popped or big, painful blister. 
  • Wash it, make a small hole, and squeeze out the fluid. 
  • Put on antibiotic cream and a clean bandage.
  • Avoid wearing shoes or doing activities that caused the blister until it heals.
  • Change the bandage daily and when dirty or wet. Keep it clean and dry. 
  • See a doctor for infection signs like pus, redness, warmth, swelling, fever, or more pain. 
  • You may also need a tetanus shot if your last one was over ten years ago.
  • Recovery Modalities to Get the Blood Moving!

You must rest well and get your muscles, joints, and everything else moving again. Don’t run too much initially, but you have many other choices to stay active.

Stretch a lot! 

Let’s face it: most runners don’t stretch. And that’s okay. Usually, when clients ask me, “What should I stretch,” I say, “Whatever feels tight.” But when you are sore and stiff after a race, you should stretch more often and longer. 

Given are a few other recovery modalities:

  • Ice

The use of ice is a contentious topic, and many current views recommend it for acute wounds such as a sprained ankle or a swollen knee. 

Ice reduces internal bleeding and provides pain relief. However, ice should not be used for non-acute recovery as it limits blood flow and delays inflammation, which is the initial stage of healing/recovery.

  • Contrast Therapy

Hot and cold contrast therapy, saunas, and red light saunas have their benefits for recovery and are particularly beneficial towards autophagy – the removal of dead cells to make room for new growth and repair.

  • Compression

Static Compression: Compression recovery has remained a fashion trend in the fitness industry. Whether at the gym or cycling through the city, spandex is everywhere.

Research has shown limited benefits on recovery due to the static nature of the garments and limited pressure ranging from 6 to 20 mmHg. A recent study  has revealed that higher levels of compression yielded higher levels of performance, particularly with Intermittent Pneumatic Compression (IPC)

Intermittent Pneumatic Compression: Intermittent pneumatic compression (IPC) is a technique that uses inflatable sleeves or boots that wrap around your legs and a pump that controls the pressure and duration of inflation and deflation. 

The device applies sequential cycles of pressure and releases to your legs, mimicking the natural contractions of your muscles and veins. This helps enhance blood circulation, reduce swelling, and remove metabolic waste products from your muscles.

By using IPC regularly, you can improve your blood circulation, reduce your inflammation, and stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system. 

This will help you heal your muscles, prevent injuries, and improve your performance. 

Why is Intermittent Pneumatic Compression Beneficial for Runners?

The researchers tested how pneumatic compression could help ultramarathon runners recover after a race. They found it made the runners feel less pain, soreness, and tiredness. 

Running places extreme stress on your legs, especially if you run long distances or on uneven terrain. Running damages the muscles and causes micro-tears, which need to heal to make you stronger and faster. Running also causes inflammation, the body’s natural response to injury and infection. Too much inflammation can impair recovery and increase your risk of chronic injuries.

Intermittent pneumatic compression (IPC) can help you recover faster by:

  • Improving blood flow: Blood carries oxygen and nutrients to your muscles, essential for healing and growth. Blood also carries away metabolic waste products, such as lactate and carbon dioxide, which can cause muscle soreness and fatigue. IPC enhances blood flow by compressing and releasing your veins, creating a pumping effect that moves blood faster and more efficiently.
  • Reducing inflammation:  Inflammation is how your body fights infection and heals tissue damage. But too much inflammation can cause pain, swelling, stiffness, and less movement. IPC lowers inflammation by putting mild pressure on your legs, which helps remove extra fluid and stop edema (fluid build-up). IPC also helps balance the immune system and lower the making of inflammatory cytokines (chemical signals).
  • Stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system: The autonomic nervous system has part that takes care of the body’s functions when it is resting and digesting food. This part is called the parasympathetic nervous system. It lowers the heart rate and breathing, eases the muscles, and boosts digestion, immunity, anabolism (building up), and reproduction. IPC activates the parasympathetic nervous system by putting rhythmic pressure on your legs, which makes a comforting sensation that relaxes your mind and body.

How to Use Intermittent Pneumatic Compression Effectively?

Intermittent pneumatic compression (IPC) is easy and convenient to use. Here are some tips on how to use it effectively:

  • Choose the suitable device: You can find many IPC devices on the market, but they are not all the same. You want to pick a device with enough battery life, changeable pressure levels, modes (sequential or gradient), and cosy sleeves or boots that suit your legs well. One of the best devices for runners is the Recovery Systems compression sleeves, which have all these features and more.
  • Wear IPC sleeves or boots for about 20 minutes after a run or race: The optimal duration for IPC treatment is about 20 minutes, enough to stimulate blood flow and reduce inflammation without causing any adverse effects. You can use IPC after a run or race, as soon as possible or within a few hours, to speed up your recovery and reduce muscle soreness and fatigue.
  • Repeat IPC treatment once or twice daily for the next few days: Depending on the intensity and duration of your run or race, you may need more than one IPC treatment to recover fully. You can use IPC once or twice daily for the next few days, preferably in the morning and evening, to maintain blood flow and reduce inflammation in your legs.
  • Adjust the pressure level according to your comfort: The optimal pressure level for IPC treatment depends on your preference and tolerance. You want to choose a pressure level that feels comfortable and relaxing but not too tight or painful. You can start with a low-pressure level and slowly rise until you find your sweet spot. Depending on how your legs feel, you can also change the pressure level during the treatment.
  • Avoid using IPC if you have any contraindications: IPC is generally safe and effective for most runners, but there are some situations where you should avoid using it. These include blood clots, infections, or wounds in your legs, heart problems, such as congestive heart failure or arrhythmia, peripheral artery disease or varicose veins, pregnancy or breastfeeding or if you are allergic to the material of the sleeves or boots.

IPC can be performed at a medical facility or at home with a portable device. You can use IPC after a run, race, or rest days to speed up your recovery and reduce muscle soreness and fatigue. You can also use IPC before a run or race to warm up your muscles and improve your performance.

Are you looking to get an IPC device for yourself? Try the recovery system’s compression sleeves:

Mental Recovery

Mental recovery involves restoring your motivation, confidence, and enjoyment of running. 

Given are some of the key steps you should take to recover mentally after an ultramarathon:

  • Reflect on your race experience

To learn from your race experience and improve for the future, you should reflect on what went well and what didn’t go well during the race.

Here’s what to do:

  • Record your race goals and whether you met them or not. 
  • Record what you liked and what you hated about the race. 
  • Pen down what you did well and what you could do better regarding training, nutrition, pacing, gear, strategy, etc. 
  • Record any challenges or troubles you faced during the race and how you solved them or learned from them.
  • Write down any positive feedback or compliments you received from others (such as spectators, volunteers, and fellow runners) during or after the race.
  • Write down any negative thoughts or emotions you had during or after the race and how you dealt with them or can cope with them better in the future.

Reflecting on your race experience can help you celebrate your achievement, identify your strengths and weaknesses, and set new goals. It can also help you process any emotions or stress that may have arisen during or after the race.

  • Celebrate your achievement

Running an ultramarathon is a remarkable achievement that deserves recognition and celebration. 

Here’s what to do

  • Tell your race story to your loved ones and followers. Share how you prepared, how you ran, and what you gained from the race.

  • Show your gratitude to everyone who helped you along the way, such as sponsors, crew members, and pacers. Send them a heartfelt message or a thoughtful gift to thank them for their support and motivation.

  • Treat yourself to something that delights you or something that you’ve been craving for a long time. Enjoy a massage, a movie night, or a yummy meal. Or buy yourself some new running stuff that you’ve been wanting.

  • Hang your race medal or bib somewhere you can see it often. It will be a proud reminder of your accomplishment and a source of inspiration for your future goals.

Celebrating your achievement can have many benefits for your well-being. It can boost your self-esteem, happiness, and gratitude. 

How to Get Back on Path After an Epic Ultramarathon

Many runners are not afraid of hard work. They can handle a week of high mileage, a challenging workout, a long run, or a difficult race. They overcome physical and logistical challenges. But what about recovery? After a big race, recovery is necessary. But then, temptation comes:

  • The weather is friendly and inviting for outdoor activities;
  • The trails are in great shape (no rain, snow, heat, mud, or bugs)
  • Friends ask you to join a race, or a race director offers you free entry.

Sometimes, we feel a primal urge to run, challenge ourselves, and achieve. It’s a wild instinct that overpowers our need for rest. We give in to it and resume training before fully recovering.

But our bodies are more than just muscles and joints. They have hidden systems that regulate our nerves, hormones, and energy. These systems take a lot of damage during a challenging ultramarathon and need more time to heal than our legs. If we want to keep running for many years, we must respect the recovery process and treat it as a daily practice and a precious reward.

Here are some key factors to consider:

  • Gradual Return to Training

An ounce of prehab is worth a pound of rehab – fix it before you break; prehab keeps you in the game.

Don’t rush back into your regular training routine right after the ultramarathon. Instead, follow a gradual return to the training that allows your body to heal and adapt. 

Here’s how:

  • For the first week after the ultramarathon, limit your runs to a maximum of 20 minutes.
  • For the next two weeks, keep your runs under one hour.
  • Avoid other stressful activities that may drain your energy. Focus on relaxing activities that help you unwind.
  • Cross-Training

Cross-training is a way of exercising that involves different types of activities or sports. Cross-training aims to improve your fitness, prevent injuries, and avoid boredom. For example, a runner might cross-train by cycling, swimming, or lifting weights. It helps you prevent overuse injuries and work on different aspects of your performance. 

Here’s what to do:

  • Pick activities that work different muscles and systems in your body, such as cycling, swimming, or strength training.
  • Select exercises that challenge your weaknesses, such as flexibility, balance, or coordination.
  • Mix up your cross-training sessions’ frequency, intensity, and duration to keep them exciting and engaging.
  • Listen to Your Body

Your body is your best guide for recovery. Pay attention to its signals and feedback to avoid pushing yourself too hard or too little.

Brenda Guajardo was a top female finisher at the Badwater 135, one of the toughest ultramarathons in the world, in 2018. 

She says

“I learned to listen to my body more and not push it when it’s not ready.”

Here’s how to listen to your body effectively:

  • Observe your heart rate, breathing rate, and perceived exertion during exercise.
  • Monitor your weight, urine colour, and thirst before and after exercise.
  • Pay attention to your sleep patterns, energy levels, and mood throughout the day.
  • Sense any pain, discomfort, or injury in your muscles, joints, or bones.

Conclusion

To sum up, the best recovery methods are the ones that are convenient and repeatable for you. They will help you improve your sleep quantity, quality, and performance. You can gauge your recovery by how you feel the next day.  If you have a great run, that means you recovered well. If you feel sluggish or sore after a few days, you need a rest day as soon as possible. You can also use devices that measure your recovery score based on your sleep, daily strain, and heart rate variability. You can see how effective your recovery was by comparing the scores and your subjective feelings.

Recovery Systems