By 5x XTERRA World Champ, Mimi Stockton
XTERRA racers understand the importance of recovery. We're just not very good at following through with it. Perhaps, it's part of the triathlete psyche. After all, the same trait that gets us out the door to swim 3,000 meters or run eight miles in the wee hours of the morning is the same quality that makes it difficult for us to sit still and take some time off—even if it's just for a day.
So, let's say you just crossed the finish line of a grueling XTERRA. You’ve barely caught your breath and all you can think about is that post-race beer. That’s fine of course, but you should also be thinking about how to recover from the past three-plus hours of beating your body silly. Recovery is quite a complex area but the goal is simple: you want to reduce fatigue in the days after the race as well as reducing the severity or duration of muscle damage or soreness. The good news is that you can do this with a few simple steps immediately after the race and in the days that follow.
Recovery Begins at the Finish Line
Now is the perfect time to replenish, restore, and refuel. One of the most important aspects of recovery immediately after a race is eating, drinking, and refilling your carbohydrate stores. As soon as you can after the race, you need to start replacing your muscle glycogen. You do this by eating or drinking 1.2 grams of carbohydrate for every kilogram of body weight. High glycemic index foods are best - think whole grains, fruit, and smoothies. Rehydrating, especially if you sweat a lot, is also important at this stage. So put a post-race snack and drink in your bag and make this your number one priority upon finishing the race. Then you can go enjoy that beer! If you can’t have a good meal within an hour or so of finishing the race, make sure you keep snacking on high-carb snacks, again aiming for 1.2g per kilogram for up to five hours after the race.
Movement is also important after a race. Probably the last thing you feel like doing is walking around and doing dynamic exercises, but allow your body to cool down properly by taking a few minutes to do some low intensity, low impact exercises. Walk or job, do some lunges and try to do a few "high knees" drills. Refrain from sitting down immediately after crossing the finish line, even though that is probably what you want to do the most.
You Want Ice With That?
After you eat something, it may also be tempting to throw on an ice pack and lie down in the shade. However, some recent studies have shown that both ice and rest may delay healing rather than helping it. While athletes, coaches, and even doctors have used the infamous "RICE" (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) guideline for decades, some are now changing their tune. Even the best-selling author, Gabe Mirkin, who penned the book Sportsmedicine Book in 1978 and coined the term "RICE" says if the studies are good, then the method "may actually delay healing."
According to the American Journal of Sports Medicine (June 2013), cooling tissue delays swelling and temporarily makes you feel better, but it does not hasten recovery from muscle damage. When you damage tissue through trauma or develop muscle soreness by exercising very intensely, you heal by using your immunity, or the same biological mechanisms that you use to kill germs. Applying ice to injured tissue causes blood vessels near the injury to constrict and shut off the blood flow that brings in the healing cells of inflammation. Basically, anything that reduces your immune response will also delay muscle healing. Thus, some studies show applying ice to injured tissue causes blood vessels near the injury to constrict and shut off the blood flow that brings in the healing cells of inflammation.
There are exceptions, of course—you may have no choice but to immobilize a limb, say, with a compound fracture. And the jury is still out. There are many who still prescribe ice to reduce pain. While ice can't immediately "fix" an injury, it's a free, natural, and instant analgesic that can be helpful when that is what is needed most. The best way to use ice is to ice for a few minutes at a time or until the painful area is numb.
Which Pills to Pop?
The same goes for over-the-counter doses of ibuprofen and other pain-relieving medicines. They may actually work against recovery. The current thinking is that ibuprofen and aspirin not only interfere with the anti-inflammatory response we want, but also delay our muscles' ability to repair themselves and get stronger after hard workouts. Research has shown that the body’s rate of protein synthesis goes up 50 to 100 percent after exercise. But a study by Todd Trappe, Ph.D., a professor at the Human Performance Lab at Ball State University, showed that when people took the maximum over-the-counter doses of ibuprofen and aspirin, the drugs eliminated the ability of the muscle to turn on the protein synthesis response. Therefore, If you kept taking these analgesics day after day to relieve pain, there’s no way you’d get muscle to grow or adapt. Plus, other research suggests that these drugs may mess with healthy muscle adaptation by affecting the production of compounds like collagen that help give tissues strength.
So Tired I Can't Sleep
Okay, so it’s the night after the race. You’ve taken care of your nutrition, done a few drills and a proper cool down, and you’re already thinking about your next race (that's what that beer was for, right?). However, before you think about your getting back on your bike, it's important to get a good night's sleep.
Deep sleep is incredibly restorative. During this stage of the sleep cycle, blood pressure drops, breathing slows down, blood flow moves to the muscles, and tissue is repaired, according to the National Sleep Foundation. However, don't let the need for sleep stress you out so much you can't sleep. Often, the night after a race, our muscles are twitching or maybe we are in a hotel and wake up disoriented. Don't worry. Keep practicing good sleep hygiene by going to bed at the same time, staying off screens close to bedtime, and avoiding caffeine after noon, and you will soon feel more like yourself again.
Is "Active Recovery" an Oxymoron?
It's important to remember that the goal of recovery isn't to do nothing. The goal of recovery is to feel better. One way to do this is with “active recovery,” which is a fancy way of taking it easy without lying on the couch all day. For example, active recovery could be a walk or a hike, an easy swim, or a yoga class.
When should you start? Well, that depends because everyone is different. Some athletes might need a complete day of rest while others recover very quickly from a race and are ready to do some gentle movement the day immediately after a race. Don’t worry what everyone else is doing—find out what works best for you and stick with it. If you decide to jump in the pool but feel awful after ten minutes, then call it a day, and lay low a bit longer. But more often, you will find that moving at a low intensity will aid in your recovery and decrease muscle soreness.
Researchers are still trying to figure out the exact mechanisms and reasons why keeping your muscles moving is better than immobilizing them, but what they do know is that stillness is the enemy. Movement, on the other hand, increases blood circulation to damaged tissues and will help repair the tiny tears you’ve made in your muscle fibers. As long as you’re feeling up to it, start the active recovery process. This means doing your activity of choice at about 60-70% effort or less. An active recovery day isn’t a day to test your strength or fitness!
As humans we are lucky. Our muscle memory is strong and our memory of pain is short. (This explains why we have more than one child or sign up for another race.) We can expand on our luck by recovering smarter. Pay attention to your nutrition, sleep as much as you can (or your family and job will allow you to), leave the ice in the freezer, the ibuprofen in the medicine cabinet, and move as much as your body and mind will allow.
And of course, put on your OOFOS! You’ll be back on the starting line again before you know it, ready to rock your next race.
The XTERRA Couch to XTERRA training series is presented by Sheri Anne Little and five-time XTERRA age group world champion Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance. Their new 12-week “Couch-to-XTERRA” training program is designed to do just that, get aspiring athletes off the couch, into training, and to the start line of an XTERRA.