You’ve just completed a pretty big race, or you are about to. You’ve spent months developing sweat equity for your big day so you can race to your potential (or simply finish). For some, Ironman is a one-time bucket list thing while for others it is one of many Ironman journeys. Even if they never again tackle another Ironman, most triathletes will aim to keep active.
As a coach, one of the most common mistakes I see athletes make is the complete cessation, not only of training but of all movement after their big event. Obviously there is a need for physical and psychological recovery after an event like this, but there is a right and wrong way to go about it.
First thing’s first. To completely stop training directly after your big event is a huge mistake.
Our muscles become used to their daily dose of oxygen, blood flow and going through a range of motion. Stopping dead in our tracks makes our tissue (fascia, muscles, tendons etc.) bind up. This means our tissue loses its pliability and our range of motion decreases. It’s the reason many athletes get injured when they start back.
Another reason immediately ceasing training is a mistake is based on our hormonal system. Once again, our systems are used to a certain amount of stimulus each day and once we stop, our bodies get out of homeostasis (balance). Couple this with the tendency to go “off the rails” with our daily diet and other habits and the problems begin to stack up. This could be why many athletes also get sick post Ironman.
Of course, your immune system could be on a knife-edge leading into the event if your training is solely based on catabolic aerobic and threshold work. In this case putting a stop to your training and dietary habits deals the final blow.
The final reason I believe that completely stopping training/movement is a huge mistake is because most athletes aim to improve. How many races have we been to where the war stories the following day are followed up with declarations about what you will do differently next race. If you truly want to become a better athlete, your body needs a year round approach to training. Now, that doesn’t mean no down time because you definitely need it but recovery, like the rest of your training program, needs to be placed correctly.
Below are some guidelines for how to go about your post Ironman recovery. The goal is to allow your body to fully recover but not lose all those hard won motor skills and physiological developments you have made. Get this right and you’ll catapult your results to another level.
POST IRONMAN: WEEK ONE
Most triathletes will take the day after an Ironman as a rest day and I believe this is a good thing. You will want to include some gentle movement, however. For example, a 15-20 minute easy walk followed by soaking your legs (an ice bath is better still). This will promote blood flow and oxygen to the tissue and speed up your recovery.
The rest of the week should be made up of easy movement. This should include more walking, easy swimming using pull buoys and XS paddles including some kick and an easy spin on the bike. This will all help flush out any leftover waste products. Do something light for about 30 minutes most days with the exception of your travel days. Unless you have another race coming up, I’d leave your easy run until the following weekend.
Mid week is a good time for a post race light massage. Tell the therapist not to go hard but to just stimulate the tissues. This will create further removal of leftover water products and bring about healthy tissue. Ensure you hydrate and walk around post massage.
On the weekend enjoy what I like to call a coffee shop ride – no longer than 2-3 hours on the bike and make sure you stop for a mid ride coffee and a treat (or whatever tickles your fancy). I like to keep that weekend ride routine up for a number of weeks post race. This injects some light endurance training into your week while keeping it fun and social.
On Sunday you can reacquaint yourself with running via a short, easy jog – one hour at most.
This first week post Ironman is all about “de-training” your body from the intense workload it has been through. It doesn’t need to be much but you need to let the systems relax a little. I liken it to cooking a steak (properly). After you’ve cooked it on a decent heat for a few minutes each side (depending on thickness and how you like it), you need to let it rest before you consume it. The cooking process makes the tissue bind up and get smaller; letting it sit allows the tissue to relax and open up again, making for a better tasting steak. In body terms, rest allows your system to absorb and soak up the work (and the race) positively.
POST IRONMAN: WEEKS TWO & THREE
I recommend taking the second and potentially even the third week post Ironman as rest weeks. Most athletes will be going mental and want to restart training by week three but taking time out from training in week two is key. This allows for the psychological component of recovery to kick in. Don’t under-estimate it – you need it. Since you have let the systems relax a little, continuing to rest at this stage allows for a full recovery. I recommend getting involved in other activities. Go for walks with the family, see different things, go surfing or head out on other little adventures.
FIRST WEEK BACK
I suggest capping your rest time at two weeks off. This is because, you do not want to lose all those hard fought for motor skills and strength/power you have developed. Muscles have memory, so getting aerobically fit again is reasonably easy, but skills are lost quickly and we need to keep hammering away at them to continually improve. We cannot rest on our laurels.
When you first start back you should not be overly concerned with endurance. Better endurance will happen as a by product of the complete training load, but focussing on form is more important at this time.
I like to use tools like pull buoys, paddles and something from Finnis called the forearm fulcrum. The pull buoy means you don’t have to fight against holding good body position and the paddles will help develop a powerful stroke. I like the TYR catalyst in XS as they’re nice on your shoulders and develop a good catch. The forearm fulcrums help you not drop your elbow under the water in the pull phase. Wax on, wax off.
I like to stick to a power based session – really short intervals that stimulate the muscle system but won’t whack you aerobically. These are high power against a high resistance with the same or longer recovery intervals, i.e. A main set of three (30 seconds, 45 seconds, 60 seconds) with 1:1 work/recovery ratio pushing all-out against a high resistance that only gives you 40-45rpm. I alternate this session with longer moderate efforts with shorter recoveries, still maintaining 50-60rpm on the efforts. This is in addition to the weekend easy aerobic/social session.
Start your run easy and add fartlek intervals, focussing on developing your stride rate. Keep the intervals short (30 seconds to two minutes). This is not about hard running but learning to turn the legs over fast. A treadmill set to 0 per cent grade is useful for stride rate skill development.
Spend 4-6 weeks following this pattern. The volume is low but the skill focus is high. This will re-stimulate your body’s systems and prepare them for the training ahead.
Having a goal in mind (this is easy if you qualified for Kona in your last race) will help get your mojo back for training. Since Ironman races often sell out a year in advance, it may be 50 odd weeks until your next shot. Look at your current results and fitness and then make mini goals or stepping stones along the way to ensure you are successful at your next event. This last race will give you many clues to where you can improve. There are always improvements to be made in many areas. Choose one or two and focus on them. Once they have been improved, focus on other areas.
There you have it. All the tips described above have one major thing in common which is the key to success: that is consistency. You need recovery, but make sure you go about it the right way to prevent illness and injury and ensure you remain consistent and motivated.
Train hard and train smart. Only you can make it happen