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Triathlon And Ironman Recovery: Common Questions, Sensible Answers

  • By Paul Moore
  • Published July 20, 2010

By the time we get to race day, most of us have a solid plan in place to manage our rest, nutrition and swim / bike / run. But what about our recovery? That’s often the bit we forget, and it’s often one of the most painful parts of triathlon racing. In this article, Dr Jordan D Metzl outlines solid strategies for recovery, and what to do if your pee is dark brown…

Dr. Jordan D Metzl
I am writing this column after spending the day hobbling around my office, having run the New York Marathon yesterday. As I walk slowly between patient exam rooms, hobbling with a smile, I’m reminded of the many questions that come up about post-race recovery.

How Long Does Post-Race Recovery Last?
Typically, the longer the race is, the longer the subsequent recovery period must be. With longer races there are three stages of post-race recovery: the immediate stage lasting the first 12 to 24 hours, followed by the first few days of intermediate recovery and then the one to two weeks of extended recovery. There are also many factors that can influence the rate of post-race recovery, including age, sleep, diet and genetic factors governing the individual’s general healing rate. It’s best to control as many of these factors as you can by eating well, sleeping as much as possible, staying hydrated, eating plenty of protein and antioxidants and not rushing back too soon.

Do I Really Need To Get Into That Ice Bath?
For myself and all the George Costanza fans out there, I wish the answer were no, but several studies have produced evidence that spending at least five minutes in an ice bath does reduce muscle injury and expedite muscle healing. And the more damage the muscles have accrued, the more ice baths help, so the tougher the event, the more you need to try and suck it up and get into the tub.

What Do I Do The Night The Event Is Over?
This is the time to celebrate. The event is over, the war stories have started; it’s time to enjoy yourself. But what actually aids healing? The data on protein ingestion post-event is quite convincing, so for sure a good dose of your favourite protein, be it tofu, steak or sushi is in order. Although it is tempting to celebrate (or drown sorrows) with alcohol, this is a bad idea since it tends to worsen dehydration symptoms post-event. If you are compelled to drink alcohol, make sure it’s after a solid few hours of post-race rehydration.

What If My Pee Is Brown?
When it comes to urine, dark colour can sometimes mean trouble. Sports medicine professionals are seeing more cases of rhabdomyolysis, injury to muscle that is so severe that muscle protein can’t be fully filtered by the kidneys, turning the urine brown. Be sure that dark-coloured urine is discussed immediately with your doctor. In severe cases, rhabdomylolysis can permanently injure kidneys. Prevention is best achieved through adequate hydration before, during and after the race.

Am I Likely To Get Sick?
Maybe you’ve never heard of them, but interleukins are hormones that circulate in your body and direct traffic. The white blood cells are the body’s pathogen fighters, but they need to know where to go. That’s where interleukins come into play—they direct the WBCs to infections. Many studies have looked at interleukin levels after endurance events, and they seem to drop for 36 to 72 hours postrace, while other research has shown that the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections increases after marathons and triathlons. The longer and harder the effort in a race, the bigger the drop in interleukin levels and the greater the risk of getting sick in the next week. The key is to anticipate this drop and protect yourself post-race. Try to stay away from the sneezing, coughing guy next to you, wash your hands regularly and limit plane travel for a few days after the race. Although the data is mixed on vitamin C, zinc and echinacea loading, it can’t hurt to try one or more of them. Don’t be surprised if you feel a little sniffly after a marathon or triathlon.

When Can I Exercise Again?
Of course, we all want to move again. But rushing back too soon can spell disaster in the form of tendon injuries and stress fractures from prematurely stressing damaged tissues. The better shape you are in going into the event, the quicker the recovery period. Also, the more patient you are in not rushing back, the smoother the transition will be back to activity. Remember that everyone heals at a different rate. I tell my patients to mimic in reverse the taper they did going into the event with the post-race return to activity after the event. Climb back up the ladder you descended before the race. But there is no “one size fits all,” so just listen to your body and go back very slowly.

What Can I Do Better Next Time?
We all hope to learn from our successes and mistakes. See what works for you. I have tried to give you the scientific facts here, but the truth is that everyone is different and you need to listen to your own body’s needs to ensure a healthy post-race recovery. Lastly, treat the post-race period seriously because it can influence your next race and many races after that.

Jordan D. Metzl, MD, Drjordanmetzl.com, is a nationally recognised sports medicine specialist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. In addition to his medical practice, Dr. Metzl is a 28-time marathon runner and seven-time Ironman !nisher.

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Paul Moore

Paul Moore

Paul Moore is the Online Editor for Triathlete Europe. When not glued to a computer he can be found writing books - most recently Ultra Performance: The Psychology of Endurance Sports and The World's Toughest Endurance Challenges. Both are available on Amazon. Paul has also written Ultimate Triathlon: A complete training guide for long-distance triathletes which is also available on Amazon.