As a triathlete, you know how important it is to train hard for races to make sure you perform at your best on the day. But what about what happens after the race? Do you think carefully about the steps you take to optimise your recovery and get ready for your next block of training? We get the expert insight from Michelle Dillon, a two-time Olympian and World Champion triathlete who has coached superstars like Emma Pallant and Jodie Stimpson.
How long does it take to recover from a triathlon?
Triathlon is a demanding sport, especially the longer distance races. Understanding how long it takes to recover will depend on the individual, how well trained they are, and how big the race was. A case study published in the European Journal of Sport Science found that an experienced, well-trained male athlete took around a week to recover from an IRONMAN without the use of any therapeutic interventions after the event. Another study, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, found that “the pronounced initial systemic inflammatory response induced by an Ironman triathlon declines rapidly. However, a low-grade systemic inflammation persisted until at least 5 days post-race, possibly reflecting incomplete muscle recovery.”
Michelle explains, “Big races can affect athletes differently depending on how well trained they are and what their mental approach is like. For example, if you have an athlete racing over long distances like IRONMAN, it will take the athlete longer to recover because it's so draining and hard on the body compared to a sprint race.”
In order to recover fully, it’s important to understand what a race like triathlon does to the body and be able to recognise signs of fatigue. Michelle says, “Some athletes get the IRONMAN blues post-race, both physically and mentally. This can take weeks to overcome, however with the right nutrition, sleep and backing off their training they should recover adequately.”
Michelle goes on to explain, “It usually takes about 2 weeks of light training for the body to recover after a long distance event, although this depends on the athlete’s fitness leading into the race. I wouldn't recommend any athlete completely stop training, as the muscles tend to seize up. Ticking over with some low impact training is best for a full recovery.”
Do triathletes need rest days?
The way you train in the days and weeks directly after a major race will impact the success of your next training block and the way you prepare for your next race. Michelle advises, “I suggest an athlete drops their volume and intensity down after a big race, depending on how sore they are and how much the race has taken out of them. Generally, it's very important not to overdo it and not to dive back into hard training too early to ensure they get maximum recovery.”
If you are an athlete who competes in one big A-race per year, you can definitely afford to take some complete rest days after the big day. Top athletes will enjoy a week or two eating well and relaxing fully before diving into a new training block. Unless you have another race in the coming weeks, it’s definitely advisable to maximise your rest and enjoy the time off.
Injuries and Overtraining
One of the biggest risks associated with not recovering properly after a race is injury. If you do not rest adequately after your body has taken on a big event, you are far more likely to get injured. A systematic review of injuries in long-distance triathletes, published in the National Library of Medicine, found that overuse injuries are the most common among IRONMAN triathletes, with the knee and spine the most frequent location of the injury.
In order to avoid overuse injuries, it’s important to rest and recover properly after a race. Michelle advises, “Be careful not to overtrain, stretch well, keep yourself well hydrated, eat properly and get lots of good quality sleep.”
Signs of overtraining
Here, Michelle provides common signs of overtraining:
- Feeling tired all the time
- Not recovering properly from the previous training session
- Mental fatigue
- Mood changes
- Not being able to elevate your heart rate in quality sessions
If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s time to reduce your training load and prioritise recovery.
In order to reduce your risk of becoming injured in training following a race, a device like the INCUS CLOUD | TRIATHLON will be invaluable. This device can help correct imbalances which may have developed through overuse and will allow you to analyse your training to make sure everything is as it should be.
Nutrition and hydration for recovery
As well as getting quality sleep, one of the best ways to optimise post-race recovery is with proper nutrition and hydration. Immediately after the race, it is recommended that athletes drink two cups of water for every pound of body weight lost. Weighing yourself before and after the race can help you identify how much hydration you have lost throughout the race and indicate how much you should drink to recover. Hydrating well immediately after a race will improve your chances of fast recovery.
Michelle says, “An athlete should always have a good balanced diet, which includes quality protein, complex carbohydrates and good fats. However, as an athlete post-race your glycogen levels will be emptied out significantly and therefore will need to be replaced with more carbohydrate than usual.”
Try to make sure the food you eat after a race is as high quality as possible, such as lean meat (poultry), eggs, pasta, brown rice, and lots of vegetables. A meal like chicken wraps with rice, beans, cheese and any salad ingredients you like will be ideal for boosting recovery.
About the author: Alex Parren is a Freelance Health & Fitness writer as well as a qualified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist.