Recover Better: 10 Rules For Optimal Ultramarathon Recovery

Stay the CourseIt’s that time of year again. It’s in the air: Fall racing season? Football season? Or, for us Pacific Northwesterners, the rain season? It may be any or all of those, but for the bulk of us, it is recovery season. As the major 100-mile ultra and focus-race season winds down, it is time once again to discuss the concept of recovery.

A year ago, a three-part treatise (Part One, Part Two, and Part Three) appeared in these pages discussing overtraining. While the information therein is important, the majority of us successfully avoid overtraining and its effects. But everyone who runs the ultramarathon distance needs recovery. It is the yang to the yin of training. As such, it’s been well-covered in the pages of iRunFar, both by your expert coach Ian Torrence, and more recently from the first-hand elite athlete perspective of Geoff Roes.

This month, Stay the Course provides its take on recovery, including a series of 10 Rules: hard-and-fast, comprehensive guidelines based on practical and tangible recommendations from veteran runners and healthcare professionals.

Rule #1: Know the Rules!

…And quit acting like they don’t apply to you!

In Part Three of the overtraining series last year, I outlined several conclusions gleaned from my research on the subject, and from interviews–of experts on training and racing, as well as veteran athletes–on sustainable training and overtraining. These are those conclusions:

  • If injury and illness are the burglars, overtraining unlocks and opens the front door.
  • Our physical capacity is finite.
  • Life stress is body stress.
  • High-volume, year-round training, however low its intensity, is unsustainable.
  • Regular, prolonged rest is required.
  • Racing must be limited.
  • The lag time for unsustainability is three to four years.
  • Elite runners training and racing unsustainably are bad for the sport.
  • No matter who you are, the rules still apply.

These concepts govern the big-picture approach to running, but what about the nuts-and-bolts to post-race recovery?

Pam Smith, the 2013 Western States champion and recent winner and course record-setter at the 2014 Angeles Crest 100, wrote a compelling piece on her personal blog about recovery. A veteran ultrarunner on both road and trail, Smith knows the rules. After a rather disappointing Western States 100, where she “was tired going into Western States, tired running Western States, and even more tired after it was over,” Smith recognized the rules and knew what she had to do.

She calmly went about preparing for AC100 by, quite simply, not running. She walked, hiked, practiced yoga, and invested her time with her family. She visited Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks: not to train, but to vacation with her husband and two kids. In all, Smith ran 85 miles… in five weeks between Western States and Angeles Crest.

A less-experienced runner may not have had the discipline to trust her training and preparation to date (which included a 100-mile track world record in December, and a 100k road U.S. championship in May), and to commit to notion that recovery–not additional running–was the most crucial preparation for AC100.

Says Smith, “Running was kept to a minimum and the more I didn’t run the better I felt. It seemed a little weird going into a 100 miler having done only one run over 10 miles in the preceding five weeks, but I was trusting my new best friend, intuition.”

The results are clear: a victory and course record of 21:04, just shy of being the elite few to break 21 hours on the fabled AC course.

*****

Most ultrarunners start off as road runners, and accepted rules among road runners include:

  • Don’t workout hard more than two or three times in a week.
  • Take a rest week every three to four weeks.
  • Don’t race short distances (5k to 10k) more than once a month.
  • Don’t race hard marathons more than twice per year.

Yet once we start running and racing ultra distances, similar rules are less implied or accepted.

But they’re out there, and they’re guidelines to promote strong, sustainable running. Know the rules, and follow them.

Rule #2: Don’t Run!

Following AC100, Smith’s recovery post covered additional rules of thumb from the champion. Among them include this guideline:

  • “One day off running for every 10 miles raced.”

It’s a hard-and-fast rule from which every runner would benefit. The keyword here is ‘raced.’ If you’re being honest with yourself, and you used an event as a sub-maximal training run, this may not apply. However, if the event was a hard, A-race or a long, taxing 100k or 100 mile, this is a terrific guideline. I will add the caveat:

  • “If the race was a heavy-vertical* and/or a high-altitude event, one day off running for every 10 kilometers raced.” (* >150 vertical feet gained/lost per mile)

Many runners out there promote the notion of active recovery, which includes the idea of short, easy runs to promote circulation and tissue mobility following hard races. Yet, how does one know if these presumed easy runs are truly easy, and are truly aiding–and not inhibiting–recovery?

The easy answer is: don’t risk it. Stop running.

Simply put, running is running. Specificity rules both training and recovery. And if one is looking to truly recover from running, one must–at least for a time–not run.

There are many ways to achieve active recovery, nearly all of which avoid the primary mechanical stressor of running: impact. Impact forces from running produce the primary mechanical stress, and optimal recovery includes avoiding impact as much as possible.

Let it go. Stop running for a period of time. There are lots of other things to do.

Rule #3: Commit!

Every runner accepts recovery as vital to the training experience, yet it is poorly accepted and adhered to. Simply put: we know we need to recover, but what does it mean? And how do we decide what recovery really means? Smith’s days-off rule is a great starting point, and several other rules will follow. But what good is a guideline without the commitment to stick to it? Runners are steadfast to complete a mileage week, workout, run, or race, scarcely flinching in the face of physical and often logistical challenges. But what happens to that wherewithal when it comes to recovery? After a major race, recovery is implicit. But then, opportunity beckons:

  • beautiful weather;
  • optimal trail conditions, devoid of rain, snow, mud, or bugs; and
  • an invitation to race from friends, or a generous race director.

Suddenly, the savage beast–the underlying drive to move, to test ourselves, and to succeed, and our desire to soothe it with running–cries out, and our will to rest is tested. And more often than not, our will fails. And just like that, we’re back at it.

Your muscle and joints might feel great after only a day or two of rest, yet those mechanical systems are seldom the most stressed. Invisible internal systems–namely the nervous, endocrine, and metabolic systems–are incredibly taxed during a hard ultramarathon and have invisible wounds that require prolonged periods of rest, often exceeding, several times over, the needs of your legs.

Commit to rest and recovery for a finite period of time. Based on your race and your current needs, decide on a finite number of days or weeks to either not run, or train minimally. Then, like any other goal, make it public: let your friends (and, if necessary, your social-media following) know of your intentions. Public declaration strengthens resolve.

Stick to your goal. See out the duration of your rest, as well as the aspects of recovery that are seldom as fulfilling as the daily run. Be disciplined in your rest and recovery as much as you are with any other aspect of training.

Commit.

Rule #4: Refuel

The average runner burns between 600 and 1,000 calories per hour during an ultramarathon. And even with liberal eating, far less than half of that is supplanted during the race. And one of the tragic ironies of ultramarathon racing is that, post-race, when we’ve most earned it, our appetites tend to be the weakest, making it difficult to refuel. Refuel early and often: recognize that it make take days and even weeks to replace the nutrients and tissues lost during a long ultra race.

Listen to your cravings! They’re trying to tell you something! Many runners train for health reasons, and use running for weight loss and weight maintenance. However, as Smith writes, “I do not try to use a big race effort as a weight-loss strategy as I think this impedes recovery… Indeed, many experts think insufficient calorie intake is a component leading to overtraining syndrome. When your body undergoes demanding physical exertion, it requires a lot of calories both for fuel and for repair.”

Jump start repair with nutrients and supplements. Meredith Terranova is no stranger to recovery. In addition to being a competitive endurance swimmer, triathlete, and ultrarunner, she is an experienced dietician who frequently guides endurance athletes in the nutritional-recovery process. For the hours and days immediate post-race, she recommends:

  • 100 grams or more per day of protein. She notes, “The muscle breakdown is best repaired with protein and making sure you get in the max of amino acids,” that come from liberal protein intake.
  • Avoiding simple carbohydrates. While sugar is vital fuel during the race, it can interfere afterward. Terranova adds, “It is important to stay away or limit simple carbs (sugar and refined grains) to limit excess inflammation,” as carbohydrates are now being recognized as inflammatory to many body systems.
  • Hydration. This may seem like common sense, but ongoing hydration–immediately and in the days after a major race–is crucial in both disposing of metabolic waste and aiding in the digestion and repair of the whole body.

Gain some weight! It is normal–if not outright healthy–to gain weight after a hard race, and at the end of a competitive season. Consider off-season weight gain in moderation to be like scar tissue: the body deposits a little more than required to ensure 100% healing, then slowly peels off the extra over time. Don’t fear weight gain, and recognize that refueling with healthy nutrients will seldom create excess or unwanted body-fat gains.

Get Fat! As far as fat is concerned, both runners and the general population are beginning to recognize the importance of fat intake as part of optimal fueling as well as recovery. Prolonged exercise bouts of several hours tax the nervous and multiple organ systems to a great degree. And these organs are comprised largely of fat! For example, the vast majority of nerve cells are comprised of fat! On top of that, fat is an essential nutrient for enzymes, neurotransmitters, and other physiological systems.

Terranova points out another purpose for fat: nutrient absorption. “Fat should always be in your diet for absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. [Fat is] even more important post-race, when your body is broken down and you are needing to maximize nutrient absorption.”

Don’t skimp on fat, but be sure your fats come from relatively healthy sources. This includes meats, dairy, and plant sources. Avoid processed foods, including processed meats and cheeses, as well as refined grains that may contain partially-hydrogenated fats.

Listen to your cravings. Satisfy the urges that naturally come and are well-earned after a hard race or long competitive season. But take steps to ensure that you satisfy those urges with the healthiest options or variations out there. Chances are, those urges are the brain telling you the exact nutrients it requires to properly recover.

Rule #5: Get Moving!

While resting is important, so is restoring motion to muscles, joints, and everything in between. While running should be mostly avoided at first, there are myriad options to get and keep things moving.

Stretch it out! Let’s face reality: most runners don’t stretch. And that’s okay. Usually. When asked by clients, “What do I need to stretch,” my answer is, “Whatever needs it.”

That said, in training, when soreness is minimal, so may stretching be. But when stiffness and soreness post-race is at its peak, prolonged and frequent stretching is a requirement.

Key areas to stretch include:

  • hip flexion and extension;
  • quadriceps and hamstrings;
  • calf and shins; and
  • back and trunk flexion, extension, sidebending, and rotation.

A yoga practice with emphasis on gentle mobility is a terrific way to achieve guided stretching from an expert as well as accountability to get it done!

Work it out! Massage therapy is a vital component to fast, effective recovery. Often, massage therapy is second to none in not only reducing post-race soreness but fully restoring tissue mobility. Skilled tissue mobilization from a licensed massage therapist can restore proper mobility within a muscle (microfibers), and as importantly–between them, by restoring and improving fascial mobility–or the tissue surrounding muscle bundles and groups.

Frequently, stressful races create significant tissue restrictions that can create wholesale restrictions in the run stride. This can reduce stride efficiency, which can create and perpetuate soreness!

Ian Sharman is the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning record holder, multi-top-ten finisher at Western States, and resident expert in high-frequency racing and recovering. In a blog post after last year’s record, he recommends frequent massages, especially for after (or between) hard races:

“Your legs will be wrecked after each race given the distances and large amounts of downhill, therefore it’s well worth getting regular sports massages. I got one about three to four days after each race then again a week later, plus I usually get massages every two weeks. The benefits here are that the imbalances and tightness that builds up in each race can get evened out to allow even walking to feel better and this should have some effect on the speed of recovery, too.”

Get on your feet. Sharman just might be the master of active recovery. Critical to his ability to complete–let alone conquer–the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning was his ability to actively recover, engaging in light activity to promote blood flow and tissue mobility while letting vital internals systems rest:

“Walking and hiking are great ways to get the blood flowing to your leg muscles and speed recovery with low-impact exercise. Cross training at a low intensity is also good, such as cycling or swimming but an elliptical (or ElliptiGO if you want a view while you exercise) is the most similar to running.”

Sharman notes that he barely ran between each of his Slam races, instead hiking hilly routes, often with a weighted vest. This kept the metabolic, nervous, and endocrine stresses low, but still allowed him to maintain strength and range of motion.

The same applies for general recovery: move the body, but keep the impact and physiological stresses to a bare minimum.

Rule #6: Go to Bed!

Everyone knows we need sleep, but few if any of us know why. Sleep research finds that the primary purpose of sleep is to rest, restore, and repair the nervous system. And since the nervous system is functioning at max capacity for hours on end during an ultra, resting it–and with it, the rest of the body–is paramount.

Individual sleep needs vary, but general consensus is that we need close to eight hours per night, and volumes under six are harmful in the long term. Everyone is different, but after an ultramarathon race, I posit a new hard-and-fast rule:

  • Sleep one extra hour per night daily for every 10 miles raced.

That said, one should sleep an extra hour per day for at least 10 days after a 100-mile race. This could come in the form of a nap, an early bedtime, or–in Smith’s case–by not having to wake early to run. Even if you’re not fast asleep, simply getting off one’s feet constitutes vital rest.

Rule #7: Get a Life (Outside Running!)

Perhaps the most difficult aspects of recovery–of actively resting–is giving up the very thing that makes up the most of our identity. Running is who we are; it is what we do, and it is with whom we spend our time. Thus, stopping running is a difficult if not frightening proposition for most. But it doesn’t have to be.

Diversify. Invest in the sport by volunteering. There’s a lot more to the sport of ultrarunning besides the running. A whole lot of time and energy is put into races, from the trail work beforehand, to the aid stations, course marking, sweeping, and start/finish line manning. Give back and get back by volunteering at a race. Take in the energy without the cost of a bib number or the tax on the body. Besides resting the body, working a race develops a greater appreciation for the experience next time you lace up the shoes.

Spend time with (non-running) friends and family. Our friends and family sacrifice a lot for our running: not only on race day, but in the weeks and months preceding. Use your off time to devote time to their needs, interests, and pursuits. Or, be active in their interests: walk, golf, bowl, or simply play in the yard. Not only will this add value to your lives, but sharing physical activities keeps you moving as well.

Smith recognized this and used a family vacation to fill her needs to stay active and be in the outdoors. But since she was hiking “at kid pace,” she was still actively resting.

Invest in others. Running is, almost by definition, a solitary and selfish pursuit. Spending the hours each day on ourselves is a requirement for mastery and success come race day. But those who are solely focused on themselves, year round, often have the hardest time letting go during times of rest and recovery: if they’re not running, their time and energies have no direction.

Besides having an outlet beyond oneself, serving others has other invaluable benefits. Jacob Rydman, veteran NorCal ultrarunner, knows the value to this balance as well as any runner out there. He describes how he uses service–to his family and through coaching–to improve his running:

“The demands of training and racing through the spring and summer beat down my mind and body, which is why I’m so thankful I take a break from structured, competitive running in the fall and spend my time coaching and being a servant-leader at William Jessup University [in Rocklin, California]. It not only gives my mind and body time to rest and recharge, but far more importantly, I’m able to build up other young men and women–imparting passion, value, and creating community–which builds me back up in the process and allows me to be in a position to, again, train and race the next year.”

Rydman has used this to his advantage well in the past two years. Prolonged rest periods in the fall have produced strong springs and summers, including a second place at Waldo 100k in 2012, a Western States entry; and podium finishes at American River 50 Mile and Way Too Cool 50k in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

Running is a gift, and all of us have benefited from the service of others at races or through mentorship to get where we are today. Give back to others, and in doing so, you help them, but you also help yourself: to fill your body with rest, but fill your heart and soul with inspiration.

Rule #8: Turn It Off

What is ‘it?’ A lot of things:

Your brain. While it is crucial to listen to one’s body, it can often send mixed signals, especially when deciphering the needs of the body versus the whims of the spirit. Our competitive drive can speak loudly after a race, whether we run well or not. If we have a good race, we may be primed to keep going: to continue to train, to work even harder, so we can run even faster. But if we race poorly? We’re often primed to ‘start over’… which frequently drives us to–you guessed it–continue to train, to work even harder, so we can run faster!

Roes describes well this tug of war between body and spirit: “We very much need a day (or more) off, but we are emotionally driven and nourished by our sport, and we convince ourselves that our bodies are telling us that we are plenty recovered from our previous efforts and ready for more. Our ability to reason and to analyze is really good at getting in the way of intuition.”

Despite how well–or not well–your race goes, the brain needs to be turned off. The time to compete is over. Know the rules, and follow them, despite what your spirit tells you. Put your energies elsewhere–into recovery, and into others–and save it for the next build-up.

Social Media. Remember when there were only six 100-mile races in the world? Neither do I, but that used to be the case. Now there are over 100 in North America alone. Between races and long adventure outings, chances are, someone is running something awe inspiring nearly every day.

Avoid the temptation to train, race, or complete any event that is outside the realm of recovery–and that might mean minimizing the self-promotion on social media. Limit how much you’re scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, especially if you recognize a propensity toward ‘fear of missing out’ inside you.

Rule #9: Check Yourself

When it is time to resume running, make sure you touch base with your running mechanics. The combination of soreness, stiffness, fatigue and (hopefully) a prolonged break from running can have significant consequences on stride efficiency.

Touch base with your running expert–a coach or skilled physical therapist–or simply have a friend or running partner film and/or critique your stride. Anyone who runs with you frequently will know what your normal stride looks like, and whether or not there’s a hitch in your giddy up.

Stiffness begets more stiffness. Fix any errors, or a minor inefficiency will create excessive muscle and joint stress, slowing recovery and possibly causing injury!

Rule #10: Start Over

Finally, when it is time to run–when all the pieces are in place for a successful return–take your time. Start easy: run a little, and run slowly. As Smith notes, “Ease back into training. One strategy that I like is to reverse your taper mileage but without the speed work. Work back up to your standard weekly mileage before bringing the speed work back.”

Recognize that, when it’s all said and done, we run well year after year because we recover. Sharman knows that well: “Most people underestimate how long it takes to recover from major efforts at long ultras. In my experience it often leads to burnout or injury and recovery is one of the most important aspects of training.

Embrace the recovery as a season of your year–and a valuable gift–and you will continue to have many fulfilling years of running ahead of you.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Ahem, so, which of Joe’s 10 Rules do you already follow quite well and which of these, if you’re being completely honest, do you toss aside a little too much?
  • Can you remember the last time you recovered adequately from an outing? What did your recovery entail?
  • If you were to try and improve your recovery after your next big race, where among these rules would you focus the most of your attention?
Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master's Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.

There are 16 comments

  1. bazzzzzzzzzzzzz

    After 18 ultras in the past two years (and four marathons and countless long training runs), I'm currently three weeks into a stretch of no running. I can honestly say my legs have never felt better. It's definitely something I'll be doing at least once a year. I'll bike up to a couple of hours a day, but the lack of pounding is hugely appreciated.

    I used to kid myself that I could have an "active rest" kind of break that consisted only of "easy runs", but it's not even close to a "no running" break. I'd urge everyone who's feeling banged up to give it a try; it's much easier to enjoy than an injury-enforced break.

  2. @GartenLuke

    I have to split my racing into two seasons with breaks in between. One season is just for fun with lower weekly mileage (usually the fall) and one season is true peaking with higher mileage and lots of hard workouts (usually spring). I get very burned out by the time summer comes and mentally need a break from any structure.

  3. Tyler Mathews

    I love the social media section of "Turn it Off." Peer pressure is real, even as I get older, and I find myself tempted to run/race way more when I see other people getting after it. Thanks for the great post!

  4. REBECCA ROY

    Just completed my first ultra (50 miles) 5 days ago..guess I shouldn’t have run 6 miles this morning? Glad I read your article. I’ll settle down.

    The other thing is, I cannot believe how HUNGRY I am!!! Still!

  5. JossH

    This is interesting advice but is is 100% anecdotal based on the reflections of a very few people. The only way to measure recovery (active, restful, mixed, cross, etc) is quantitatively. I.e. scientifically. So no offence but without any statistical analysis this is just a nice story.

  6. bambu

    i just started joining races two years ago with a 21k run. after 8 months i went for another 18 and the next was a 50km ultramarathon. just last week i finished my second 50km. am about to join another 50km this july 23rd. after reading this, i believe i have overtaxed my body. So i cancelled most of the races i registered for this year and only had three for the months of Aug., Nov., and Dec., do you think i’ll be okay? and as a beginner, what are the most crucial things that i might overlook? thanks for the advice

  7. Gayle Marie Jones

    I actuality searched for ultra marathon to help encourage my daughter after a very long labor and natural delivery.

    I told her that it was similar to a couple marathons back to back. …

    Thank you for these very relatable resource.

  8. Clay Mathewson

    Thank You for the great information and encouragement to go long by being smart and resting well on multiple fronts! Life is full and of course we always want to get better but it is so easy to believe that pushing is the only way! Great info and reminder!!

    Thank you!

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