Returning To Normal: Getting Back On Track After A Focus Ultra

A week and a half ago, I ran down 12th Street, kissed a rock, and became a true hardrocker by completing the Hardrock 100 a second time. It was a moment that I daydreamed of shortly after finishing the race in the opposite direction last July; one I contemplated more meaningful after gaining entry into this year’s race early last December; and one that I worked toward in earnest for a number of months this year. Indeed, I’d spent the prior two months living in Silverton, Colorado, the race’s start and finish, doing what I could to prepare for the race.

I’d kissed the rock. It was over. I had made it. Now, what?

If you’ve followed iRunFar for any time or, indeed, read much about ultrarunning anywhere, you’ve likely learned about how to recover immediately after a taxing run. (See Ian Torrence’s and Joe Uhan’s excellent articles on the subject.) That time came in went in the first couple days after the race with me getting some evening walks around Silverton and sleeping in the Wednesday after the race. Similarly, you’ve probably read or heard that you should take some days or some weeks off from running while staying generally active. Sounds good enough, right? Well, what about the rest of the time and the rest of life?!

Diet

I don’t have a particularly great diet, but it’s pretty balanced most of the time. In the lead-up to a focus race, I do tend to cut less-healthy items, both to trim up as well as to further commit to the race. On the flip side, after I run 100 miles or more, all bets are off. During that time, I’m completely and intentionally indulgent. I eat when and what I want. I eat what my body craves. I’ll have an Almond Joy at two in the afternoon… just because I want one. Whether this does anything to heal my body… well, that’s not terribly important to me. However, I’m happy to revel in my accomplishment and I find such a period to be mentally refreshing.

As per the above, I’ve enjoyed eating at will the past week and a half. I’d eaten mostly easy-cooking, staple remnants from our time in Silverton. Lots of pasta and ramen and stuffing. (As well as a bunch of candy bars and cosmic brownies left over from my race fuel.) Then, I was in town the other day and felt drawn to return to normal eating. I wanted fresh corn and snap peas and fixings for homemade bean-and-cheese burritos. I grabbed a couple hearty soups. I envisioned a night of roasted corn and a steak flame-grilled over oak, cedar, and juniper branches with a salad on the side.

In short, it was time to return to normal with my eating. To take a little more time to prepare my meals. To make the effort to hit town for some fresh produce. I’ll still listen to my body’s nutritional cravings… I’ll just be more apt to listen to it, if it’s craving some fresh cherries rather than a Snickers bar.

Sleep

As with food, I let my body determine when and how long to sleep as much as possible after a really long race. Now, I don’t do this for as long as I yield to my dietary cravings and life’s demands certainly place hard limits on this, but I try to do it. Around a week after the race, I try to start resetting my routine. I don’t have a set bedtime, but I will try to keep the super-early and super-late bedtimes to a minimum and try to get back in the habit of roughly eight hours of sleep a night.

Following this year’s Hardrock, my sleep has been a big warning sign, even ignoring the first week post-race when I know that my body’s hormonal response is likely to throw my sleep pattern off. For example, in the past few days, I’ve woken up at 3:30 a.m. and 1:30 a.m, badly wanted to sleep at 9:30 p.m. and not been able to fall sleep at 1:30 a.m., and slept for 13 hours once. While my mood, energy, and limited running have gone really well, monitoring sleep and acknowledging my irregular pattern of late will both caution me to continue a slow return to running and encourage me to actively work on my sleep pattern and good sleep hygiene (as they call it these days).

Return to Running

While my work schedule can often limit my running for days or weeks at a time, I do enjoy getting out to run most days when I can. It’s part of what I do. I suppose it’s part of who I am. No matter, it’s certainly my normal. And, as such, I and many others have a strong urge to return to our normal running frequency and, to a lesser degree, normal running volume soon after our deeply body stressing focus races.

Much has been written over the years about when and how to return to running after a big race. Much of it is great to serve as a baseline, acknowledging that we all come into and out of events with our own backgrounds and race-induced damage. Personally, I try listen to my body as I return to running. Initially, I won’t do more than some 25- to 45-minute light jogs on generally easy terrain. I’ll take some days off, especially if something feels “injured” rather than sore. Over the course of a week, I’ll increase the frequency and distance such that I’m running roughly two out of every three days while generally keeping the runs to an hour or less. On average, I’ll start running on a normal schedule roughly the third week after a 100 miler. I’ll still keep my volume below my baseline amount and avoid “training” efforts for a while longer.

Throughout my gradual return to normal running, I monitor my body’s overall return to normalcy. Am I sleeping normally? How is my mood? Do I have seemingly random extremely low energy patches during the day? Basically, I look for signs of what folks call adrenal fatigue or overtraining syndrome. (I’ll let the great articles we’ve previously published on iRunFar fill you in on the details of OTS: Joe Uhan’s 3-part series: Parts 1, 2 & 3.) After most races, I’m not worried about full-blown OTS (and it’s hard to miss when it’s present, if you know the signs), but a little sign here or another sign there does counsel me to more slowly lets out the reins on my training and, perhaps, take an extra days off even if I’m otherwise eager to run.

Filling the Void

While I include the above as important aspects of returning to normal, I most wanted to talk about returning to normal in the non-physical aspects of life. How do you return to normal with your emotions, relationships, and obligations?

If you’ve come to ultrarunning by way of road marathons, you’ve likely heard of the post-marathon blues. Surely, these are in part due to physiological stresses and biochemical reactions. However, no matter the result, seeing an event into which you put a great deal of time and energy in the rearview mirror leaves you with a few voids in your life.

First, you’ve just lost a sense of purpose. Don’t conflate that with some sort of existential crisis, but you just dismissed something that you used as a beacon for at least some months. Maybe you used that beacon to choose how you spent your Saturday, what you ate for breakfast, or whether you should go out with your friends on a Thursday night. Building toward your goal was empowering in and of itself. You saw progress. You overcame obstacles. You made deposits in the bank that you would withdraw on race day.

While I wouldn’t encourage you to get back out there and immediately race again, think about setting up a non-physical goal in the relative short term (two weeks to two months) and another physical goal another couple months out. If race you just ran was the end of your “season,” there’s no need to put another race on your schedule. Instead, you could set up an adventure run or a modest two-day fastpack with a friend a few months out, which might be enough to motivate you to stay active—importantly, for a specific reason—while not needing to train too hard.

Second, there’s the “what next?” void. It’s closely related to having a sense of purpose removed, but it’s the much more direct view of it. All too often, it’s reinforced within view of the finish line by curious friends or family. Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with not having an answer to, “what’s next?” If you are comfortable with not having an answer for yourself or others, well done. However, it’s good for folks to consider whether they’re uncomfortable with being in this position, either because of a total lack of an answer or uncertainty surrounding choosing one or more options, and to work toward solving it.

At the moment, I know that I’m much more comfortable with the first void rather than the second. I’m quite motivated to run again, even without a concrete objective and I’ve got plenty of other aspects of my life where I can devote my efforts with satisfaction. On the other hand, I’m quickly coming to the point where I need to decide definitively whether or not I run the Ultra-Trail Gobi Race in late September, yet great uncertainty remains in my recovery, work schedule, and ability to afford the race. It’s not a bad decision to have to make, but in considering this article, I know that I’ll feel more settled once I’ve decided either way.

A third thing that disappears with our big race behind us is the lauding of our supporters. While most of us don’t run for cheers, it sure feels good to know that friends, family, and fans support us as we train for, run, and revel in our race. This used to happen on a small, intimate level , you know, face-to-face or over the phone, but it’s been amplified an order of magnitude in the past decade with the rise of blogs and social media. Yet all that praise and support is likely to disappear within a few days after our race. Now, I don’t think we should take this as a call to go praise seeking in the weeks after a big race; rather, I think it’s something to be aware of. We need to remember actively that we are not the affirmation that we receive from others and that the absence of such is not a fault or reason to be disillusioned.

Ah, and the fourth void… or, perhaps better yet, expanse: time. In those first couple of weeks after a focus race when you’re running a lot less and no longer have to plan for your race, and that means a lot more free time and the devil finds work for idle hands. While a bit of idle time and relaxation can be an important part of returning to normal after a race, we can also feel lost or rudderless or like a slacker when we’ve got nothing to do after work or on Saturday morning. As unsettling as this can be for some, myself included, it can facilitate one of the most important aspects of returning to normal after a race and that’s catching up with neglected areas of your life.

Play Catch-Up

Whether out of opportunity or obligation, consider using your newfound and, perhaps, unfamiliar free time to play catch-up in other portions of your life. If we’re honest, we often have to cut back on aspects of our life as we prepare for a big race. This can mean spending less quality time with family and friends, cutting back on work, or putting off tasks around the house. Well, now, you’ve got a bit of extra free time. How about that coincidence! Consider where you’ve pared your life back in recent months and where you can best put this extra time toward other meaningful aspects of your life.

During the lead-up to this year’s Hardrock, I continued to work hard on my day-to-day work for iRunFar, as we covered Western States and Hardrock along with our usual mix of articles. However, between that work and more focus on training, I didn’t make as much headway into my backlog of less-time-sensitive tasks as I’d hoped. With that in mind, I left Silverton, Colorado a few days after the race and headed back home to the hills above Moab, where I’ve put my nose to the grindstone. In and of itself, it’s felt great to make progress on my work backlog and, as a bonus, it’s made me confident that I’ll have smoother-than-usual sailing through a busy August and September.

At the same time, consider whether you should devote some time to yourself. The lead-up to a race can be stressful for any number of reasons and it’s likely that you cut out plenty of relaxing “me time” in preparing for your race. Perhaps, after your get your feet back under you, you can take a day for yourself. For some that may mean something as banal, but soothing as organizing your day-to-day physical surroundings. Maybe it means going to a ballgame with a buddy. Perhaps, it’s an afternoon fishing by yourself or a weekend camping with no obligations or a night at the movies. This may all feel indulgent, particularly after all that’s gone into your race, but it’s important to take a moment and exhale every once in a while!

Call for Comments

  • In what ways do you actively try to return to normal after a big race?
  • What do you find hardest after a big race, particularly mentally?
  • Any tips for returning to normal after one’s focus race?

There are 14 comments

  1. Ian

    I completed my first ultra this last weekend (the White River 50) and am now in the middle of my first ultra recovery. My legs are tired but overall they feel surprisingly ok. What is bothering me most is my breathing. Breathing really deeply or rapidly is pretty uncomfortable. It is hard to describe, but it is as if my lungs are bruised or sore inside. I’ve had a similar feeling after shorter races but it has never lasted for more than a day or two. Have any of you had a similar experience post-race?

      1. Granitrunner

        I am sometimes ill after an ultra (longer than 10 hours). And it does not matter what kind of illness (mostly infection) it takes much longer than normal. So check the doctor to be on the safe side, but in my case the doctors even often did not know exactly what to do, and after so 10 days all went normal.
        The first week after an Ultra is mostly going well, then ist starts to be a little difficult for another 2-3 weeks.
        All the best for you

    1. Jennifer

      Ian,
      This happened to me after my first 100. It took 2-3 solid days before my lungs stopped hurting. I chalked it up to the cold air, that I was unaccustomed to.
      My breathing was normal during the race, but was painful and labored immediately after. I don’t have any medical advice, but I wanted to let you know it did clear up with no lasting effects.
      Congrats on the 50-miler!

    2. Eric

      Ian, don’t panic. I’ve had a similar feeling after multiple 50 milers. I’m not sure what it is. It never felt dangerous to me. Obviously you just taxed yourself more than most people ever will. Good job!

    3. Pete

      Possibly your intercostal muscles are just tired from the hours of working harder than usual. Always worth checking with a medical professional though

  2. Chelsea

    After a few months of hard training & 3 ultras completed, a 100k being my last 2 weeks ago, I definitely felt a void physically & mentally. I had pre booked a nice trail marathon for 2 months time & a nice holiday in between to hopefully bridge the gap between resting & keeping my toe in the water running. I also start thinking about what my goals are for next year and in the meantime catch up with friends & spend time with family, who all become a little bit neglected during my training. It’s probably time to catch up with all the neglected housework too…. But hey I’ve got a marathon in a few weeks!!

  3. Jackie

    I do find it mentally challenging to be out of my routine after an ultra. But I tell myself it’s only for a few weeks, maybe 4 weeks out of the entire year (2 races/year). I like to do a reverse taper to return to running. I don’t start running until most of my soreness has gone away and I have the feeling that I really want to go for a run. I have a 50K in a few weeks and I am looking forward to playing some tennis and going for a few bike rides afterwards, things that I enjoy but don’t do when training.

  4. Paul S.

    I first read the title as getting back on the track – as in doing hard intervals – after an ultra.

    Glad to see it was about something much more sensible.

    I’m wondering what would be different following a non-focus ultra, for example a 50 miler or 100K leading up to a goal 100 miler.

  5. Kevin

    Congrats on your second HR finish, Bryon! I really enjoyed this post.

    I suspect most of us ultra runners have varied levels of OCD. I’m in my third year of ultra running. Year one was spent soaking up as much information I could on the sport, and death march bonking late in a couple 50ks — like a rookie. Year two was taking these in-race learnings to run what were (for my mediocre skill level) a very good 50m and 50k.

    The strange irony is after I stayed this ultra dragon, so to speak, my ultra motivation waned a bit. After a brief rest period, I got back to my 40-50 mile weeks relatively easily, but the passion subsided as the OCD beast wasn’t being fed as furiously. I had no goal races in mind for a few months. Just ran for the sake of running, and volunteered at a couple of races.

    My solution was to register for a 50k, 50m, and hard 100m race block for my third year of ultra running. The 100m legitimately scares me, which has helped with the mental malaise. Part of me hopes I excel at the 100m, while part of me hopes I fail. In a weird way, I think the fear of failure (and overcoming failure) is what keeps many ultra runners coming back. Not a bad OCD to have necessarily, but several of the points you make above really resonated with me.

    Good luck on your next adventure!

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