A Guide To Your Best Stage-Race Performance, Part 2: Recovery and Strategy

Ian Torrence discusses pacing, strategy, and recovery techniques for a multi-day stage race.

By on May 3, 2016 | Comments

[Author’s Note: This is the second installment of a two-part series focused on multi-day stage race training, strategy, and between-stage recovery fundamentals. This article is about strategy and recovery, while the first article is about training.]

Last month we discussed the ideal preparatory training for a multi-day stage race. However, even with the best training block under our belt, we can still fail to execute properly on race day and fall short of our goals.

What would you do if at the end of a hard day’s work you were offered a $1,000 bonus, no strings attached? It’d be silly not to accept that check, right? During a multi-day stage race, opportunities to ‘cash in’ occur at the end of each day’s leg. Capitalizing on proper between-stage recovery and a well-planned race strategy is like earning that hypothetical end-of-day premium.

Multi-Stage Race Recovery: Putting the Pieces Back Together

“Recovering faster than your competition can give you an edge and just plain make stage racing more fun.” –Meghan Hicks, 2013 Marathon des Sables winner

After a day’s stage is completed, our bodies are like Humpty Dumpty after his great fall. Cracks in our shell take the form of tissue damage, dehydration, and glycogen depletion. Your daily task is to glue all your pieces back together again as quickly as possible. Focus on these key recuperative routines.

Fueling Windows
When race efforts occur less than 24 hours apart, putting back in the tank what you’ve used becomes priority number one. “The most important focus between stages is the re-synthesis of muscle glycogen and repairing muscle damage,” says TransRockies Run veteran Dr. Stephanie Howe. “Both of these are facilitated by good nutritional practices.” The timing of the food we eat and its ingredients are critical.

There are two post-run timing windows—a quick and a slower time frame. “The rapid phase occurs within the first 30 to 40 minutes post-exercise and it’s most important for recovery and feeling good the next day,” says Howe, who has a PhD in Exercise Physiology and Nutrition. “Research reports that a two-hour delay in feeding after hard exercise reduces the rate of glycogen synthesis by 47%.” Carbohydrates should make up the bulk of this first post-race meal. Howe recommends consuming 1.0 to 1.2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight.

“Carbohydrates, not protein, are responsible for replenishing glycogen stores,” she explains. “However, a little protein can also be beneficial for repairing any muscle damage. A 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio is best.”

After a tough run, it’s common to find yourself without an appetite, but your hunger returns an hour or two after you’ve finished. “That’s too late,” says Howe. “I recommend getting something in immediately. In this case, don’t worry about ratios or the type of fuel. I’ve found that liquids are tolerated best, especially when it’s hot out. Some of my favorites are chocolate milk, sports-drink mix, bananas, or a fruit-based smoothie.”

The second window of nutrition replenishment lasts much longer. This subsequent slower phase of fueling lasts until you go to bed. “Think of it as a time to top off your gas tank,” explains Howe. “Like the initial post-race rapid phase, consuming some protein with carbohydrate can lead to higher muscle glycogen synthesis. Again, consume 1.0 to 1.2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight each hour for the next six hours. This can be done in one or several meals, depending on the circumstances.”

Fueling Options
Meal options can vary widely during multi-stage races. For example, events like TransRockies and TransAlpine offer participants the choice of eating the meals provided or heading to restaurants in nearby towns. Isolated races, like Marathon des Sables, require that you carry your own nutrition for the entire seven-day race.

“Whether you are in a race where you are carrying all of your food for the duration or if meals are provided, you should still pack what you need for recovery and rehydration needs,” recommends Meredith Terranova, an ultra-distance runner and swimmer with a bachelor’s degree in Human Nutrition and Consumer Science. “Don’t count on your essential fueling requirements being available. Make sure you have a backup plan if you don’t like some of the meal offerings.”

Events that serve meals do their best to accommodate everyone, but it’s rare that all the provisions will meet every athlete’s allergy restrictions or dietary needs and preferences. Self-sufficiency is paramount. “Between stages make sure you are not just sipping on water but adding electrolytes,” says Terranova. “Don’t over-hydrate, but continue to sip on fluid throughout the afternoon and evening. This is especially important for stage races with warm temperatures or at altitude. You not only need to rehydrate from the stage you just ran, but keep from getting dehydrated while hanging around camp.”

Weight and food choice are key if you must carry all of your nutrition for the entire event. “Get the biggest bang for your buck by choosing high-calorie foods that weigh the least. Take the extra effort of testing the meals you are packing to make sure they are palatable,” cautions Terranova. “Nothing will be more frustrating than carrying terrible-tasting food for hundreds of miles.”

Terranova has one final word of caution for the weary stage racer. “A stage race is not the time you want to go through caffeine withdrawal. Pack your own coffee or tea if you need it.”

Take the Plunge
Consider yourself lucky if a stage finishes near a creek or lake. Cold-water immersion, or spending 10 to 20 minutes in a 50- to 60-degree Fahrenheit ‘bath,’ has beneficial recuperative powers. Lowering body temperature after hard efforts on warm days facilitates recovery by cooling the core and flushing metabolic waste from the tissues. Icing also reduces the pain and swelling from the aches, bumps, and bruises garnered during a day of racing. If you are staying in a facility with a bathtub, add ice to tepid water in the evening and soak for another 10 to 20 minutes.

Foot Care
Be vigilant about foot care. Small abrasions and blisters can seem trivial during a single day’s run, but they can inevitably snowball into race-ending complications two or three days into a multi-stage event. “You can’t let little things slip in a race like this and hope that everything will be okay.” This was Amy Gordon’s, who finished third at the 2016 six-day The Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica, biggest takeaway during her first stage race experience. “I had to make daily visits to the ‘foot clinic’ tent starting the second day. I had pretty bad blisters and learned right away that I had to take care of them.”

“Dry and clean feet are happy feet,” says Rene Unser, the official coach for the Gore-Tex TransAlpine Run. “I tell my athletes to get out of their racing shoes immediately and into flip flops or recovery shoes to facilitate this,” she says.

Educate yourself on multi-day event foot issues and their treatments by purchasing Jon Vonhof’s book, Fixing Your Feet: Prevention and Treatments for Athletes.

Manual Therapy
Self-massage increases blood flow and releases tight and sore muscles. Include a tennis ball, golf ball, massage stick and/or short foam roller with your race gear if you can and use these items to manipulate the feet, quads, hamstrings, glutes, and lower back between stages. Take advantage of expert care when it’s available. Some events, like TransRockies, have massage therapists available in camp. “I had a massage every day and always felt better after,” recalls Gordon. “I am convinced they made a huge difference in my performance.”

Stretching can also assist with recovery. Pack a short rope and perform a quick recovery-focused active-isolated flexibility routine before bed and each morning to prepare the body for the day.

Donning compression gear (socks, tights, and tops) between stages will keep you warm, support fatigued muscles, assist with postural alignment, and reduce swelling.

Restorative Positions
It’s tempting to sit around and relax after a long, tough run. Sage Rountree, an Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher and author of The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery and Racing Wisely, suggests maximizing this time by using these three simple recuperative poses. “When done in this order these positions will set you up well for sleep,” says Rountree, “the number-one tool for recovery.”

Supported Backbend
To open the front of your body, rest the length of your spine against a pillow or a rolled blanket. If you like, elevate the far end of the support so your head is higher than your heart. Spread your arms to the sides and stay in this pose for five to 15 minutes as you focus on your breathing. If you like, you can bring your feet to Cobbler’s Pose by resting the soles of your feet together. Support your knees from underneath with pillows or towels.

Supported Back Bend Pose

A supported back bend. All photos: Sage Rountree

Supported Child’s Pose
To release your back muscles, glutes, quads, and shins, turn over and rest your belly on the pillow, straddling it with your knees and lowering your hips toward your heels. If your quads or knees hurt, stuff a pillow between your hamstrings and calves. Rest on your forehead or one cheek. Stay in this pose for five to 15 minutes and pay attention to your breathing.

Supported Childs Pose

Supported Child’s Pose.

Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose
Finally, prop your feet up on a wall or something similar. Spread your arms to a comfortable position and stay for as long as this feels good. If your hamstrings are tight, bend your knees and rest your calves on a coffee table or chair instead. Elevating the legs helps reduce swelling and calms your nervous system.

Legs Up the Wall Pose

Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose

Catching Z’s
Once you’ve refueled, massaged, iced, doctored any aches, pains and blisters, and wound down from the adrenaline-filled day, it’s time to get some shut-eye. We’ve touted the benefits of sleep for recovery and performance enhancement in this column before. However, for many athletes, stage races aren’t the most conducive to rest. Post-race achiness, weather, altitude, sleeping on the ground, noisy neighbors, socializing with friends, and the anticipation of the next day’s stage erode quality sleep. “Sleep was tough, largely due to the heat,” remembers Gordon about The Coastal Challenge. “It was still very hot and humid at 1 a.m. Then we’d usually wake up around 4 a.m.. I never felt rested during the race.”

Mitigate sleep loss by setting a routine and settling down at a reasonable hour each evening. Bring a book to read, use earplugs, and, if you’re camping, bring a pillow, a comfortable sleeping pad, and a sleeping bag that is appropriate for the nighttime temperatures.

Taking a short nap after your post-run recovery routine can help you collect a few extra minutes of sleep and keep you in the game until the event is over.

Multi-Day Race Strategy: A Study in Patience

“In a stage race, it’s important to view the event as more of a battle than a race. Think: I’m going to outlast these other competitors. To outlast everyone else, do not start truly racing until the last few days of the event.” –Eric Senseman, 2015 TransRockies Run Open Men’s Team winner with partner Brian Condon

Don’t waste your hard-earned training by losing unnecessary time and positions during a multi-day event. Whether you’re a front-of-the-pack runner looking to finish first, an age grouper hoping to podium in your division, or simply wishing to complete the event in one piece, you must plan ahead to race well. We’ve discussed some general tactics in a previous article, but here are some more stage-race-specific strategies.

Play to Your Strengths
Each day’s stage will vary in terrain, surface, and distance. During your training lead-in you’ll develop a sense of your strengths and weaknesses. Are you a better climber, downhiller, or flat runner? Do you prefer longer race distances to the shorter lengths? Do you excel on technical terrain or smooth surfaces? Armed with this knowledge, study the race course in detail to determine which sections play to your strengths. “Take advantage of those days to make up ground or gap your opponents,” advises Jacob Puzey, a TransRockies Run vet and McMillan Running coach. “On the stages that don’t favor your strengths, simply try to keep tabs on your opponents and don’t let them get too far ahead.”

Proper Pacing
Cumulative fatigue is the defining performance factor in multi-day events. Running too fast or too hard in the early stages will negatively affect your performance in later stages of the event. However, running too slowly can make it difficult to catch the competition. “You don’t want to go to the well early in the week,” says Puzey. “But you don’t want to ride the brakes either.” So how do we manage this fine line?

Rehearse race-day pacing frequently in training to hone your internal sense of effort. Remember, you’ve got to sustain this speed for many days. “Learn your race pace in training, practice it, and stick to it,” says Hicks. “I constantly ask myself if the pace I’m running right now is a pace I can run three days from now. If it’s not, it’s time to slow down. It’s hard to go slower than your competitors, but by practicing you’ll have the needed confidence in your fitness.”

“I split the event up,” adds Senseman. “The first half or two-thirds of the event, like the first three to four days, I run at a moderate and somewhat comfortable pace. That’s a pace in which I’m not gutting out a finish, severely depleting my body in the process, but in which I’m pushing myself at a reasonable level.” Once Senseman passes the halfway mark of the event, he then has the capability to incrementally increase his effort as the final day approaches.

In Costa Rica, Gordon found this strategy worked well for her. “I tried never to push myself to the point where I was breathing really hard or felt like I was moving from a steady effort to a ‘race’ effort. I pretty much kept this attitude the entire time, largely because the race was so tough that I was convinced that if I pushed myself hard even one day, I would be destroyed for the rest of it.”

Develop a Multi-Day Mindset
Running hard every day for a week or more is brutal on the psyche. It’s common for athletes to be anxious about all that could go wrong. Alter this outlook by focusing on the positive aspects of the event.

“Consider it an adventure, as stage races are often built this way,” says Hicks. “It helps take the pressure off the mental and physical challenge of racing every day. Meet people, develop friendships, work together during the stages and compete with, not against, each other.”

Amy Gordon and I worked together for The Coastal Challenge, a race neither of us had ever completed. We developed a race strategy based on a healthy outlook rather than a specific pace, finishing time, or placing. This likely led to her podium finish. “I had absolutely no expectation of placing in this race and approached it purely as a challenging and fun experience,” says Gordon. “I told myself that I would keep things really easy, especially for the first few days, because I had no idea how I would react to six days of running in such a different environment. I truly just wanted to savor the experience and end on a good note, which to me meant having as much fun as possible and appreciating the awesome final day’s course.”

Multi-day stage races are demanding. As the name implies, you’ve committed to racing for days, not hours. Remain at the top of your game for the event’s entirety by racing each stage realistically and caring for your body before major problems arise.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • For those who have completed a stage race, what recovery techniques did you find to be especially beneficial to you? And what recovery techniques were really difficult to enact because of circumstances or something else?
  • Have you successfully paced yourself through a long stage race before? If so, what did that look like for you? How did you specifically determine your pace and then stick to it?
Ian Torrence

Ian Torrence has more than 12 years of experience coaching runners of all levels. Ian has completed more than 220 ultramarathons, with 50+ wins, since his first ultra finish at the 1994 JFK 50 Mile. Ian and his wife, Emily, are online coaches at Sundog Running. Information about his coaching services can be found at SundogRunning.com.