An explanation of recovery for and from ultramarathons.

By on October 2, 2012 | Comments

Common complaints include: ruptured muscle fiber, inflammation and soreness, stress hormone elevation and disruption, a suppressed immune system, connective tissue wear and tear, fatigue, irritability, loss of appetite, weight loss, fever, headache, diarrhea, dizziness, increased resting heart rate, loss of sleep and sex drive, and leaden legs. All of these are symptoms of an improper recovery from a heavy training cycle or race. Left untreated, these negative side effects can lead to an athlete’s undoing.

Musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems will only adapt and grow stronger if they receive the proper recovery between tough workouts and races. In essence, recovery is more important than the workout. Sage Rountree, a Team USA Triathlon World Championship team member and ultrarunning coach, agrees, “Recovery is where the gains in your training actually occur, and valuing your recovery is the key to both short-term and long-term success. …”

Left to its own devices, the body does an amazing job of healing itself, yet there are practices you can implement on a daily basis to speed up and refine the process. Here’s a list of what will hopefully become some of your own effective recovery tricks:

1)    Active recovery – No matter how stressful an event or workout, don’t stop upon finishing. At the very least, walk or jog for several minutes. Allow your body to cool down by slowly returning to its resting state and clearing metabolic wastes. Very easy jogging or cross training can be used during the hours and days following a hard run to assist with blood flow to recovering muscles and allow for relief from the tedium of successive hard training efforts.

2)    Nutrition & Hydration – Carbohydrates replenish glycogen stores for energy production, proteins repair and build muscle, and fluids hydrate and replenish electrolytes. McMillan Running’s Nutrition Coach Kelly Liljeblad states the guidelines for post-race or workout nutrition simply, “Amino acids (the building blocks of protein) have been proven to speed the recovery process. For training sessions over an hour, consume 0.4-0.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight immediately after training and again 2 hours later. Consume 10-20 grams of protein immediately after exercise, with amino acids.” Greg McMillan’s The Runners Ultimate Nutritional Recovery Routine (RUNRR) article has a more in depth discussion on post-run recovery.

3)    Sleep – My personal favorite. Athletes who don’t get enough do not perform as well as those who do. Period. Proper sleep reinforces proper neuromuscular patterns, reaction times, glycogen storage, and better moods. If your night’s sleep is compromised or you’re carrying a heavy workload, naps can help you stay refreshed.

4)    Manual Therapy – The full benefits of massage are not fully understood. It’s been linked to managing muscle inflammation, increasing blood circulation as well as releasing muscle tension, cramping, and trigger points. Don’t have deep tissue work done three to four days before a hard workout or race and keep the touch light for the several days following an ultra event. If you don’t have the time or money to seek a specialist, learn the tricks of self-massage. You can recreate the professional touch at home with a foam roller and lacrosse ball. Other methods of manual therapy such as chiropractic medicine, Rolfing, Active Release Technique, Graston, and myofacial release have also proven successful in alleviating pain, increasing range of motion, and reducing inflammation.

5)    Icing – Cooling the muscles immediately after a hard run reduces inflammation and removes waste products. Recent debate has arisen due to research indicating that icing may compromise the training effect. Though there may be merit to the studies, remember that icing is not hazardous to your health. Icing would be appropriate after completing an ultra or during multi-stage events where you must be at the top of your game for several days. Cool baths (≈60°F) may be just as beneficial as icy ones. Icing acute injuries for 10-15 minutes will prevent inflammation from interfering with the healing process.

6)    Heat – Added warmth, either by pads, saunas, or whirlpools, can treat stiff muscles or prep muscles for massage. However, heat should not be used when muscles are inflamed, as it will promote unwanted swelling.

7)    Yoga & Stretching – These should be done gently when stiff and sore. Stick to basic yoga poses and use bolsters. Active isolated stretching, the act of contracting one muscle to allow the opposing muscle to relax and lengthen, increases range of motion and, like other active recovery activities, promotes circulation.

8)    Supplements – Antioxidants added to the diet can help negate exercise-produced cellular damaging free radicals. Multivitamins and mineral supplements can maintain good health in athletes with a history of anemia or those with a limited diet. The use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to deaden pain in order to continue training spells trouble. Prolonged usage or large single dosages inhibit recovery and can cause secondary physical problems. If a pain is present that inhibits your ability to train, then it’s time to discover the root of the problem. Try a recovery remedy like arnica montana or an Epsom salt bath instead.

9)    Strengthening – Running-specific strengthening exercises can retrain lazy muscles to work more efficiently and quickly fatigued muscles to act with more power. Core exercises (planks, crunches, side-lying single leg lifts), squats, and lunges, for example, can also prevent injuries.

Is it an injury?

How do we differentiate between good pain and bad pain? Soreness is a by-product of good training, but some aches can be a sign of impending injury. Signs of pain to be on the lookout for include some of those listed in Sage Rountree’s The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery:

  • Affects only one side of the body
  • Is focused around a joint
  • Gets worse when you run on it
  • Reappears each day no matter the intensity
  • Affects your running form
  • Keeps you awake at night

If you experience one or more of these on a consistent basis, take some time off, seek professional help, or develop a cross-training plan that doesn’t irritate the injury while healing takes place.

Overtraining & Illness

The Tipping Point – Overtraining is the ruin of many athletes. Once pushed over the edge, it may take months to recover. The signs of overtraining can look like, but aren’t limited to, the list in the opening paragraph of this piece. Track your need for recovery over a season by observing downward spirals in your mood, sleep patterns, performance, and your overall enjoyment of running. It’s also important to note that other underlying medical conditions may be causing the issues. Training through is unwise. Less is definitely more.

The Neck Line – In general, when the signs and symptoms of an illness are “above the neck,” you can continue with light training, but anything “below the neck” calls for complete rest until the symptoms subside.


The duration, intensity, and structure of a recovery phase will vary according to the runner’s experience, training schedule, and individual response to tough workouts. Typical recovery scheduling might look like this:

  • Each day make it a priority to spend time working on several of the nine recovery practices listed above.
  • Each week to ten days schedule one or two days of light “jogging,” non-impact cross training, or take the entire day(s) off. Insert these easier sessions in between tough workouts.
  • Each month schedule a seven-day block consisting of lower mileage and intensity than the surrounding weeks.
  • Each year schedule a month or two where you take a vacation from your normal training routine and, perhaps, temporarily take up a new sport.
  • After a competitive event take a break from demanding workouts.
  • When returning from injury or illness institute the reverse taper method discussed in last month’s peaking article.

A proper recovery requires as much effort, discipline, and focus as training. Develop a strategy now. Investing a few minutes today will prevent long periods of injury downtime tomorrow.


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