How long does it take to recover from an Ironman race? Scour the forums and there are loads of opinions on how long you should wait between IM races (some say 6 months, some say 9 weeks, some pros have done back to back IM races 1 week apart). Do a google search for “Ironman Recovery” and there are plenty of articles out there with loads of advice about what to eat, when to do what etc. etc. Many of these articles are written by sports scientists and coaches who are probably better qualified than me to talk about the theory of our sport. So what qualifies me to share yet another opinion? Well, I have recovered successfully from several Ironman races. In fact recently, I have done 3 Iron distance races in 10 weeks:
Ironman Switzerland July 10th (11:02), then 3 weeks later…
Vineman July 30th (10:18), then 7 weeks later
Challenge Henley Sept 18th (10:28)
Obviously everyone is different, but for me 3 weeks is enough to recover. I did no real training between IMCH and Vineman, I just tapered again during the 3 weeks (1 week recovery, 1 week short efforts to sharpen, 1 week rest).
For the next one I had 7 weeks, which meant I could actually do some training in between:
1 week rest (8 hours)
1 week build (14 hours)
2 big weeks (training camp style, 23 & 22 hours)
3 week taper
In this case I was able to handle a reasonable training load of 14 hours after 1 week, and a high training load in weeks 3 & 4. So what are the secrets to good recovery?
1. Prepare well
If you are well trained, your recovery will be faster. The main cause of muscle damage is the run, so having some decent mileage in your legs will limit the soreness. Biking fitness is even more critical though, because this is where you spend the longest part of your day. I know several athletes who never ride much more than 4 hours on their weekend training rides. That’s not enough. My usual long ride is around 6-7 hours, and is at least 5.5 hours. This will enable you to start the run less fatigued, but it will also limit the total stress of the day. If your training rides are only 4 hours long, then an Ironman bike leg is going to feel very tough.
2. Get your race nutrition right.
If you run out of carbs during the race (aka “bonking”), this will impact your recovery after the race. Keep well nourished and you’ll race better plus recover better. Try to eat straight after the race if you can (I usually can’t). Make sure you take in a lot of protein. I always have a protein shake after my race, sometimes two.
3. Eat a lot of protein.
My 2 shakes after the race give me around 70g protein which is key. Continue taking in protein for the whole week, at least 2g per kg of bodyweight per day. I like to take in 3g per kg per day. In the week following a race I eat whatever I want, provided that I take in my 220g of protein every day. Most sports scientists will tell you to eat a lot of carbs for recovery, but they are thinking in terms of glycogen replacement which will enable you to do a hard workout again. Your goal is not to do a hard workout, it’s to recover from muscle damage. Protein is what will help you to do this. Carbs help too but not if you don’t eat enough protein. I eat eggs /egg whites for breakfast, lean meat for lunch and dinner, plenty of veggies, plus 2-3 protein shakes throughout the day.
4. Get active
Although tempting, don’t sit around doing nothing in the days after your race. Some type of active recovery will get blood & oxygen flowing to your muscles which will speed recovery. I generally avoid running and stick to light swimming & cycling. A 20-30 min light session every day will get you recovered faster than being a couch potato. Do some stretching each day, and I really love using my triggerpoint grid roller.
Try to sleep more than usual. This will enable the release of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) that will aid your recovery. Avoid sugars before you sleep, they will stop HGH secretion. Try to add in a short nap during the day if you are able to do that.
6. Lots of water
Drink, Drink, Drink as much as you can (within reason). This will help to flush toxins from your system which will get you back on track quickly. Also make sure you eat foods rich in anti-oxidants which will complement your water guzzling (my favourite antioxidant food = blueberries)
7. Plan your next race.
Once your IM race is over, your massive goal is now over, your purposeful training is done. This means that you might feel lost and without purpose. Book your next race. Personally, I book my next IM race, but then also something sooner like a local half marathon or 10k. I really enjoyed doing my IM races so close to each other because it meant that I had to be on form once, and then just capitalize on that form for the other 2 races.
So in conclusion – Ironman recovery can take a lot quicker than you think! Good luck and speedy recovery!