After the Spine - Recovery and Re-Training
After finishing a long 'A' race, the temptation is to celebrate, and to treat the post-race recovery period as an opportunity to catch up on all the things that we missed out on during training and the lead-in to the race. Have some wine or beer, eat a lot of junk food, and take the foot off the gas completely with regard to running and training. I've certainly been there and done that quite a few times.
Since October last year (2021), I've tried to adopt a different approach - treating post-race recovery as an integral part of the training program in terms of preparing myself for the next race. Part of this is by necessity - doing a 70k race in October, a 135k race in December, a 250k race in January, and with 5 ultras over the next 5 months with a total race distance of 1,300 km, I can't afford to risk coming into a race underprepared through mismanaging recovery weeks, or equally through overcompensating and overtraining or under-tapering for the next race.
One of the benefits of doing a lot of back-to-back races is that the "Long Run" part of training is largely taken care of by the races themselves. If you're doing 100k+ races every month, you don't really need to be doing a 40k or 50k long run in between. What it does mean though is that I have had to rethink what I do after a race, and what I do during the taper before the next race.
The main limiting factor I have found after a long race is the extreme stiffness in my muscles (usually quads) and joints (achilles and knees), which prevents me doing meaningful amounts of running for up to week after a big race (100k+) due to the pain of any impact movements. Obviously this is not ideal, and the de-training effect of resting for a whole week can be real and can offset some of the training benefits accrued prior to the race. What I've found is that for the first couple of days, sticking to low impact exercises that still have both a cardiovascular and strength element to them (cycling in particular) has a strongly positive impact on my recovery. Not only does it keep my cardio and strength levels up, but the exercise itself increases my mobility and significantly decreases my muscle and join soreness levels. As long as the exercise is low impact, I'm actually able to both do quite extended sessions (2 hours or more) and also start to blend running into the mix far earlier than I have previously been able to do. After the recent Spine Challenger for example (60 hours / 240 km) I managed a 1 hour cycling session the day after I finished the race, and was able to start running training again only 4 days after the race.
The other 2 things I've really tried to focus on is diet / nutrition and rolling / massage - with alcohol being an inhibitor of muscle protein synthesis, over the last couple of months I have completely cut alcohol out from my post-race celebrations (the availability of good quality alcohol-free beer and wine has made a massive difference in that regard) and significantly increased the protein mix in my diet to maximise muscle recovery. At the same time, I've spent a lot more time with the foam roller and massage gun to improve muscle quality and mobility - while ice baths are great in the immediate aftermath of a race to reduce inflammation, subsequently using heat and soft tissue work (and using K-tape to help keep my ankles in dorsiflexion) is having a big impact on reducing the tightness in my calves, quads, glutes and hip flexors, making it easier to up the intensity of my training.
I've got a lot of races coming up in the next few months, so it will be a good opportunity to gauge the impact that these changes are having on my performance:
Feb 5-6: Pilgrim's Challenge (100k)
Mar 5: Amersham Humanity Direct (50k)
Apr 2-6: Northern Traverse (305k)
May 22-29: Cape Wrath Ultra (400k)
Jun 19-25: Summer Spine Race (430k)