Whether you’re a novice or a veteran, here are a few post-race recovery tips every athlete should know
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When I started doing triathlons in my early 20s, recovery after races was more of an afterthought. I’d race with minimal sleep and post-race nutrition, and still bounce back to do another hard session in a couple of days.
Case in point, I remember racing an Ironman 70.3 in the morning and driving over three hours back to Manila soon after. My legs were sore, yes, but there was no sense of generalized fatigue that one would expect. This started to change as I got more competitive, pushed harder, and of course, got older.
Make sure you’re consuming at least a liter of water per hour during the race and aim for 200 to 300 calories’ worth of carbohydrates per hour you race
These days, in my mid-30s, I even find it challenging to bounce back from an Olympic distance race. Yes, I’m racing with more intensity, generating more watts, and holding a higher zone but there are moments when I feel completely deflated in the hours or days after an event. This became more prevalent post-pandemic during my “revenge racing” tour in which I’ve been racing roughly every month since the start of 2022.
It started to frustrate me, and as a result, I decided to do my own research and experimentation so you don’t have to. Here are a few post-race recovery tips every athlete (new or well-experienced in the sport) should know.
Post-race recovery starts with nutrition
One of my most memorable (i.e. traumatizing) races was the Ironman 70.3 in Cebu in 2022. I took a spill and consequently lost all of my bike nutrition early in the race. I tried to make do with what I had but I severely underestimated what was available. As a result, midway into the run, my pace dropped and I experienced severe hypoglycemia as I inched towards the finish line. Luckily, I was able to build a significant lead that I was still able to bag third in my age group (which was totally unexpected by the way). However, I paid for it dearly after the race.
I could barely make my way to the medical tent where I was administered a liter of IV fluids. My head throbbed due to dehydration in the hours after and I even experienced chills as I slept that night. To make things worse, I tested positive for COVID-19 a couple of days after. My immune system was severely compromised and I suffered more than necessary. How could I have prevented this from happening? If only I didn’t lose my nutrition.
Tip: Make sure you’re consuming at least a liter of water per hour during the race and aim for 200 to 300 calories’ worth of carbohydrates per hour you race. Experiment with what works with your gut as certain products might cause more severe dehydration if you take too much. My advice is to gradually build up your tolerance to race nutrition in training.
Prepare a post-race recovery drink
After a race, I find it difficult to eat anything. My stomach just doesn’t like to digest anything solid and when I force the issue, I either gag and regurgitate or experience a bad case of indigestion. I realized that the best way to go about this is not to “wait until you’re hungry” (which I’ve been guilty of by the way). But rather, to resort to liquid calories to help give your body the nutrition it needs.
I realized that the best way to go about eating after a race is not to “wait until you’re hungry” (which I’ve been guilty of by the way). But rather, to resort to liquid calories to help give your body the nutrition it needs
Sadly, I’m not talking about milk tea, soda, or booze here. Taking those, especially alcohol, won’t do your body any favors. Instead, create a concoction you can grab immediately after crossing the finish line.
Tip: I prefer to have this mix in my post-race bag: One to two scoops of Wheyl Co. whey, one sachet of Sante Barley powder, one tablespoon of chia seeds, and a half cup of powdered milk. Then I mix this with at least 500ml of ice cold water. Ever since doing this, I feel a lot better the hours following a race.
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve been making is to order a plate of oily sisig, chicharong bulaklak, or fried food, for my first post-race meal. While it might seem delicious and satisfying, it really wreaked havoc on my recovery. Not only was I not providing my body with the healthy carbs and quality protein it needs, it also presented a two-pronged problem.
First, the oily food made me feel full and bloated immediately. I noticed I only ended up eating half of what I usually eat before I would end my meal. This prevented me from taking the necessary calories I needed to recover. Secondly, the oil and fat in my digestive tract slowed down the rate at which I absorbed nutrients. In effect, I was “clogging” my pathways for nutrition absorption and this severely slowed down my recovery timeline.
If you want to make sure you’re giving your body the chance to recover, you need to consciously shift it down a gear, slow down, and bring your mind and body “back to the ground”
Talking to my doctor friend, she recommended I focus on plant-based nutrition immediately after a race. Take note, I’m a huge proponent of eating meat and animal-based protein. I am by no means a vegan or plant-based athlete. However, I decided to give it a try since plant-based food supposedly gets digested and absorbed faster. This becomes even more evident during periods of high stress (e.g. post-race). Since then, I’ve consciously tried to take more vegetables, fruits, and legumes after a race and am definitely happy with the results.
Tip: I’ve been eating more Asian food immediately after a race. Food such as nilaga, pinakbet, bibimbap, shabu-shabu, and even pho are great options if you want to accelerate your post-race recovery. Of course, it’s not always available where you race so take a little time to do your research about local restaurants.
After a race, your endorphins are at a high and your adrenaline is pumped up. Your mind is probably on overdrive as it tries to process the events that took place that day. However, if you want to make sure you’re giving your body the chance to recover, you need to consciously shift it down a gear, slow down, and bring your mind and body “back to the ground.”
You see, the body has what’s called the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system. The former is what you have no direct control over (digestion, heartbeat, and other metabolic processes), while the latter pertains to movement, activity, thoughts, etc. As our sympathetic system dominates the parasympathetic system, the latter is unable to “take the reins” and bring your body to a state in which it has the best chance of recovering.
To combat this, it helps to take a rest, lie down, do breathing exercises, and meditate. This is difficult at first but if you give it time and even practice it, you can get better at it. In doing so, your heart rate goes down, your stress hormones (e.g. cortisol) may go down, and as a result, your body gets the rest it needs. As a bonus, you might even get to doze off.
Tip: There are lots of videos on YouTube about guided meditation. If you’re starting out, consider listening to and participating in these videos. These videos guide your thought process and even help you with breathing exercises to help you relax.