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THE WEEKS FOLLOWING RACE DAY AND GLYCOGEN REPLENISHMENT
It's been three weeks since Ironman 70.3 Coeur d'Alene and I am a couple of weeks into marathon training. If you are new to endurance training (or you are my husband) you may roll your eyes and think, "this biish is crazy." Truly, I never thought I would be the person to finish a race of any kind let alone be hopping from one to the next. But they are addicting. I'm not even close to NYC Marathon and I am already thinking of what will be my next marathon or Ironman. That being said, recovery between races is SO important.
After my first marathon, I heard from other runners that you should take ~30 days off after you race and let your body recover. I didn't do much research, but that sounded good. I was so sore the first week and I also missed cross training, so it wasn't that difficult to hold off on running and fill my time with my favorite group fitness classes. A handful of races later, I am actually interested in understanding why recovery is important and how to recover appropriately. Reminder every human and race is different. This is meant to provider more details and look at what evidence if any is out there. Always feel free to share your perspective below or email us!
When Should I Start Running Again?
There are lots of opinions and recovery plans out there. As a clinical pharmacist, I have access to scholarly literature searches (Pubmed and UpToDate), which I used to help delve into some of the later details on this topic. However, I decided to start my search like many of you would, by surfing the web to see what comes up when you type in "marathon recovery plan."
If you have ever looked up running plans, then chances are you have come across a Hal Higdon plan. Hal Higdon is a runner and a best-selling author. He has developed training plans for everyone from novice to advanced runners, half marathons and full marathons, and even has a week by week guide for the month post marathon. He refers to the time frame post marathon as, "Mile 27" in his book. I will be the first to admit that I have not purchased any of these plans, so I cannot vouch from personal experience, but I do think they create a great framework. My spark notes summary of his recovery program for advanced runners is below:
I wanted to compare the Hal Higdon post-marathon recovery plan to other internet plans. My next web search brought up and article from Runner's World. Pleasantly, Runner's World broke down the recovery post marathon week by week as well. They didn't provide as much detail on when to run or incorporate speed work, but encouraged adding on to intensity and duration as week's progressed.
At this point, I want to look into the science behind the recovery. Most plans are recommending a similar amount of time to recover, but why? What is going on in your body after a marathon?
In a study by Tsai and colleagues, massive aerobic exercise i.e. running 26.2 miles led to un-repaired DNA base oxidation. "This oxidative DNA damage correlated significantly with plasma levels of creatinine kinase and lipid peroxidation metabolites, and lasted for more than 1 week following the race." WHOA...what does that actually mean?? Creatine kinase is a muscle enzyme that lives within your mitochondria and is usually elevated in response to muscular damage, which in turn is a marker of the degree of muscle injury. It is also involved the storage and transfer of energy. In elite athletes or in marathoners the concentration of this particular enzyme increases within skeletal muscle and is usually in response to regenerating muscle fibers.
So basically, running a marathon = elevated creatine kinase for ~1 week = wait a couple weeks to resume vigorous aerobic exercise.
Runner's Connect is another great blog with a wealth of information, including a post on overtraining. In this post, the recommendation is to wait 2-3 weeks post marathon to allow ample time for recovery of both creatine kinase and myoglobin (myoglobin acts as oxygen storage for mitochondria). Based on my research, there are limited studies and data on the physiologic changes that occur after prolonged aerobic exercise; however, it appears that at least 2 weeks of light or minimal exercise is recommended before the athlete resumes rigorous training. One of the other topics that intrigued me was nutrition after the race. We all have heard of carbo crams before aerobic sporting events, but what about replenishing our glycogen stores after crossing the finish line?
Carbo-loading Post-Race: Glycogen Replenishment Facts
Disclaimer, the pic above is part of the dinner my husband an I enjoyed before my Ironman 70.3. It has absolutely nothing to do with building back glycogen stores after the race. I wanted to share this pic to spark some intrigue --everyone's pre-race rituals and nutrition vary. That is normal and I don't encourage you to suddenly change your diet the day before a race to reflect what works for me. However, a part of training involves using the months prior to race day to figure out what food fuels YOU best. I don't change my nutrition drastically the days leading up to my race. I don't eat pasta often in my regular life because it makes me feel heavy so you probs won't see me eating pasta the day before a marathon. I do love sushi and fries. So you can bet my pre-race meal always includes sweet potato fries and either sushi or an alternative lean protein source (baked fish is great if the city doesn't have great sushi). I also drink one, no more than two glasses of wine or a margarita in my normal week. PAUSE. Yes, you read that right. I am an athlete who enjoys fries and alcohol. Pre-race jitters would be so much worse if I also forbid myself from enjoying the foods and draaanks I love. Again, I don't binge drink while training so I definitely don't binge the day prior to the main event but a glass of wine is the perfect way to unwind. But enough about pre-race carbs, let's chat about what comes after.
Massive aerobic training does not just impact your muscle fibers and enzymes, it also depletes your glycogen stores. But what is glycogen? An article in The Sport Journal, titled "Glycogen Replenishment After Exhaustive Exercise," delved into awesome detail on this topic.
Glycogen is made up of long chain polymers of glucose molecules which are stored in liver and muscle and used by the body during exercise . At higher exercise intensities, glycogen becomes the main fuel utilized. When liver glycogen is depleted it can reduce blood glucose levels which results in volitional exhaustion. The concentration of muscle and liver glycogen prior to exercise plays an important role in endurance exercise capacity. It is actually typical for glycogen to be more depleted in the liver than muscle following intensive training, 85-95% versus 65-85%, respectively. Although you did a stellar job building up your glycogen stores before the race, now you have used all that energy and need to refuel.
Think about it, your body is like a race car. You fueled it with premium fuel leading up to race day and you won because you competed and completed by crossing that finish line. Now I don't know about you, but my bodice is even more of a temple after that race and I definitely want it running smooth quickly after. So fuel up! The two hour window immediately after exercise cessation is optimal for carbohydrate (carb) ingestion. Your glycogen resynthesizes at a rate of 2% per hour after this two hour window, but this rate rises to 5% when 50 grams of carbs are consumed. Another lit search led me to a great read titled, "Fundamentals of Glycogen Metabolism for coaches and Athletes," which states that 1-1.2 g carbs per kg of body weight per hour should be consumed to take advantage of the improved glycogen synthesis that can occur immediately post massive aerobic exercise. The overall goal is to ingest 10 g of carbs per kg of body weight in the first 24 hours.
For example, I weigh 63 kg (or ~140 lbs) so my goal is 630 grams of carbs post marathon and I should ideally try to eat 60-75 g of carb per hour. Let me put that in perspective, a banana has ~30 g of carbs and a slice of bread has ~15 g of carbs. So it takes WERK to eat all those carbs. Work smarter, not harder people! Help your bod recover by capitalizing on improved glycogen synthesis occurring immediately after the race and start ingesting those carb dense foods shortly after crossing the finish line.
Below are some examples of carb-rich foods from that article:
P.s. you can bet I looked up grams of carbs in my two fave foods (because research duh)... a side of sweet potato fries at a restaurant is ~50 g and the average sushi roll is anywhere between 50-60 g. Unfortunately, a pour of wine is only 4 g of carbs. Soo I guess I will stick to eating my carbs ;).
OKURRR... I know I hit you guys with a lot of science and knowledge bombs, but hopefully this helps you understand the importance of recovering the right way after your next big race. I know I have personally failed at glycogen replenishment in the past and feel fatigued the evening and day following the race. I will definitely be making some big changes to nutrition after NYC Marathon and am hoping this helps with energy. I also need to SLOW DOWN after races and allow more than 5 days before revisiting vigorous physical activity. Guilty of starting back up again too quickly! I promise to be more patient after the next race and respect my body if you all do, k?
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT RECOVERING AFTER ENDURANCE TRAINING
One of the questions that comes up after my races is, "what is your recovery plan?". If you think about it, when you sign up for an endurance event, you don't think twice about researching various training guides or mapping out your training schedule. In fact, if you are anything like me you do LOTS of research. I have spent hours searching the web and reading through different programs both for workouts and nutrition when it comes to races, but I have honestly spent very little time investigating how to properly recover.
As a runner this post will be geared toward marathon and triathlon recovery. As a reminder every body is different and every recovery is different. You will need to find what works well for you, your schedule, and your budget. I am going to focus on recovery immediately after you cross that finish line and the week that follows.
Part 1: Immediately Post-Race
First off... way to go you bad-A. I hope you smile and celebrate because you checked off a big, amazing SUMMIT. Now let's chat about the hours post-celebration.
After you cross the finish line it's important to keep moving your body. You need to bring that heart rate down and cool down properly. Continuing to move, by walking or a light jog will also help keep lactic acid from accumulating in your muscle. TBH...I have never jogged after a marathon or this recent Ironman, but most races are set up so you are kind of forced to walk. You have to go to gear check or maybe reunite with your loved ones, great! Use that time to cool down. After a long race, Runner's World recommends 20 minutes.
TREAT YO SELF:
Refuel that bodice of yours. You just ran your ass off, quite literally (#runnerproblems). I struggle with this part. The last thing I want to do right after crossing that finish line is to stuff my face. It is actually more common than you would think and there is science to back it up. A study looked at how energy deficits through exercise or reduced caloric intake can impact compensatory responses. The short story: a caloric restriction through diet causes you to be more hungry than one induced by exercise. Ghrelin, a hormone that usually stimulates you to feel hungry, is also decreased when you exercise. That's all great, but it is still important to fuel up after that finish in order to repair muscle damage and replenish glycogen stores. There are lots of different articles that get into the nitty gritty of how many calories or what ratio of carbs/protein you should eat. I won't get into that, but generally there are goodies waiting for you at the finish so snag a bite and enjoy it!
A few of my favorite carbohydrate and protein combos post-run:
More on nutrition here.
STRETCH & MORE:
General rule of thumb, wait at least a couple of hours before you stretch and foam roll. Wait at least a couple of days before you schedule a massage. There is a great article on Active that breaks down the benefits and timing of massages down in more detail. After marathons, I follow this rule but for the half Ironman I scheduled the massage for 24 hours later. I was a bit nervous, but the most important advice I would give is to communicate with your massage therapist. If they know that you just completed a race, they can adjust the intensity of the massage and help facilitate the recovery process.
For massages, I go to Lux Collective in Seattle and work with an amazing therapist. I schedule an hour of a deep tissue massage and legitimately melt into the table. Prior to the wildness of recent months, I scheduled massages once a month minimum. In my opinion, your wellness is something you should invest in now in order to plan for a healthier future. If you are able to pay race registrations fees and splurge on running brands, chances are you can afford a 60-minute massage. Weekly massages are not in my budget, but once a month either 3-5 days before a race or after a hard run, I definitely make it a priority.
Other recovery hacks, include ice baths and elevating your legs. These I would recommend same day as the race. It will help lymphatic flow and hopefully move those toxins out of your body faster. You want vasoconstriction via the ice bath immediately after the race, but a few days later warm baths, which act as a vasodilator are preferred.
Another quick read from Runner's World linked here.
Disclaimer: This post is a summary of various articles and literature. I tried to include any links in the text above. If you are feeling pain or anything more severe than discomfort after a race, please see your doctor immediately. Sore is different from pain and you should make sure to have any pain addressed.