Completing an extensive endurance event, such as an Ironman, has a profound effect on your physiology.
All of the training that you completed prior to the race served to prepare you for the big day. It also most likely made you very, very fit (if not a little crazy!) What most athletes are unprepared for, however, are the aftereffects of an Ironman.
Most folks emerge from the race relatively unscathed; some even feel good enough to train within a day or two! Despite how you feel, it's important to allow your body to completely recover in order to reap the full benefits of the race. Here's what happened to you on race day, how it happened and how you can ensure full recovery.
The vast majority of folks race an Ironman at an endurance pace (primarily in Zone 2) with minimal intensity. Combine this relatively lower intensity/effort with plenty of opportunities to eat and drink, and the body actually holds up pretty well.
For most, the biggest challenge on race day is a mental, not a physiological, one. So the days after the race come and go, and you feel pretty good. If you have ever run a stand-alone marathon, you know what I mean when I say that the post-race effects of that "harder" running are much worse than those of the Ironman.
I recommend the following post-Ironman recovery protocols. In addition to the general outline below, athletes should consider a massage (or two) and a serious investment in a yoga or similar flexibility program for that first post-Ironman month.
Week One: As the initial days pass, you actually feel better. You are psyched about your Ironman finish and excited about the future. Maybe you even signed up for next year's race. Whatever is on your mind, chances are—exercise isn't. And that's a good thing. Your biggest workout right now should be some quality walking with one or two very short swims.
Weeks Two and Three: This is the Honeymoon Phase, where you feel good enough to work out, but really shouldn't. If you actually push yourself here, you'll find that after 45 minutes to an hour, you simply run out of power. Your heart rate will drop and no amount of food or coffee will revive you.
Exercise in this period should be no longer than an hour and should be done at a very light intensity. Overdoing it here can really set you back later in your year. Extended swims and light cycling should compose the majority of your program.
Week Four and Beyond: This is the Transition Phase. If you have been recovering well and have felt good enough to include some consistent aerobic activity, then you could be ready to transition back to your regular training.
A key test to see if you have made the transition is a 90 to 120-minute ride with some intensity/intervals. If you are able to hold a solid effort/wattage on multiple intervals, and you are able to recover the next day with no minimal aftereffects, then you are back. Some lighter running can also be included at this time.
Managing your recovery post-Ironman is almost as critical as preparing for the event itself. Be sure to take the time and savor what you have accomplished...the pool and the roads will still be there when you are ready to make your comeback!
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