Congratulations. You did it. Two years ago you would’ve laughed at anyone who suggested you could have achieved what you’ve just done.
It was epic and quad-shattering. Sleep destroying. Gut-wrenching… literally. You are nothing more than a shell of your former self, with maybe a T-shirt and a medal to show for it.
Once you stop your Garmin and taking the picture you plan on posting to Strava, we need to talk. Because you’re not done yet.
Gains Don’t “Just Happen“
This is quite possibly the biggest workout of your year, it’s not your life. It’s taken huge investments of time and energy, and we can’t let it go to waste.
By taking a few simple steps, we can convert this fatigue into growth. We can take those tired muscles and make them stronger again.
We can capture lessons learned and turn them into future strategies. But we have to act quickly.
For every minute that passes you lose a small part of your lessons learned. Tick. Tock.
The first order of business is to get dry.
As your body begins to cool down, wet clothing perspiration in your skin will suck the warmth out of your body and distract your core systems from focusing on recovery. Eliminate this problem quickly by getting into dry clothing. This is true even if you don’t have the opportunity to shower first. Manage the moisture!
The next step is to get warm.
Regardless of what the temperature is right now, your body has its own temperature mechanism. It has been running for a long time, which brings sneaky consequences.
Once you’re done the body immediately begins focusing on recovery, not on moving your muscles. This transition means dropping your core body temperature which can be a shock to you if you’re not prepared.
Most events will give you some kind of foil blanket which can be awkward yet effective. If you are on your own or have access to your own equipment, be sure to have dry clothes available including a hat.
Finally, it’s time to get your calories on.
That’s right, it’s time to put some serious food inside your face. Some athletes develop a very sensitive stomach over time, especially if their nutrition did not go well during the event.
It doesn’t change the fact that your body is running a serious calorie deficit.
We need to begin replacing glycogen as quickly as possible so our bodies can start repairing themselves at a cellular level.
While some folks are picky about types of nutrition, you can’t go wrong by sticking to the basics.
First, you need some carbohydrates. Keep the fiber low, but stick for something that is ideally salty. Pretzels are a great choice, as is chicken broth.
Second, you will need some protein. Some events have chocolate milk at the finish line, or you can have your own. Perhaps you have a particular bar that you prefer. Or maybe you’re planning on an energy shake. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter so much that you get protein from a particular source, just that you get your protein in.
Thirdly, remember the hydration. You might be craving calories, but odds are your body is craving some fluids. This is definitely true on temperature extreme days, but it’s still important for long-distance events that take place when it’s cold outside. Just because it doesn’t feel like you’re sweating doesn’t mean that you aren’t sweating. This is why we build hydration plans to practices into our training so we can follow our system as close as possible.
Cover the Highs and Lows
While you’re sitting in your warm dry clothes stuffing your face, take a moment to cover the top three good and bad things that happened during your adventure.
Expect this as more of a prompt than anything else, but an exercise that in and of itself can be very informative. It becomes easier if there is someone there with whom you’re interacting, even if they’re on the phone. They may have a question or insight that you missed in your energy-depleted state.
Some of the information that you cover in the short exercise might actually help you modify some of the recovery steps that are taken.
For example, if you continue to talk about the sun and how bad it was, is a high likelihood that we need to budget some attention for taking care of the skin that was exposed during the challenge.
Maybe you had a problem with your equipment or a total equipment failure (!). This is a good mental note for us to fix something while you’re in recovery mode so that it doesn’t just show up again once you have forgotten and you have returned to training again.
You don’t really even have to worry about writing these things down. As long as you are voicing them, they will become part of the story that you will continue to tell. You are connecting these words to the visceral reaction you have experienced.
You are catching truth into the narrative. You are creating a foundation that your ego will struggle to erase and create its own friendlier version of what happened.
Legs Up Lights Out
Once you take care of the basics and clear your mind, you can begin to focus on rest. This is important for all endurance athletes, not just those of you who compete overnight. Extreme exercise places huge demands on our bodies, and sleep is a great antidote.
Do it right by making sure you have a nice quiet place to close your eyes. Place a pillow under your knees so as to slightly elevate your legs above your heart. Have some water nearby as you will likely become dehydrated.
Only set an alarm if you must. Sleep is important, but we don’t want you to sleep so much that you disrupt your overall sleep cycle. Remember you’re very fragile right now, and it’s important to be just back to your regular routine as much as possible. This recovery process is simply meant to be your transition back to that routine.
Don’t forget to tell your friends or family or training partners that you will be closing your eyes. They might be a little concerned about you, especially if they can’t get in touch with you. It. just takes a few seconds but make sure that nobody calls the National Guard!
Bonus Step: Active Recovery
I couldn’t resist baking this extra piece of recovery knowledge into the article.
One of the worst mistakes you can make in recovery is to stay stationary. The transition from epic activity to immobility can be devastating to your flexibility and short-term ability to be active. This is why it’s really important that you build in some active recovery to the process, starting as soon as you’re able. It doesn’t have to be very much at the outset, consistency matters more than the duration.
The easiest form of active recovery is simply walking. Make sure you have some comfortable shoes and even more comfortable socks. Find a safe, flat place where you can go for a walk. Preferably a place where you can easily sit down and rest for a minute. These blocks, which can start off with just 10 to 15 minutes, will help facilitate the recovery process.
Over time you can eventually graduate to perhaps cycling or other non-weight bearing activities. For now keep it simple, and close to home should something go wrong you have support nearby.