Earlier this year after completing Ironman 70.3 Mallorca we were sat having breakfast the next day, stiff and tired and enjoying a well earned rest day, before flying home. Throughout that day we saw several people, who’d raced the previous day (wearing athlete wristbands) out and about running, biking and taking a dip in the sea. This got me thinking, should we be training the day after a race?
Firstly, let’s distinguish between ‘training’ and ‘active recovery’. A training session will be a lot more targeted towards a particular goal and may be significantly tougher in terms of intensity or duration, than active recovery, which tends to be more about maintaining mobility and assisting recovery.
Active recovery itself is a funny concept in some ways, since the body will always repair at the most optimal speed it can. The speed at which muscle damage a stress can be repaired and neurological stress to recover is a fairly set time. So why do we hear so much about it? For more information on active recovery, click here to read our previous blog about it.
Being active the day after a race is a good thing, most of us will feel a little stiff the day after a race and we’ve all done that thing where you’ve been sat for a while and when you move those first few steps look and feel awkward. So, moving around can help us feel a little better. But at the same time, there’s nothing wrong with having a sofa day too. If you’ve raced abroad, especially if it’s somewhere with nice weather or points of interest then of course we want to go an explore.
Considerations for what activities we can do the day after a race?
Popping back into the sea for a refreshing dip, going to the pool for some gentle drill work over a reduce volume session, or even heading out again on your bike at a nice gentle pace to go for lunch or coffee and take in a scenic route is great. Both these sports have far less stress on the body than running because they have less impact. Also, if we are experiencing neurological and muscular fatigue then our biomechanics will be affected and our bodies won’t be moving as efficiently as when we’re in prime race condition. With cycling, the crank movement is fixed, so your peddle stroke is unaffected, and you may just feel a little stiff. With swimming, your stroke may be slightly off, but it might feel nice to stretch out and just go for an easy swim. Running however, with its larger impact on the body because of ground reaction forces and unguided movement means that it’s far more likely to put additional strain on your body. The reduced biomechanical efficiency will result in compensatory movements as your body tries to reduce stress on the already tired muscles and joints. This will result in overloading of other joints, for example; you may find you’re putting more stress through your knees and lower back if your calfs, ankles and hips are tired.
So why might people specifically train the day after a race?
Distance of the event? This will have a huge impact on the stress on the body, with a sprint race only causing a fraction of the stress compared to a middle or long distance event. But, a competitive athlete will push themselves to the limit regardless of the distance, so to a degree this rational is flawed. Sure, many of us have back to back training days and even double training days as part of our normal program. However, back to back training days are very different to training following a race. Few sessions are done completely at race intensity with all three disciplines for the race duration, because of the very stress it puts on our bodies. With a race that we have specifically tapered for and then pushed ourselves to a maximal effort, even though that race might be only an hour long, there’s still going to be significant neurological fatigue not to mention mental stress.
Potentially, athletes building up to a longer event such as half or full iron distance may race shorter events for fun, or even as a way of adding in speed work in a competitive environment. One might argue that an athlete training for an event lasting well over 10 hours, will be hardly affected by a shorter event like a sprint distance. But again, see the above point about neurological stress. If this race has been completed at a maximal effort then that’s a far greater intensity than a long course athlete will be used to racing.
One valid area where training while experiencing fatigue would be very useful, would be for those athletes training towards multi-day events such as Deca, where athletes complete 10 ironman distance races over 10 days. Learning to race off the back of fatigue would be something that would be harder to replicate in training but essential for building mental and physical strength. However, I suspect that this applies to a very small percentage of athletes.
While we all have varying levels of completeness within us it’s safe to say that those of us who aren’t getting paid to participate in triathlon are doing this sport because we enjoy it. Training, preparing and racing an event is an amazing experience and when you’ve completed it, enjoy the moment. If you are at the more competitive end of the age group level of racing, then you should already know the value of recovery and that it’s not training stress alone that makes us fit, but the recovery and resulting adaptations from training that is the key to improved performance.