(As published in Triathlete Magazine)

After finishing Ironman, athletes commonly ask me how long it takes until they are ready for their next race.  They are often on a post-big-event athletic high, and keen to rush back.

Typically an athlete will need 6 weeks to race again, so patience is the key to avoid injury or overtraining. You may not be in prime race condition 6 weeks later, but you will be ready for a good push on the race course. Alternately, you may surprise yourself by performing well with the mountain of fitness you have built for the Ironman, the fitness impact of the race itself, and feeling fresh and motivated after a 6 week break from the race course.

Here is a good 6 week recovery protocol, post-Ironman:

1-2 weeks post Ironman (2 week block) – Ironman Recovery
The first two weeks after Ironman are critical in your ability to do the Ironman double. Take special care of your body and respect any aches or pains. Particularly be careful working back into running. The highest incident of post–Ironman injury comes from too much running too soon. See the recovery sidebar for tips and tricks to hasten your recovery.

  • 2 weeks of recovery and aerobic shorter aerobic activity.
  • 1-7 days after the race: No running for 7 days after the race, and a minimum of 3 days completely off, avoids pounding and helps the legs recover.  Take at least 3 days this week.
  • 8-14 days after race can incorporate short aerobic runs (20-35 minutes), slightly longer rides (60-90 minutes), and swims.

    Key sessions:
      –  Short Aerobic Bikes of 30-90 minutes
      –  After 7 days of recovery, short aerobic runs of 20-45 minutes
      –  Aerobic swims of 1000-3000 meters, with emphasis on technique.

3-5 weeks post Ironman (3 week block) – Aerobic Rebuild and Recovery
Gradually build back aerobic work, but still be respectful of the Ironman that is in your legs. Keep all cycling and running very aerobic through this block. You may start to feel good on the bike, but hold back as recovery will still be slower than normal. Getting too aggressive with your training too soon can set you back 2-4 weeks in your rebuild. Make sure you have planned two rest days per week into your schedule.

  • 2 weeks of endurance swimming, biking and riding focused on re-building aerobic capacity and strength, followed by 1 week of recovery.  The athlete should still take 2 days per week off, and overall training volume should be approximately 60-70% of your maximum training volume in your Ironman build.

    Key sessions:
      –  Aerobic Endurance Rides of 2.5-3 hours. Include long climbs if possible
      –  Aerobic Endurance Runs of 1-1.5 hours. Run hilly.
      –  Low cadence bike riding, longer efforts of 10-30 minutes at 55-65 RPM
      –  Swimming Pull and Pull with paddles for strength

6 weeks after Ironman – rest, sharpen, and race.

  • Take 2 days off, and perform swim, bike and run sessions with 2-4 short intervals at goal race pace.

Furthermore, consider these 10 Tips for Enhancing Your Post-Ironman Recovery

  1. Fitness and Technique. Prepare well and work on technique in all three disciplines. Learning to maintain technique as you fatigue, will help you race a little quicker and recover quickly. Most critical are maintaining run mechanics. If your technique breaks down early in the run, then the chances are that you are landing awkwardly and recruiting muscles that have not been conditioned for the job you are asking them to do. Using unconditioned muscles increases the load on your body and increases your overall fatigue and soreness.
  2. Have a pre and post-race nutrition plan:
    (a) Pre-Fuel: Start the race well fuelled and hydrated – by paying attention to your diet, sodium and fluid intake you can start the race with your fuel stores topped up and ready to take on the challenge of the Ironman. By starting well fuelled and hydrated you are less likely to be fully depleted at the end.

    (b) Re-Fuel: Replenish your muscle glycogen stores and rebuild muscle with protein. Try to consume 1g of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight during the first 2 hours of finishing your race. High glycemic foods will be your best choice. You should also aim to consume 1 – 1.5g of protein for each gram of carbohydrate that you take in. Commercial recovery drinks will supply this 4:1 ratio easily since you may not feel like eating ‘real’ food straight away.

    (c) Re-Hydrate: Restore your fluid and electrolytes. It is simply impossible to consume enough fluid to replace that which is lost through sweating during an Ironman event. By weighing yourself before and after the race you will know how much fluid you have lost. For every 1lb of lost body weight, you will need to drink 20oz of fluid. You can then consume the appropriate amount to get yourself back to your pre-race hydration status. Sports drink with electrolyte will help you absorb the fluid more efficiently and will help you restore your electrolyte balance more quickly.
  3. Avoid the post-race massage: Even a light massage can cause further damage to already traumatised muscles. Leave the massage for a couple of days when it can have a positive effect. Waste products can be flushed from your legs, fresh blood brought in and tight areas worked on. A light flush massage 3 days and 7 days after your race can help circulate blood that carries oxygen and nutrients to facilitate recovery, and work out the sore spots.
  4. Take an ice bath – the effort of the race will have caused some damage to your muscles and some serious inflammation. Taking an ice bath can assist your lymphatic system and reduce inflammation.  Fill the tub with cold water and add ice from the hotel ice machine. The water should be 13 degrees centigrade (58F) or colder so a quick dip in the lake is unlikely to have the intended effect. Sit there for at least 10 minutes. You should take ice baths immediately after the race and the day following. Your legs will thank you!
  5. Sleep – Make sure you get some sleep. Sleep is the time when you secrete growth hormone allowing your body to repair the damage you have done. If you need to sleep in the few days after the race then take it!
  6. Contrast baths: – Contrast baths are a great way of helping fresh blood start to move through your legs. The principle is to alternate hot and cold baths which will open up the veins and capillaries and allow fresh, oxygenated blood to course through, as well as helping to remove any waste products and allow healing to begin. Alternate 3 minutes immersion in hot water followed by 90 seconds in cold water. Always finish with immersion in cold water.  Take contrast baths on day’s 2-4 post race.
  7. Avoid Anti Inflammatories: Many athletes will suffer from muscle pain (DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness) and may be tempted to medicate themselves with over the counter pain killers or anti-inflammatories.  I would caution against this as your liver and kidneys have been working overtime during and after the race. If you need more than ice to help settle the discomfort you may want to consider a homeopathic remedy such as arnica or traumeel. Homeopathic remedies have not been associated with any adverse side effects. These remedies can help reduce the swelling within the damaged muscles, reducing the discomfort you feel, and allowing you to begin your active recovery.
  8. Have a restart plan: Pre-plan your return to training, to avoid mistakes made by “winging it”; you can start light non-weight bearing activity (swimming, biking) 2-3 days post-race and some easy running 7 days post-race. After 10 days you can start back on your regular schedule but with reduced intensity. Having a plan will keep you motivated to start working towards your next race.
  9. Schedule your Life: Life stress and jumping right back into the daily grind of work and other life commitments can greatly inhibit your recovery. Pre-plan your life and work schedule so that you do not return home to a mountain of backlogged tasks. Remember, you will be tired!
  10. Get a checkup: Prior to re-starting training you should schedule a body screening by your body maintenance therapist (physical therapist, massage therapist, chiropractor etc.). Your therapist will check for areas of tightness or your other personal “alarm bell” indicators which may need to be settled prior to you starting the next cycle of training. Eliminating tight spots within the muscles will contribute to a more even blood flow and allow for proper biomechanics, helping to prevent and avoid injuries.

LifeSport head coach Lance Watson has coached a number of Ironman, Olympic and age-group Champions over the past 30 years. He enjoys coaching athletes of all levels. Join Lance to tackle your first triathlon or perform at a higher level.