Recovery time from an Ultra Marathon

Recovery time from an ultra marathon was not what I expected.

I am now 4 weeks post Ultra Marathon so I have had time to let the elation (and pain) die down and to think about what I learned and would I do it again....... :-)

For those who haven't read my previous posts, I recently did my first ultra - the 80km Eco Trail à Paris. My race report is here.

So how has it been the past 4 weeks?

Recovery Time

I must say it has been frustrating. I had thought that a couple of weeks off would do and then I'd be back feeling ultra fit and ready to smash all my training runs and any races. Not so.

I read up beforehand that rest between 5 days - 2 weeks would suffice and then to gradually increase your runs and pace until you were back to normal. In my case I took 2 full weeks off and then tried to resume running. Ouch! The backs of my knees, were very sore as though I had tears in the muscles and ligaments. I couldn't quite work out if it was the calves or the hamstrings. Plus my outer right thigh was sore, IT band pain perhaps. This was an odd pain as it moved around and up and down my thigh and sometimes went behind the knee. I also noticed that my piriformus butt muscle which had been bugging me before the race, was still sore in spite of all the stretching and acupuncture sessions.

I knew then that I need to take another 2 weeks off and all in all I was feeling very sorry for myself.

Keeping busy in my recovery time

My Elliptical trainer saved the day
Thankfully, I have an elliptical bike at home and as that didn't seem to hurt anything, I pedalled on that an hour a day, in front of the TV to make it less boring. I was frustrated and worried a lot about how my fitness gains from all that training were being wooshed away. Thank goodness for the elliptical trainer as I felt that it was at least keeping my cardio system topped up.

I also did lots of piriformus and hamstring stretches and strengthening. This made me realise how weak my hamstrings really are. Shockingly weak actually. I did wonder if stretching an injured muscle was a bad idea so I was careful about keeping the discomfort level very low.

After 4 weeks of Recovery

After my initial false start back running, I tried again after 4 weeks. By this stage, my back and hips felt fine and there was just a slight lingering discomfort in my thigh. I took my son with me as I knew then that I'd keep it slow and not too long.

We did about 45 minutes which was probably longer than I should have but we did a run/walk and at a very slow pace. However my legs felt really clunky and stiff and my heart rate was all over the place. After about 15 minutes, that familiar buttock pain also started to come back and my thigh started to become sensitive. Frustrated.

The next day, I didn't feel worse, although I didn't feel better either so I have decided to keep on running but very gently. A bit of movement to keep the circulation going is not a bad thing. I have done 3 runs now and each one slightly longer than the last, with the longest around 60 minutes. I don't at all feel like a spring chicken, more like a stiff old bird and I wonder how on earth I was able to run for 12 hours only a month ago.

I am also wondering whether my buttock pain is linked to my thigh pain and that it is sciatica. I had thought it was IT band pain but because it is moving about I am guessing it is a trapped nerve. I really don't want to got to the doctor and spend weeks waiting for assessments etc so I might get an appointement with an osteopath to see if s/he could do some work on my hips.

Lessons learned

The recovery time from an ultra marathon is not set in stone and there are lots of variables to take into account. You will read on the internet and people will tell you, "rest for 2 weeks and then gradually start training again" or  "a week off is plenty. When is your next race? and even "you are going to be a racing demon when you restart running".

Well none of that has applied to me.

What I have learned is that:
  1. If it is your first ultra marathon, then recovery time can be double to what you might expect. Your body has been given quite a shock.
  2. The older that you are, the longer that your body might need to recover. I am 57.
  3. If you have any weakness or the slightest injury going into the ultra, then that weakness or injury is going to be exacerbated during the race, meaning your recovery time is going to be prolonged.
  4. You can still keep fit whilst recovering. Do other activities that don't aggravate any sore areas and do strength training.
  5. Don't over stretch an injured muscle or ligament. Forget the "no pain no gain". Be very gentle on yourself.
  6. When you start running again, you might feel clunky and stiff. This will get better the more that you run.
  7. Eat, sleep and enjoy it :-)