Ultra-Runners Guide to Physical and Emotional Recovery

December 13, 2023

Physical and emotional recovery is a very individual experience. Everyone's body is different and requires different types of recovery to suit each individual. We spoke to ultra-runner Alastair Higgins to get his personal opinion on both mental and physical post-race recovery.

'The easist recovery to manage is your physical recovery, and especially post race nutrition. However most of the time the game plan goes out the window once I'm past the finish line.

If you get it right it means you can return to training sooner and you are less likely to have muscle fatigue.

Recovery is very runner specific and less experience athletes will take longer to bounce back and might even experience muscle degradation during longer races.

After my first few 100 mile races I had severe muscle fatigue and would get night sweats as my body struggled to process the waste from dead protein cells in my legs. In situations like that it takes a lot longer to recover and build back into training, so some strength and conditioning post race might be worth considering.

Post race protein, carbs and hydration are key and the amounts may vary on the intensity and distance involved.I find it a lot easier for races at marathon distance and lower. A protein drink of 30-35gms or protein in any form with some light carbs and regular hydration usually suffices.

For longer ultras it is a bit more complicated. I might not feel like taking on anything at the finish. Fortunately the better races have medical crew who might spot what you need. For example at Spartathlon this year I was put on a saline drip and that definitely helped with rehydration.

The protein and the carbs came later which meant my recovery was ok considering the distance and time.

The problem I've found with other races is that they completely neglect protein at the finish line. They offer you lots of sugar and water but nothing else. This is something to bear in mind and I usually pack some kind of recovery/protein drink in my kit bag.

Does it always go to plan? Hell no! Sometimes all I feel like drinking is a beer, especially if the race has gone well. Other times if I've had a bad race I might neglect the protein intake because my head isn't in the right place.

If I'm lucky enough to have race crew I might insist that they make me take on recovery drinks and food even if I say I'm not interested.
If I'm super organised I might take on another 30-35gms of protein 45mins after the first intake and repeat if possible at similar time intervals.

Other than food and hydration I tend not to opt for massages or stretching. Instead I'll try to be active the next day: go for a long walk or very light jog. Getting the blood circulating tends to help with any post race stiffness. I'll usually return to light training 2-4 days post race if recovery has gone to plan.

Emotional recovery is a lot more difficult to manage. How did the race go? Did I finish, did I win or did a drop out or have a bad race? In some ways, it can be easier to bounce back from a bad race because you can chalk it down as a learning experience. 

I keep a running diary where I recollect how a race went and which parts were good, which parts were bad. That way I can look back and see where any errors were made and hopefully learn from them.

Personally I don't find it hard to re-evaluate goals after a bad race. I'll make new plans and start training for something new. But over time I still might to feel some lingering disappointment. Here it is important to remember that they can't all go to plan, and it's not a life and death situation. It's just running afterall! I haven't always had that perspective but I think it's a healthy way to look at it.

Bouncing back from a good race can actually be harder. I sometimes get a sense that things can't really get much better in terms of performance. Getting back into training can be difficult mentally unless I have another big goal race to work towards. I might feel like a deserve a break and some time off. Fortunately that usually passes after a few recovery runs. I realise a lot of runners might not be in a position to sign up for another race straight away but getting back into the joy of training or just running for fun again can definitely help with those post run blues.'

It is important to remember, as Alastair says, that recovery is very individual and everybody is different. Alastair is a two-time top-10 finisher in Spartathlon and thus has some incredible experience as an ultra-marathon runner, and we will speak to Alastair more and more as the year draws to a close about some of his incredible achievements!

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