Congratulations for reaching the finish line of the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona. And, every training session, preparatory race and personal sacrifices devoted to this one magical race will culminate as you run those last meters down Ali Drive toward the finish stage. It is a moment you will never forget. Mike Reilly will call out your name and announce you an Ironman, leis will be hung around your neck, a bottle of water placed in your hand and you’ll be sent off to either medical (let’s hope not) or to collect your finishers medal and picture and reunited with your loved ones.
For most of the athlete’s this marks the end of their season while others will race another Ironman in just four to five week’s time. Regardless of which category you fit in, your recovery starts in those minutes after you cross the finish line. The recovery process incorporates physical, mental and emotional stress and requires a healthy dose of patience, as it will take time to recover fully.
To kick-start the recovery process, here are a few tips for the first few days post-Ironman.
No matter how rock solid your hydration/fuel plan on the course, count on being dehydrated and glycogen depleted at the end of the Ironman. Once you cross the finish line, keep slowly moving, cool off and head to the food tent. Reach for fluids with sodium (helps pull glucose and water into your cells) and low residue (low fiber) carbs with a little protein. If you can stomach cold chocolate milk go for it, or a coke with a slice of pizza, pretzels dipped in peanut butter, a homemade smoothie with added salt, or cereal with milk.
Don’t get caught off guard if your appetite is suppressed. This is common and likely due to dehydration, heat exhaustion, and fueling issues during the race. If you fall into this category, don’t force feed but focus on hydration with electrolytes (sports drink or pinch of salt in your water/beverage) by taking little sips frequently as to avoid overloading the gut. Rehydrate consistently for the next 2 days, as tolerated and monitor urine output and color for hydration status feedback.
Typically, within 24 hours appetite returns and you can take advantage of your post race food indulgence. Most importantly, listen to your body and eat whatever sounds good. Eat slowly and don’t expect to finish your plate but instead smaller more frequent meals/snacks are going to be easier on the GI system.
Therapeutic massages are useful but not right after a race. In the Ironman finishers area, there are massage therapists ready to give you a complimentary 10-minute light rub down. If you can spare the time to wait, then this will be worth your while. Otherwise, once you get back to your housing accommodations, take a cool shower and elevate the legs. If you have compression socks, put them on.
Chances are you have consumed a fair amount of caffeine throughout your day and cortisol levels are elevated which will contribute to post race insomnia. To further exasperate the problem, elevated body temperature, higher heart rates, and dehydration contribute to a sleepless night filled with tossing and turning. Proactively bringing your body temperate down with wet towels, adequately hydrating, cold-water immersion (not necessarily ice bath), cold shower and sleeping in air-conditioned housing will improve sleep quality. After the first post-race night, sleep quality should improve as hydration levels return to normal. Prioritize naps in the days after the Ironman and avoid caffeine (or reduced amount) until sleep quality has returned.
Ideally, it would be nice to extend your stay on the Big Island to relax and celebrate after Kona, but if life commitments require a return flight in the next day or two, it is imperative you stay well hydrated and if you own compression socks, wear them on the flight. During the flight, elevate the legs and periodically get out of your seat to stretch the legs. Take advantage of layovers to walk around and circulate blood flow.
In the first week following Ironman, moving around is important, however, training sessions are not. Immersing your body in the ocean or pool (not a hot tub) along with light movement will help facilitate lymph drainage, and short, easy walks will offset delayed-onset muscle soreness that creeps in by day 2-post event. If you have another race coming up, allow yourself a full seven-day recovery phase with no structured workouts, no gadgets and save running for two weeks post race.
Pass on the over the counter anti-inflammatories – no matter how tempting – and instead reach for blueberries, pineapple (delicious in Hawaii), beet juice, tart cherry juice, ginger, turmeric, garlic, salmon, walnuts and almonds to help combat inflammation.
Two – three days post event, treat yourself to a Lomi Lomi (loving hands) Hawaiian massage. It’s known for rhythmic motions using both forearms and hands in a flowing circular motion, nurturing and relaxing the body and mind. Physically, it improves blood and lymph flow to assist in eliminating toxins and wastes accumulated in the body.
In the days that follow, prioritize eating whole, high-quality foods, avoid pre-packaged processed foods, maintain good hydration status, aim for quality sleep and enjoy mental and physical restoration.