Recovery After a Long Race

The length of time it takes to recover from efforts is an important concept that endurance athletes, myself included, often do not give enough attention. After completing the Trans-Sylvania Epic at the beginning of June this year, I was faced with another opportunity to be patient and let the fitness accumulate. Seven days of 2-4 hours hard mountain biking, sleeping/living out of a tent (definitely out of my norm) and then a super-fun illness the SundayTuesday after the race left me with many variables to consider as I planned my “recovery and rebuild” phase to maximize my fitness heading into my next races. Today, I wanted to talk about a few of these concepts to help guide you in your next race-recovery adventure.

Chasing Powers on Stage 7 of Trans-Sylvania Epic 2014 * Photo Molly Hurford

How to Quantify the Level of Fatigue ? 

The simplest way to look at fatigue is: how far out of your normal day-to-day did you go, and how far out of your normal state are you now? For most of the participants at TSE, a ride most days of the week is common, but it is unlikely that many of them are riding more than 2 hours on more then 1-2 days of the week. Most participants were offroad for more than 3 hours each of the 7 days. This then represents approximately three times (or more) stress than normal. So we can expect that we will need three times (or more) recovery time when planning our recovery after the event. Using this information, we might ensure our training plan is roughed in for 1-2 easy weeks post-race and then use feedback from our mood, energy and motivation to gauge if we need more time.

Training Peaks uses Training Stress Score (TSS) as an objective way to represent how hard a ride is. Basically 100 TSS points is riding very hard (at Threshold/best 1-hour pace) for 1 hour. So 1 hour of endurance ends up around 65-75, 1 hour race might get very close to 100 and a 4-hour race might be 2-300 TSS points. The important bit to this for recovery is that very few people can recover to train the next day from 1 day at >200TSS—generally the fatigue will require a day off to get back to our snappy selves, so if multiple 200+ days are stacked together (ie. MTB stage race) then we get a large cumulative stress and huge fatigue that is bordering on over-training.

Combining feeling and data collection there are a few ways to make our normal states a bit more subjective. Motivation and happiness/grumpiness are two key metrics that seem to be reliable ways to detect over-training before any other bio-markers (iii ). If you don’t want to go ride/train and you are finding yourself with a poor disposition, these are good signs that you should take a break. Many athletes use morning heart rate and/or HRV (I use bioforce HRV) to track some values that might catch poor recovery/stress. Ease of getting out of bed in the morning, fatigue on stairs, vertical jump and sleep quality are other metrics that are commonly used to try and isolate changes from baseline. The challenge with all of these metrics is how/when to listen to them as guides in your daily training.

Injuries / Cuts also important to take into account when recovering *photo Molly Hurford

How Long to Recover From that Level of Fatigue ? 

So what happens when TSS goes higher? The Training Peaks link I provided gives some estimations on how we might manage recovery after different TSS values. Remember that TSS is relative to your fitness (based off your threshold/1 hour power) so these numbers are fairly comparable, but there are some key differences in the recovery periods we will discuss after we see some common TSS values.

  • TSS less than 150 – low (recovery generally complete by following day)
    • 150-300 – medium (some residual fatigue may be present the next day, but gone by second day)
  • 300-450 – high (some residual fatigue may be present even after 2 days)
  • Greater than 450 – very high (residual fatigue lasting several days likely)  
  • (See the chart from trainingpeaks.com)

Lynda Wallenfels  has a great blog article on the times she feels it takes to recover as well, I have kept this article bookmarked for many years to review when I think I am being too cautious with recovery for clients, or for myself. She estimates recovery for 100 milers at 2-3 weeks recovery, for 24 hour solos at 3 weeks and for MTB Stage races at 3 weeks. She makes the point that recovery to race again is different than recovering to train to improve and then race again. It is possible to do 100 milers on back-to-back weekends or 2-3 weeks apart, but this will generally result in a loss of fitness over time. To use a banking analogy, we can not keep making performance withdrawals without appropriate training and recovery deposits to rebuild our ‘fitness accounts’ to avoid debt. This debt concept is likely what many athletes who come to me for coaching are describing when they say, “I started the season really strong and faded as the summer went on.” We need  to be prudent in our planning of recovery, training and racing.

12 – 5pm each day at TSE was largely spent like this. The race stress can be very different for Elites vs. age group.

Other Factors in Recovery

While TSS is meant to ‘normalize’ things a bit so we can compare, we do need to remember that some athletes are better prepared for an event and so they should recover better. I often explain this to clients by asking them to think how some people hobble around for days/weeks after running a marathon while the elites are likely out running after the race and certainly doing some easy miles the next day. We must consider our fitness/prep before the event, whether we got sick, our age, work, family, sleep, nutrition and pre-existing fatigue/injury, because theses are all going to affect how long until it is optimal to resume longer/harder rides. In my example, I was fortunate that I could focus on recovery most of the days of the week while sick. I did not have to get kids to school, drive a transport truck across the country or tend to hard farm chores that would have likely lengthened my recovery.

Common TSS values

A 100 miler (e.g. Leadville) Race in 7-12 hours might be 400-800 TSS

An XC race might be 120-200 TSS

A Marathon, or typical day in a Stage Race MTB (2-4 hrs pro, 3-8 hours age group) might be 80-500 TSS on back-to-back (3-8 days is common)

So What Did I Do ? 

My days at TSE ranged from about 120 TSS to 299 TSS over 7 days. The terrain was quite demanding on the whole body given the rocks and my choice to race a hard-tail 29er but none of the days were much beyond my norm in terms of time or training hours (~18hours/wk), though certainly the intensity was higher as an average. I felt recovered each day until day 6/7 where my fueling/recovery started to go away from what I had planned (dropped bottles, etc.). My HRV (see image below) and resting HR went well out of norm as race progressed until I got sick, when they flip-flopped out the other end (HR went higher, HRV went lower). This info provided some objective physiological data to observe along with my motivation/happiness/snappiness each day on and off the bike.

bioforce hrv
Race started on May 25 – May 31

The race ended on SaturdaySunday, I got sick. Monday/Tuesday, I laid low for a few days (no riding/exercise/movement). TuesdayFriday, I did a bit of riding and coaching/bike skills sessions, but was still was not feeling overly motivated or snappy. Friday, I tried a 2 hour road ride and felt better and my motivation was coming back, but after an hour or so, I just felt depleted again. The weekend had a provincial MTB XC race, but I was still down a notch and opted to watch the race instead, which is always motivating.

Monday, I tried the same 2 hour route again. I took it slow warming up and listening to my body complaining about having to go back to work, but I was motivated and could feel the energy was there (my HRV also came back into normal range). As a rule, I took it easier and shorter then I wanted and waited one more day before going back at training. Tuesday, I went out on my mountain bike and all systems seemed to be firing. I was happy and motivated to be back out going fast off-road. I did the interval set planned, keeping to the short end of the range that was prescribed but knocked out several personal bests and ‘KOMs’ on Strava.
That was my journey back to a healthy training state after 7 days of off-road racing. After 8-9 days, I resumed training cautiously and avoiding racing again until some minor races at approximately 3 weeks out and some hard group rides sprinkled in as well as I build towards 2 big weeks of XC racing in mid-July.
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