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Ironman Triathlon Lightning-Speed Recovery Secrets

Ben Greenfield crosses the finish line of Ironman Hawaii

Researchers have suggested than an Ironman triathlon takes a minimum of 19 days recover, and possibly several more weeks or months.

And boy, I used to be convinced they were right.

For example, three years ago, I finished my fifth Ironman, and must admit that I was slightly annoyed at the intense pain that seared through my body for the week following the race. Attempting to climb or descend stairs was a formidable task; sitting down, standing up and going to the bathroom was a lesson in teeth-gritting; and hobbling through the airport on the way home was embarrassing and frustratingly slow. For nearly a month, I experienced “dead leg syndrome”, and quite a bit of trouble even staying fit. It hurt to exercise, so I wasn’t really motivated to do it.

In the years since that Ironman, as a coach and sports nutritionist I’ve learned a lot about recovery. But the ultimate assessment of my newfound knowledge was finally tested one week ago at Ironman Hawaii World Championships in Kona – a perfect race for me to use myself as a guinea pig and test how quickly the body can recovery from hills, wind, dehydration and high-paced competition stress. During the race I did not hold back, crossing the finish line at 9:53, with just one stop for a flat tire.

It has now been 5 days since the Hawaii Ironman. When I finished, I broke down on the beach, crying from the pent-up emotions of the race, but also grimacing from the razor blade-like feeling tearing into my IT bands, quads and hamstrings. But 5 days later, as I stand at the airport typing this post, my body feels a stark contrast to previous Ironman attempts: pain-free, spry and comfortable. In fact, just this morning, before leaving for the airport, I had an hour long cycling interval workout on the bike, and my joints felt fantastic – with my body experiencing absolutely zero variations in heart rate and speed compared to pre-Ironman rides.

And what about the day after, and the other 4 days since Ironman Hawaii? Using the recovery tools I am about to share with you in this post, I was shocked by how much more pain-free, light on my feet, un-stiff and recovered I was compared to any other Ironman attempt. So here, in this article, I will give you the secrets of lightning-speed recovery from an Ironman triathlon, broken down into four components Ironman and each day after Ironman: Activity, Supplements, Gear & Advanced Techniques.

Pre-Race Ironman Recovery:

Activity: Tight muscles can be full of adhesions and knots that tend to magnify stiffness during the race, and soreness after the race. I used a local massage therapist (thanks Tim Gilreath) to work on me 4 times in the final month leading up to Ironman, and in between sessions with Tim, included stick work or foam roller at least once every three days. To enhance hydration and limit free radical formation, upon arriving in Hawaii, aside from swimming every morning, I only trained twice – two very quick 30 minute outdoor bike rides followed by brief 15 minute runs.

Supplements: 30 minutes prior to the swim ,I swallowed 6 capsules of a beta-alanine supplement for enhanced tissue oxygenation and 1 tablespoon of a greens supplement (Enerprime)as a non-acidic energy source. As a potent free radical buffer, I swallowed a double dose of Synergy Sport powder – one of the most potent anti-oxidant cocktails on the planet. To enhance joint fluidity, I also supplemented double dosed with a pharmaceutical grade fish oil capsule called “Pharmax” from Bioletics in the final week prior to the race. Immediately prior to the race, in transition, I slathered my legs and upper body with topical magnesium, which can increase blood flow and displace calcium, a common contributor to post-race soreness.

Gear: To limit blood pooling pre-race, I wore geeky, calf-high compression socks (TheRecoverySock) for the final 3 nights prior to the race. This did not score me any points in the bedroom with my wife, but did help to flush the legs.

Advanced techniques: I utilized a Compex Sport Elite electrostimulation device in “Recovery” mode to keep the blood flowing whenever I was sitting around the house in the days leading up to the race. This gave me 30-40 minutes of daily electrostimulation. I also used this unit 5 times in “Exercise” mode for the month leading up to the race.

During the Race Ironman Recovery:

Activity: Gear mashing is a great way to leave your knees feeling like they’ve been hit by a hammer after Ironman. I chose a different gear ratio for this race, and maintained a relatively high cadence (for my long limbs) of 80-85. At least every 3 miles during the run, I took 45-60 seconds of fast walking to allow the core temperature to decrease.

Supplements/Fueling: Consuming a beverage that contains a mix of protein and carbohydrates, rather than pure carbohydrates, is crucial in not only maintaining speed, but also enhancing recovery. Recent research that just appeared in 2010, suggests zero performance deficits from actually substituting a large portion of carbohydrate containing sports drinks with protein! For this reason, I used a carbohydrate gel that contained amino acids during the race (GU Roctane). While dehydration will increase post-race soreness, it will be impossible to cross the finish line fully hydrated, and there is in fact, a positive relationship between dehydration and race finish time, within reason. To take advantage of recent research on the effectiveness of ice slushies for cooling core temperature during exercise, I also chewed cups of ice at every other station.

Gear: During the entire bike and run, I wore the geeky, calf-high compression socks. Although I felt like Larry Bird at the time, these socks can actually enhance blood flow and also control the amount of muscle, tendon and soft tissue jarring that occurs in the lower leg, leaving less post-race tissue damage and blood pooling.

Post-Race Ironman Recovery:

Activity: Upon crossing the finish line, I immediately headed to the nearest ice-water bin and doused the body thoroughly with cold water, to bring the core temperature back down and encourage flushing of damaging metabolic byproducts. I then secured 4 bags of ice from the massage area and placed them on both quads and hamstrings, under my tight race kit shorts (ice+compression). Once my heart rate had subsided, I lay for 5 minutes with my feet elevated above my heart to continue flushing of the legs. Rather than laying around the remainder of the evening until bedtime, I made sure to get up and move at least every hour. The next day, I took two additional cold showers, which would have been ice baths if enough ice had been present at my Hawaii condo. I walked 30 minutes the day after, 60 minutes 2 days after, and then did a light swimming and cycling workout on days 3 and 4.

Supplements/Fueling: Immediately post-race, I took 8 Recoverease capsules, which are a mix of proteolytic enzymes and branched chain amino acids, the former of which can act as an anti-inflammatory and the latter as an amino acid repair source for muscles. I continued to take 8 Recoverease (on an empty stomach) for 2 days following the race. Immediately post-race, I once again slathered my legs and upper body with topical magnesium. Rather than consume 1 large, pre-race meal, I consumed 400-600 calorie meals each hour for the 4 hours following Ironman, which research has shown to most quickly replenish glycogen levels and amino acids. These meals were are at a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein. With each meal, I took 1 Phenocane capsule, which is an purely natural alternative to ibuprofen and stomach damaging anti-inflammatories. Pre-bed, I applied another layer of topical magnesium, and consumed 2 tablespoons of amino acids from Bioletics. For the next 4 days, I applied magnesium at night, and a topical anti-inflammatory from ActionWipes during the day.

Gear: At night, I wore full leg compression tights, for flushing of the hamstring and thighs. I continued to use these for 4 days following the race, and wore compression socks during each day.

Advanced Techniques: On day 2 and day 4 post Ironman, I did a 40 minute electrostimulation session, using the “Recovery” setting on the Compex Sport Elite. On my most sore areas (the upper and mid-calves) I followed this with 20 minutes of infrared, using a home device called a “Kenkowave” (I don’t think you can get these anymore, but there may be other models available). These advanced recovery sessions were not as inconvenient as they sound, and were performed while watching TV at night. Each morning after the race, I also performed a 10 minute foam roller session followed by 5 minutes of light stretching. Finally on day 3, I took a 30 minute bath with magnesium salts.

This may seem like quite a bit of work, but if you plan on doing two high priority races in a row (such as a Half Ironman followed by an Ironman, or vice versa), you want to feel good as soon as possible after your Ironman, or you have athletes you coach who you need to recovery more quickly, this cocktail of Ironman recovery techniques can be your saving grace.

Here at the Rock Star Triathlete Academy, we’ll be going into this Ironman Recovery article in far greater depth during an upcoming group coaching call for members only. Stay tuned! Questions?Leave your comments below.