If you’re interested in joining the throngs of people who’ve been participating in Obstacle Course Races, there are ample opportunities, particularly here in the US. Among the prominent venues – Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, Battlefrog and more – there are piles of nutrition and training tips to prepare you for the event. You can go from wannabe to finisher in a matter of 8-12 weeks.
Even if you aren’t interested in actually competing, the nutrition, skills, strength and conditioning tutorials provided by these enterprises are generally pretty good, emphasizing full-body conditioning, mobility, stamina and lifestyle changes.
Recovering From Long-Distance Events
There is however, scant information about recovery from the long-distance, body-battering ordeals that many of these events are. This is not the same as recovery from your regular workouts; the focus here is on a singular, intensive event.
Consider these three key aspects: physical trauma, hydration and nutrient depletion. Each must be addressed to minimize pain, injury, illness and long-term wear & tear. If you want to get back to peak performance, what you do immediately after a race is as important as your prep work.
There’s a reason you must sign those serious injury and regrettable death waivers before participating. Though severe injuries are rare, it’s common for racers to get dinged, swollen, bruised, scraped and lacerated. The mud, water, sweat, unfamiliarity/difficulty of the obstacles and exhaustion can lead to twists, sprains, strains, pulls and minor tears.
Regeneration exercises, mobility and icing are very helpful, after the obvious need to tend to that protruding bone.
Foam-rolling appears to be the vanguard recovery tool of choice lately. Foam-rolling gets high marks all around from a variety of fitness domains. It helps to eliminate lactic acid, stimulate blood flow (nutrients in) and increases mobility. Movement is good. This post explains it in greater detail.
Massage is excellent but certainly impractical at a race venue. This is why foam rolling makes more sense from a utility perspective. Research¹ discussed at NIH concludes massage and compression after exercises ameliorates DOMS, enhances recovery of muscle function and boosts immune system; trick is, the sooner the better.
Depending on the environment of the event, your hydration level pre-race, the pace at which you run and your ability to drink during the race; the chances are you will be dehydrated to some degree by the time you cross that finish line. Drinking to satisfy your thirst is a good first step. Your fluids should contain water, electrolytes, potassium and sodium to get the process going. Note that electrolyte loss is highly variable among individuals.
Fluid and electrolyte replacement, restoration of liver and muscle glycogen and the means to deliver nutrients back to sore, depleted tissue are paramount for optimal, not just speedy, recovery².
There is an overwhelming array of sport-recovery drinks on the market, most of which contain at least a starter dose of what you need to replenish. Recovery XS is excellent. Many venues offer a complimentary cold beer after the race, and as much as I’d love a pint (now) I advise against drinking alcohol until after you soak in some quality fluids!
A study³ indicates your post race drink should contain a moderately high level of sodium and at least some potassium. Interesting side-bar fact: You know how sodium can make some people bloat? Well, that same property of sodium is important for fluid retention and re-hydration during and after prolonged activity. If you do not have adequate sodium in your recovery drink, i.e. drinking plain water, you will pee out more water than you need for re-hydration.
Water alone is not optimal, but if you have water along with fruit and a salty snack you should be fine.
You’ll be hungry, along with being thirsty, proud, sore and elated. It seems obvious that you will need to eat a solid meal or drink a nutrient dense recovery beverage. The question is; how much and in which proportions? We could all use a little good fat in our regular diets, but after an OCR event, it is critical to take in quality protein and carbs to restore muscle glycogen, clear the fog from your brain and begin the process of feeding damaged tissue.
Some distance runners recommend simply drinking chocolate milk after a race. I like simple. Keeping a jug of this in a small cooler in your race bag is easy and convenient to slug down before you hit the showers. The protein and carbs should get into your system quickly and you’ll begin to feel better within minutes of drinking it.
Another study indicates that a supplement of 42 grams of protein after intense exercise “significantly contributes to the improvements in exercise recovery” in the ensuing 24-48 hours. That chocolate milk will only give you about eight grams, but again, it’s about immediacy and effectiveness. MyProtein has several protein-rich, post-race options. There is growing evidence that taking in tart cherry juice and ginger help to alleviate muscle soreness.
Advice from A Spartan Queen
I recently spoke with an actual wonder-woman, OCR champion, Amelia Boone, 3X winner of World’s Toughest Mudder and 2013 Spartan Race World Champion, for her advice on recovery from OCR as well as ultra races.
Amelia said, “It’s important to keep moving. Don’t finish a race and then go sit down for ten hours. Mobilizing, stretching are important after a long race. Compression is always good.”
Yes, we all enjoy the cold beer and camaraderie post race, but what of our beaten up bodies?
“If you have access to get into an ice bath after a race that would be ideal but it has to be immediate. I’ve been known to jump into a cold lake or river near a course after a race as an alternative.” That seems like adding torture on top of torture. “Exactly…exactly.”
Those minor assaults by the obstacles? Don’t take them lightly. Amelia says “the main thing is – what people don’t realize is – OC racing is a very traumatic type of sport. You’re going to have bruises, cuts and scrapes. Obviously you need to tend to the first aid aspect, but people fail to take those minor injuries into account in terms of recovery. Your body is very inflamed by having things like barbed wire scratches and that takes more time to recover. Don’t underestimate that. Just because your muscles may feel fine a day or two after, your body is still in a healing process.”
Sooner Is Better For Recovery
Whether the advice is from warriors like Amelia or data gathered from scientific studies, one element that stands out is timing. Everything discussed here works better when applied sooner. The last thing you should do is lie there while you regret setting your alarm that morning.
How quickly and effectively you recover is determined by many factors, including your regular nutritional profile, your age, gender, fitness levels, body-mass make-up, pre-race fuel, regular rest and conditioning. There are so many variables that it’s not reasonable to say one specific routine or combination of macros is ideal for every person. There is always the human factor; everyone is different and everyone responds to training and nutrition in different ways. Generalizations aren’t ideal, but there are substrates of fact. Consider them platforms from which you can begin to experiment with what works best for you.
The best order seems to be: tend to wounds, hydrate, ice, replenish nutrition and focus on mobility. Common sense abounds. Stop the bleeding. I’m thirsty. You get the idea. Just get off the couch and participate. You’ll be all right.