Essential recovery time after an ultra or marathon – advice from Bruce Fordyce.Essential recovery time after an ultra or marathon – advice from Bruce Fordyce.
One of the most popular topics of conversation after this year’s Comrades marathon was post-race recovery. “How soon can I get back on the road?” and “How long does it take to recover from the Comrades?” were two of the most popular questions. In fact, the topic resulted in a much-read and wide-spread debate on social media.
One opinion everyone had in common was that there had to be some recovery time after a gruelling ultra like the Comrades. Opinions differed, however, over the length of recovery and what could be done to aid it and even speed it up.
I can understand that there are two main, yet differing, running motivations after the Comrades. Most runners have had enough of running. Many will have been relentlessly pursuing their Comrades dream for up to a year. They will have run hundreds of kilometres in training, day in and day out, culminating in the gruelling 90-kilometre race itself.
Straight after the run ‘rigor mortis’ legs and drained bodies discourage even the slightest thought of running. Our short, but cold, South African winters aren’t exactly encouraging either. Everyone has had enough of inky-black mornings and insistent ‘wake-up, wake up’ alarms.
Then there is a career to return to, and work to catch up. Better curry some favour with an irritated boss. There are relationships and family life that need repairing; “Sorry that I have been so selfish these last few months.”
But there are some runners that find themselves overwhelmed with enthusiasm, perhaps after a successful, inspiring run at Comrades. They are so fired up they want to get back on road as soon as they can.
I was one of those over-enthusiastic runners back in 1986. I had had a super run, running my fastest ever Comrades and finishing very strongly. I was completely in love with the race. At a prize-giving function on the same night as the race, I told a mate, “I feel like popping out for a quick 5 km along the beach front, right now.”
I didn’t run that night but, overwhelmed by ‘desperately keen-itis’, I was back running far too soon that year. Three days later I ran an 8-kilometre route (5 miles in those days) and I started training hard again within a week.
I had my eye on a fast marathon a couple of months later. I was never to run that marathon. A slight ankle niggle became a painful limp, a slight sniffle a chronic upper-respiratory tract infection and it was months before I was able to run properly again. In short, my body demanded a proper recovery.
Simply put, those in the greatest danger of running self-destruction, as I was in 1986, are those who throw themselves back into hard training far too soon.
I have always been a great believer in peaks and troughs. In my better days, I was good at reaching a peak and extracting the maximum possible performance from myself on the day that mattered. But for the next few weeks I would be next to useless. My peaks were very high, my troughs very deep.
What I came to discover is that the troughs are as important as the peaks. They encourage rest and recovery, and ensure that the next peak is even loftier. Through bitter experience I learnt not to hurry the process by trying to climb out of the troughs too quickly.
So how long should a proper post-Comrades marathon – or any marathon for that matter -, recovery be?
There is an old veteran’s school of thought that believed that for every mile raced, a runner should take a day’s complete rest. In other words, a runner shouldn’t run a step for 55 days after running a hard Comrades marathon.
In my opinion, that’s a little too extreme and I think most properly addicted runners would find that long an absence from running too much to endure. The cold turkey would be awful. However, the point is well made. Racing damages your legs and racing mountainous courses like the Comrades damages them even more. A proper recovery is vital.
So, I recommend placing running right at the bottom of the list of priorities for a few weeks. Run when you feel like it, but let everything else interfere. Sleep, eat, drink and, if you are so inclined, accept Darth Vader’s invitation to Luke Skywalker to “Come over to the dark side” for a while.
With the exception of my blunder in 1986, I was a keen fan of ‘the dark side’. I ran occasionally, took long walks and even cycled when I felt desperate for some exercise.
And I waited for the spring to return to my legs. For days there would be no zip or bounce in my stride. In fact, my post-Comrades legs invariably felt like great, solid tree trunks – dead and heavy. My hamstrings felt tightly wound and stiff.
And then, one day, usually coinciding with the beginning of Spring, along with the first blossoms and birdsong, the spring (no pun intended) would return to my legs. I would lope along feeling light and loose, and full of running.
I’m writing this piece now because it’s probably about time for thousands of Comrades runners to return to the road. Amazingly, I bumped into a new friend, “DK”, this morning on my run. It was only his second run since completing his first Comrades marathon in June. He had been feeling extremely guilty, because his next goal is the Soweto marathon in November. He appeared to be immensely relieved when I told him I thought he had timed his return to training perfectly. Almost by accident, this raw novice reminded me of a lesson that I should have learnt back in 1986. Your body will thank you for learning it now.
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