On Fitness: The Right Way to Recover After a Race

I’ve been vegging out since my last triathlon, and that’s the wrong approach.

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After six Ironman triathlons in six years, I'm tired. I'm tired of training so hard—running 35 miles a week, biking 150, and swimming almost 4—that I can't keep my eyes open past 10 p.m. (thus depriving myself of Without a Trace). I'm tired of having a weekly pile of dirty laundry taller than a small child. But mostly I'm just physically and mentally exhausted. So since my last Ironman in late August, I've pretty much vegged out. But my injury-prone foot is acting up more than when I was training 20 hours a week—and I'm feeling sluggish rather than energized.

What's going on? I thought that resting would allow my body to fix itself and be ready for whatever I throw at it next.

Well, yes, rest is good, says Mark Verstegen, founder and chairman of Athletes' Performance, a group of training facilities that offer everything from training for pro athletes to one-week camps in athletic performance and nutrition for motivated amateurs. He thinks of it as "recovery," or better yet, "regeneration." Sadly, it does not equal my "clocking major couch time broken up only by trips to the fridge for Ben & Jerry's Half Baked."

Yes, it's important to give my muscle fibers some down time and myself a mental break. But stopping all activity isn't the answer; it'll just make me stiffen up. Says Verstegen: "That's like taking a car you've been driving really hard that has a flat tire, putting it in the garage, and going off to take a cruise." I get the metaphor here; the flat tire isn't going to fix itself, and neither is my foot.

Instead, he recommends a couple of weeks of a two-pronged regeneration: some kind of regular physical activity but no serious training and plenty of self-spoiling that involves no ice cream. I should massage my tight spots with a foam roller to loosen them up and stretch regularly, for example, and get in some easy swimming or ride the bike I haven't touched since my race.

I also called Lisa Callahan, medical director of the Women's Sports Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. She says there are a handful of formulas for figuring out how long I should stay away from hard-core training after a race. Some advise a day for every hour of a big race; others say a day for every mile of a running race. However you calculate it, I've been sitting on my butt for too long.

I should incorporate these principles into my regular fitness program once I get going again. The amount depends on the person. "Healthy recreational athletes should take a minimum of one rest day a week," Callahan tells me. You can take more than that if you're doing particularly strenuous exercise, are recovering from an injury, or are older.

And I should get a lot of sleep, which Verstegen likens to a "magic pill" for its ability to keep hormones at ideal levels, improve mental clarity, and help my body recover from a workout. "It's absolutely critical," he says, adding that I should aim for eight hours and get in as much of it as possible before midnight. That means I should probably be in bed by 10 p.m. According to a study at Stanford University, extra sleep helped members of the basketball team run faster, sink more free throws, and feel more energized. That should soon come in handy, when I'm training again at full strength: shorter tris, more dance classes, maybe a marathon. Some consolation, at least, for losing those late nights with my favorite TV show.