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Ironman Recovery

What To Do After You Qualify
Along with triathlon’s growth comes the squeeze to qualify for championship races. And perhaps the toughest of those is of course the Ford Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kona. The days of sending in your entry form along with a check and a headshot are long gone. For the bulk of all triathletes trying to get a slot to the Ironman the road can be long and tough. Then once you get it you have the good and bad. You qualified. Great! That’s the good. But now after putting just about everything you had into getting there, you have to go and do it again. That can be the tough part. And not only that, but hopefully will take it up a notch or two. How you approach this challenge in your training is extremely important. Let me give a few ways to navigate through the time between qualifying and hitting it again in Kona to help you maximize your race on the Big Island.

Recovery is Paramount

If you earned your priceless slot at say Ironman Wisconsin or in Arizona, you have about an entire year to gear back up for the challenge. If you got the roll down in Canada, the timing is going to be extremely tight with a narrow six-week window to pull it all together. But first and foremost before you start thinking about your next long workout is going to be your recovery. Let me emphasize this. If you are not recovered, you will have a very tough time racing well in Kona. Even for those who have a good early season race, get a slot and then have plenty of time to build back up, if you push it too soon you will end up on the start line with the tank about ¾ full. A top-notch race in Kona requires your energy reserves be filled to the brim and them some…just in case.
I’ll give you some ideas on recovery workouts in a moment. But first let me give you a few guidelines to keep in the back of your mind as you head into planning your reentry into training. The first is that it takes about one day of recovery for every mile that you run hard before physiologically it is wise to push hard again. 
Here is another experience that is rarely talked about that will be extremely important to be aware of. At about the two-week post race mark most people feel really good. However, this is usually a false perception of being truly recovered. And the reason is that doing an Ironman takes your energy reserves way down, well below what you experience on a day-to-day basis. At about two weeks after the event you have recovered enough to feel so much better than you did immediately following your race. But that is because it is being compared to how wasted you were at the finish line. Yet many people take this as a sign that it’s time to hit it again. WRONG! It really takes about three weeks to be able to assess the damage and to get enough reserve back inside your body to be able to build your training back up again without risking being flat when your next Ironman rolls around.
These two factors are important to take into account as you plan your build back up to your next race (Ironman or another qualifier). The first is the muscle damage that needs to be repaired from running a marathon at the end of your Ironman (assuming you qualified at a full Ironman). The second is that less tangible thing called energy reserves that just take time to recharge, up to three weeks after doing your qualifier. There is a litmus test that you can do that will kind of give you either the green light to go for it, or the yellow light that says you may need a little more time taking it easy. Run for about 40-45 minutes. If your muscles feel like they are at mile 20 of the marathon by the end of the run, then for sure it is a sign to cool the jets before doing longer or intensive training. Even if you legs seem okay, but you feel like that 45 minute run was as hard as about an hour and a half should feel, then again err on the side of caution and keep active but build another 5-7 more days of recovery into your workouts before pushing things up again.

Week By Week Plan Of Action

Week One Post Ironman. During this week, regardless of when your next race is, the main goal is to move your body just enough to help flush the muscles and rid them of all the metabolic waste that is in them from the race without causing any more damage. Even if you are done for the season this is extremely important. If you do nothing for a few weeks post-race all of that gunk in your muscles will turn to cement and the next time you go to exercise your muscles will be tight and not have any elasticity. This translates into an injury ready to happen. 
There are three exercises that if blended together give the perfect active recovery in week one: easy swimming, easy spinning on the bike and walking. Initially the length of the swim should be about 10-15 minutes, the bike roughly 30-45 minutes and the walking 10-20 minutes. None should be done with an attempt to gain or even maintain fitness. If you just did an Ironman you have plenty of that in the bank. Easy means easy. If your heart rate goes over about 65 or 70% of max you are going way to hard, and if it is only 50% or less that is fine.
You may want to alternate swimming one day and then cycling the next. Walking can be done just about anytime. Most people will do well if they take a day off completely every second or third day from both swimming and cycling.

Near the end of week one in recovery it will be time to jog. At about 6-7 days after your race, head out for about 20 minutes, again easy, and see how it feels. If your legs don’t feel fragile, the next run can come the next day and be 5-10 minutes longer. If you feel fragile, hold off another day or two. Generally two days in a row of running during the first three weeks post Ironman is plenty, Then take the third day off.

Week Two Post Ironman. Again this is the week where at the end you will most likely feel pretty recovered, but that sensation is only in relation to where you were right after your Ironman and does not necessarily mean that your deeper energy reserves or your body are ready for “real” training.  But feeling good is indeed the first sign that your body is coming around. Still keep the majority of your recovery workouts short. This can be up to about 20-30 minutes of easy swimming and 45-60 minutes easy on the bike as well as a handful of short runs (usually no longer than 30 minutes).
Toward the end of your second week of Ironman recovery, if you have another important race coming up in less than 8 weeks, it can be time to test the systems and see how you feel. This should come in the form of a bike ride that is about 2 hours, a run of 40-45 minutes or a swim of roughly 30-35 minutes. If any of these send up a red flag that says you are still tired, listen to that warning and keep things in recovery mode until close to the end of week three. If you feel good and you have another big race like Kona or another qualifier in less than 8 weeks, it might be time to try slotting back into an abbreviated real week of training in week three post race.

Week Three Post Ironman. If you are done for the season, by the time week three rolls around you will be pretty well on your way to being recovered. At that point if you want a real break, it is a good time to take one. If you have a big race looming, this will be the time to start putting in normal endurance workout in each sport toward the end of the week to make sure you do not lose your hard earned fitness. If you have an Ironman in 3-5 weeks time, do a full long ride of around 4.5-5.5 hours, a run of about 1:50-2:15 hours, and a swim of around 3,500-4,000 in the pool. Then in the following week, slot into your regular training program for the final tuning up for your next event.

If your next race is 6-7 weeks out or more, drop those times down just a bit and go closer to 3.5-4 hours on the bike, 1:15-1:40 on the run and about 2,500-3,000 in the pool. After that, it’s back to the full swing of training!

Final Thoughts

Keep in mind that getting in shape your first big Ironman of the year takes much longer than it does for a second go around. You may spend up to 20-weeks building up, doing speed and then tapering down for your first big race. But the next one will utilize your previous fitness. And to avoid becoming overtrained and flat for the second (or possibly third), it is important to have all of the phases of your training be shorter. If 20-weeks got you ready for your first qualifier, 6-12 can do it for the second. This is also a thought that can give you the confidence that even if your second peak of the season is done on fewer total weeks of volume and speed, you will most likely show up for your second big race in better shape than ever…if you recovered first!
See you in Kona.

Mark Allen

Mark Allen is the six-time winner of the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. He uses these incredible stories of his journey to the top of the toughest one-day sporting event in the world as the backdrop for speeches he gives to companies worldwide. For further information about Mark’s speaking availability, please call 1-800-994-5306.
Based in Santa Cruz, California, Mark has a state of the art online triathlon training program at On this site you can receive fully customized training programs that last twelve to twenty weeks. Each training schedule is based on your fitness history, age and racing goals.

Mark just released a new book that he co-authored with Brant Secunda titled Fit Soul Fit Body: 9 Keys to a Healthier, Happier You with a Forward by Stephen R. Covey. Brant is a shaman, healer, and ceremonial leader in the Huichol Indian tradition. It was Mark’s studies with Brant that enabled him to win his six Ironman titles. Learn how you can achieve Ironman levels of success, happiness and good health in their new book. Also visit their website