Cool Down, Recovery, and Flexibility
I’m sure that for many people when they cross the finish line all they want to do is collapse. I can certainly understand that desire. Sometimes it’s exhausting just watching you race! Try to resist the temptation to stop immediately. A good cool down and recovery can make all the difference for how your body avoids injury and continues to improve performance.
When completing an endurance event (or any exercise lasting longer than 15 minutes) it’s important to have a proper cool down routine. A cool down involves continued activity at an easy pace for about 5-10 minutes. Some people like a light jog, while others prefer to walk. Where available a low resistance, slow-paced stationary bike is a great option. You can also hop in a pool and do some lazy laps. This allows for proper transition of your heart and muscles from a highly active state to a resting state. The bottom line is to keep moving until heart rate and breathing have mostly normalized.
The other big aspect of recovery is to get fuel into the body. This should include fluids (with electrolytes) and calories. For more about electrolyte replacement see my tip about hydration. Calories may seem like a no brainer, but there is actually an ideal way to do it. The first part is timing. You should eat within a few minutes of completing exercise. During the first thirty minutes post exercise you have a significantly increased muscle protein synthesis, meaning your muscles are trying to recover and giving them the fuel to recover will improve that recovery. After thirty minutes you still experience an elevated muscle protein synthesis, but it is not as great and is gone within about sixty minutes of exercise completion.
The second part of calorie replacement is what kind of calories. Some people think that if you are rebuilding muscle then protein should be important. Almost the opposite is true. Excessive protein intake can decrease recovery effectiveness. What your body has really lost is carbohydrate calories. It needs to replace glucose and glycogen stores in order to rebuild muscle. Try to consume about 100g of carbohydrates (roughly equivalent to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich) within those first thirty minutes post exercise. You don’t want to make yourself sick by eating too much too fast, but those 100g are a good goal. After that you should eat a good healthy diet the rest of the day and don’t starve your body.
The final step in cool down and recovery is flexibility. Much of the research relating to flexibility training is about pre-exercise stretching and shows little to no effect, with the exception of dynamic flexibility (a topic for another time). However, a recent study shows potential for decreased injury with static stretching (see the abstract here). Flexibility is something I consider to be part of overall health. Poor flexibility may contribute to back pain, shoulder pain, risk of muscle strains, and generally decreased body function. Stretching won’t stop delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), but it may improve your overall well-being and help you avoid chronic injuries.
The best time to stretch is after you have been using your muscles. Any muscle used should be stretched. Since completing a triathlon involves heavy use of both upper and lower extremities you should be doing a full body stretch. Include hamstrings, quadriceps, calves (both gastrocnemius and soleus muscles), iliotibial (IT) band, gluteals, piriformis, psoas, pectorals, and rotator cuff muscles. Sounds like a lot? You can do all this in less than ten minutes even if you hold each stretch for 30 seconds.
If you include these aspects into your recovery routine you’ll stay healthier through a long season and hopefully enjoy it even more.
Dr. Eagar is a dual credentialed provider with degrees in sports medicine, chiropractic medicine, and exercise science. Dr. Eagar owns Active Advantage, a private sports medicine practice with an emphasis on rehabilitation and chronic injury management. He enjoys answering questions and can be reached at email@example.com. For more general information you can visit his website http://www.activeadvantagechiro.com.