7 Recovery Tips for Triathletes

Acupuncture Health and Wellness Massage Nutrition Sports

Posted by julia

Train, Sweat, Eat, Sleep, Repeat. The athlete mentality is one-of-a-kind, and truly exceptional. I am constantly in awe of the abilities of the human body every time I witness athletes performing their craft. A triathlete is a unique type of person because they have to master not one sport, but three: endurance, will, and commitment to training has to be focused and consistent. The mental aspect is also a huge factor during training and on race day; where your thoughts become your reality.

There has been a shift in the sports world towards the importance of recovery. Years ago it may have been considered a weakness to get a massage – and now there are entire medical personnel for high-performance athletes such as; acupuncture and soft tissue treatments, ice baths, organic food, compression wear, the list can go on and on!

Recovery and proper treatment is an essential component to high athletic performance. I, myself, was in and out of injuries throughout my youth which took me out of huge chunks of the season.  I wish I had the resources that athletes have today not only to treat injuries, but also aid in the recovery process and prevention of injuries.

Below is a discussion of what has been deemed the most beneficial modalities and techniques to recover from a triathalon and keep you performing at optimal levels.

1) Compression

According to the Science of Running, compression wear used to be utilized in a clinical setting primarily for people at risk of developing deep vein thrombosis, or for long flights and/or long standing shifts.

The idea is that mostly due to gravity, blood can pool in the lower leg if there is not enough circulation to get the blood moving up and into other parts of the body. Long distance runners started using compression socks because it would increase their blood circulation after long hours pounding the cement, when muscles would break down causing lactic acid buildup and swelling.

When there is increased blood flow up and out of the legs, metabolic waste and lactic acid can be flushed more quickly, causing less muscle fatigue and increased recovery time.

There are a lot of options of brands and types of compression socks. According to Triathlete, there seems to be a consensus of using graduated gear (highest pressure at the ankle), and less pressure at the calf. “Medical grade” is used in clinical settings and is often tighter than the graduated gear, which you may want to avoid because it may inhibit blood flow.

There are varying opinions on the amount of compression as well, and this can be a trial and error process. Byrne et al found 30mmHg inhibited blood flow, while 20 improved blood flow – but the truth is it all depends on age, activity level, size, and previous history. I would recommend starting at 20 and seeing how you fell.

2) Acupuncture

Acupuncture is another great option for treatment to get both before and after your race. Prior to race day Acupuncture can alleviate tight muscles & soreness, promote muscle balance, increase circulation, and give you the extra energy you need for the race.

One of our most widely used acupuncture points is called ST 36, Su Zan Li, which translates as “3-Leg-Mile”. It has been clinically researched to increase ATP production (which increases energy) and supports the immune system. The idea is that by stimulating this point, you will be able to run an ‘extra 3 miles’. Kinda cool.

After a race, acupuncture is great to relieve delayed onset muscle soreness, reduce muscle spasm and fatigue, and alleviate any strained tendons or painful joints. It works by increasing circulation to the area.

Everything that you need for your body to heal itself is in your blood, so by increasing circulation to a focused area, you are flooding your muscles and joints with fresh blood and oxygen. Your cells are able to more efficiently flush out lactic acid and metabolic waste, and break up scar tissue and muscle adhesions.

I also use motor points along with traditional acupuncture points in my sports treatments. A motor point, according to Matt Callison, L.Ac., is basically the center of the muscle belly where the nerve enters the muscle. It’s the area with the most electrical excitability; kind of like hitting the bull’s eye. It will literally re-set the muscle, so it will either lengthen a contracted muscle or shorten a lengthened one.

By re-balancing the muscles, the muscles are able to slide over each other properly and fire correctly through their agonist / antagonist relationship (for example as you contract your hamstring, your quad muscle lengthens).

If you have a race coming up, want to recover faster or are looking for some preventative maintenance, you can schedule a triathlete specific acupuncture treatment here.

3) Massage

Massage, similar to acupuncture, is a great recovery and preventative treatment.  According to Triathlete, massage in between training sessions can alleviate muscle adhesions, or knots, that accumulate in soft tissue.

Similar to acupuncture, after a race it can help your body flush out lactic acid, your lymphatic system get rid of metabolic waste, and decrease delayed-onset muscle soreness. Keeping your body flexible and your muscles and joints moving freely helps prevent injury and increases athletic performance.

The best time to get a massage is either the day or two before a race and 3 or more hours after a race. A 2009 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that massage immediately after intense effort inhibited the body’s ability to remove lactate from muscle.

4) Ice 

I can’t believe I’m suggesting ice! In Chinese Medicine ice is rarely used.

My post ‘Heat vs Ice‘ explains when to use heat vs ice, and I am on board with Western Medicine to use ice in certain situations. Ice freezes things and causes contraction, so it would make sense you don’t want to freeze tendons and joints that already don’t get a lot of blood supply.

However, I can also see the science behind using ice baths for reducing inflammation in muscles after hard workouts. Small muscle tears, swelling, and pain can all benefit from cold because it reduces inflammation. I, myself, recently started using hot / cold contrasts after training to aid in the healing process.

Triathlete explains that it may be ideal to use ice 3 hours after exercise for 10-15 minutes to allow normal protein synthesis to occur. Even though ice may reduce immediate muscle pain / soreness, it may inhibit overall recovery if used too early. I recommend patients to listen to their body and try both ice and heat and see what feels better. You know your body better than anyone else; use that intuition to give your body what it needs.

5) Sleep / Rest

I cannot say enough about sleep. Read my blog post ‘Four Ways to Master Your Sleep’ for my best tips on this subject.

According to Breaking Muscle, sleep is the most important time to recover; where it provides balance for muscle repair, mental, emotional, and hormonal balance. The amount of sleep necessary varies for each person, but 7-9 hours is ideal for most athletes.

Some general suggestions for sleep is to go to bed and wake up at the same time, have minimal to no artificial lights in the room, wake up with the sun if possible, and sleep in fresh air and/or cooler temperatures.

Recovery is just as important as training, and refers to the process it takes for your body to repair itself most efficiently. An active recovery day, consisting of a light swim or yoga class, can keep your body moving lactic acid build up without putting stress on the body.

According to Runners World, a day off every 7-14 days restores glycogen, builds strength, and reduces fatigue; therefore preventing overuse injuries and keeping the mind and body fresh.

Nutrition, stretching, hydration, bodywork, stress management, and compression are some of the common ways to recover. Muscles recover the fastest because they have the most blood supply, whereas ligaments, tendons, and joints take longer because they don’t receive as much blood supply. That is why usually a pulled muscle heals a lot quicker than a tendonitis injury or a torn ligament. Speak to your coach or health care practitioner about the best recovery and treatment schedule to fit your needs.

Active has a good general guideline for recovery after specific races:

  • Cycling Races: one to three days per hour of racing
  • Triathlon Races: three to five days per hour of racing
  • Running Races: four to six days per hour of racing

 6) Supplements

Every athlete knows they should be fueling their bodies with healthy, whole foods to keep them performing at their best. I always recommend getting the majority of nutrients from the actual food you eat, versus trying to rely on a pill to do all the work for you.

The supplements will fill in the gaps to your hopefully already stellar diet. I recommend 2 supplements for almost every athlete – additions and modifications can be made individually. *Bonus Tip at the end of this section : why Ibuprofen is NOT good to use on a regular basis for recovery!

* Magnesium:

Magnesium is one of my new favorites supplements, especially for highly active individuals. Magnesium is a very important mineral that helps with the proper functioning of many processes of muscle tissues to keep it functioning correctly.  Some of the classic signs of magnesium deficiency, according to Ancient Minerals, are fatigue, muscle weakness or muscle cramps, and anxiety. (They have a magnesium spray that can be used post-training for recovery).

BenGreenfieldFitness gives an in-depth explanation of the benefits and latest research of magnesium on the body and improving athletic performance. Let’s discuss. The muscle cell at rest is slightly alkaline, and vigorous exercise changes this balance because as hydrogen ions and acidity increases, so does lactic acid which results in fatigue in the muscle.

ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is the energy source of every cell, and it must be bound to magnesium to be active. Can you imagine if you do not have enough magnesium to bind to your ATP? Muscle fatigue, muscle cramps, and even anxiety can result. If you are lacking magnesium your endurance can suffer because your oxygen uptake is not as efficient because your body is trying to keep up with the ATP production.  Studies have shown that with excessive sweating comes depletion of magnesium, which is even more reason for athletes to get supplemental magnesium.

Nielsen, F.H., Lukaski, H.C. 2006. Magnesium Research. 19(3): 180-189 had a great study on the effect of magnesium and exercise. Basically magnesium affects oxygen uptake, energy production, and electrolyte balance. Exercise causes magnesium to redistribute in the body, and even minor magnesium deficiency impairs exercise performance and increases oxidative stress. Sweating excessively can increase your need for magnesium by 10-20% (For males, less than 260mg/day and female less than 220mg/day).

There are different forms of magnesium, and also different modes of transmission. You can get a spray (transdermal) magnesium, which would be great for spot treatment post-training. Some athletes do intravenous magnesium (which usually gets administered by an MD or an ND), which is great because it goes straight into your bloodstream, and bypasses the gut. This option is pricier than an oral supplement or spray, but some people really think the IV push has a greater effect on their body. There are different kinds of oral magnesium supplements you can take –

Getting magnesium through food is a great idea. Dr. Mercola explains the benefits of magnesium and ways to get it in your everyday life. A magnesium atom is at the center of chlorophyll, and actually allows plants to convert sun energy into energy they can use! The highest sources of magnesium in foods are green plants, dried seaweed, dried pumpkin seed, cocoa, whey, almond butter, flaxseed, and dried basil.

In supplement form, magnesium must be bound to something to become bioavailable. Global Healing Center gives a good explanation of the different types of magnesium and uses. I personally like magnesium oratate because it has the highest levels of absorption and bioavailability.

* Fish Oil

I have been taking fish oils consistently for years. Every cell in your brain and body benefits from omega-3’s – they are great for inflammation, sleep, mental focus, your nervous system, the list can go on.

Triathlete explains that Omega-3 deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies. Only a few foods (some types of fish, flaxseeds, walnuts etc) contain significant omega 3’s.

If you are vegetarian you can take flaxseed oil, but if you can fish oil is best because it contains EPA and DHA – 2 specific fats that are essential for overall health.

What foods are high in fish oil ? Try to incorporate fish like salmon and sardines, flax/hemp seed, chia seeds, walnuts, spinach, basil, and dried tarragon.

* Bonus Tip – Ibuprofen and Tylenol does NOT help you recover faster.

Many people are in this cycle : train very very hard, feel very very sore, and then take NSAIDs to help with the inflammation and pain. This may not be the best protocol.

Triathlete explains the truth behind using over-the-counter NSAID’s for inflammation and pain. They explain that it can actually work against recovery. Todd Trappe, Ph.D., professor at the Human Performance Lab at Ball State University, has researched NSAIDs effects on muscle, and found that it actually interfered with your muscles ability to repair themselves. He explained that your body’s rate of protein synthesis goes up 5-0-100% after exercise, and the use of over-the-counter anti-inflammatories eliminated your body’s ability for this response.

If taken consistently over time, your muscles would not be able to grow or adapt to the training results you were trying to achieve. It also interferes with collagen production, which is the building block of muscles and gives it strength.

Coach Jeff explains that inflammation is actually a good thing. It’s your body’s response to the micro tears that occur during a hard work, and is the first sign of the healing process. The swelling and pain you feel after a hard work out is a signal of inflammation, but is also a signal that your body is flooding the area with fresh oxygenated blood and fresh nutrients for a faster recovery.

This study confirmed that NSAIDs after exercise actually slowed the healing of muscles, tissues, ligaments and bones. Its definitely something to consider when you are looking for the best and fastest ways to recover. Use some of the tips listed in this article, and see the difference it makes both in your recovery and prevention of injuries.

 7) Sensory deprivation / Float tank

Float tanks are my newest obsession.

I had no expectations going into it, other than I knew it would be 60 minutes of floating in highly concentrated salt water, in complete silence and darkness. Sounded awesome. We are constantly over-stimulated in our day-to-day; from our phones, tv, cars, people; its rare to have a silent moment in our entire day! The float tank allows you to have zero distractions, zero noise, and zero light; so your mind is completely at rest.

The amount of concentration of salt to allow you to float is so high, so everyone is weightless regardless of your ability to “float.” The added benefit is that your skin can absorb all the minerals like magnesium, which from what you read above, is so good for your muscles.  My favorite spot is Float North County.

In Discover Magazine, they did an analysis of 1000 descriptions of sensory deprivation, and more than 90% of them found it deeply relaxing. A researcher named Seudfeld has done a lot of work in the field. One study showed participants scoring higher on tests of creativity, while another study showed enhanced performance in athletic and musical tasks that require high levels of concentration and visual-motor coordination.

They hypothesize that the relaxation achieved in a float tank can be similar to the benefits of a deep sleep. Research shows that during resting states, the brain rehearses new skills learned and consolidates new knowledge for long-term storage. Such a great restorative treatment!

Above all else, I always recommend listening to your body – no one knows you better than yourself. It is an empowering feeling to be an active participant in your own health. Incorporate a few tips above and see for yourself how it affects your training, energy, performance, and overall well-being. Stay connected to yourself, and enjoy the ride 🙂

Best in Health,


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