After an ultra-marathon, any athlete, from the novice to the elite, will experience a degree of muscle soreness for up to 10 days. This is not caused by lactate, as was until recently the popular belief, but by microscopic tears in the muscle fibres. We know that because blood tests a day after an ultra show high levels of the enzyme creatine kinase, which leaks from the damaged muscle fibres.
Furthermore, high levels of the enzyme hydroxyproline is an indication of connective tissue breakdown. This means that tendons, ligaments and the sheath around muscles are also damaged and will need time to rebuild. This damage is mainly due to the eccentric nature of running. This means that the leg muscles must elongate while under tension – in this case due to gravity and body weight – in order to decelerate and control the running action.
Many athletes will develop symptoms of infection or inflammation in the first two weeks, often in the form of sore throats, sinus, cough and fever. There is still some debate whether these symptoms are caused by a bacterial or viral infection, or whether it is an inflammatory or allergic response to the high rate of breathing for so many hours. Also, mental fatigue, or even mild depression might be experienced a day or two after the race, probably caused by the depletion of neurotransmitters in your brain – the same enzymes that give runners a ‘high’ are used up during such a long event and will need time to regenerate.
DO’S AND DON’TS
Here’s what you should or should not do straight after the event in order to recover faster:
• Keep walking for a few minutes or lie down with your legs up to prevent blood from pooling in your legs and the resulting drop in blood pressure.
• Drink sufficient fluid containing electrolytes to correct any dehydration. Be careful not to drink too much water, though, since it can lead to life-threatening water intoxication.
• Don’t consume alcohol. It dilates blood vessels, which will aggravate the muscle damage, increase scar tissue formation and prolong the recovery process.
• Eat or drink some high GI carbohydrates within 20 minutes. This will help to replenish your glycogen (energy) stores. Have a meal containing carbohydrates as well as protein within two to four hours.
• A gentle massage might make you feel better. Some studies suggest that massage within two to 10 minutes might help boost immune function and help your heart rate and blood pressure to return to normal faster. However, don’t have a deep, hard massage, as it will exacerbate the leaking of fluids and enzymes out of the already damaged muscle fibres.
• Icing down sore and injured muscles will cause blood vessels to constrict, which will prevent ‘bleeding’ from the microscopic tears and also help reduce inflammation.
• Stretching might make your muscles feel better temporarily, but will not prevent soreness. The damage to the muscles is already done. However, stretching might help the recovery process by improving circulation.
WHEN TO START AGAIN
How long one should rest depends on many factors, and will be different for each athlete – the amount of muscle damage, your age, fitness level, injuries or infections, etc, all play a role. Theoretically, you should rest from all training for a month, then concentrate on non-weight-bearing activities like cycling and swimming for another two months to keep up your cardiovascular fitness without damaging your muscles again.
Keep in mind that you also need to recover psychologically. Use the time to reflect on your race and your training and what you should have done differently, then put it aside and just enjoy other forms of training and activities that you didn’t have time for during your Comrades training.
DON’T START TOO SOON!
The microscopic damage and breakdown of tissue is also the mechanism by which your body gets stronger, since the muscle repairs itself to be stronger than before. If you don’t allow the body time to complete this cycle, the muscle and connective tissue will instead get weaker, leading to continuous injuries. The damaged cells can also die completely and form scar tissue, which is not as strong or elastic as muscle and connective tissue, making the muscle weak and prone to injury.
The most important thing is to listen to your body. If you are wondering whether you are ready to start training again, you are probably not! Take another week or two until the spring is back in your legs. When you cannot wait to get your shoes on and get back on the road, then you are ready.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patricia is a Sports Scientist and Biokineticist in private practice in Bedfordview, Johannesburg. She focuses on wellness, rehabilitation of injuries, injury prevention and sport performance. Patricia is a competitive runner, cyclist and triathlete.