It’s now over a month since we completed the Comrades Marathon and it has been a quiet month running (and blog) wise. During this time the emphasis has been on recovery – something that we have not particularly prioritised in the past. The Comrades up-run is quite an assault on both the body and mind.

In previous years after returning from Comrades, it is fair to say that we didn’t really pay sufficient attention to the processes that would allow healing and recovery. Buoyed by our successes we continued to run and race too much, too soon. In the short term, this has resulted in bailing out of runs and, in the longer term, a pretty lacklustre second half of the year.

This year we have attempted to do things differently. We have looked at what various experts have advised to make a good recovery and tried to put into practice the advice that made most sense to us.

This is a short post about what we did and why. We hope you find it useful.

The effect running an ultramarathon could have on your body

The Comrades Marathon up-run is 87 kilometres long. Strava puts the elevation gain at 1,854m but that is almost certainly an underestimation. There are many articles written about the effect that running an ultramarathon has on the body. It doesn’t make for comfortable reading. We underlined the word “could” in the heading because these things don’t necessarily happen to every ultra runner and when they do they are almost always temporary and reversible.

Over and above the obvious muscle fatigue, gastrointestinal upset and blisters often encountered on the day, running 50 miles plus can have hidden, longer-term effects in many other areas.

Muscle, tendon and ligament damage

It is tempting to think that once the initial muscle soreness has abated, sometimes after only a couple of days, that it is ok to run again, but microscopic tears are still present in the muscle fibres. Allowing them to heal before returning to running will actually make the muscle stronger (adaptation) whereas going back too soon will cause scar tissue to form which is not as strong and less elastic.

If muscle damage is severe then myoglobin is released – a large molecule that can damage the kidneys. This condition, rhabdomyolysis, happens to some extent in many endurance runners but for a few it can become a serious condition needing medical treatment (very dark brown urine is an indicator of severity).

The other connective tissues such as tendons and ligaments often have poor blood supplies compared to muscle tissue and it follows that any damage to them is slower to heal. Needless to say, failure to allow sufficient time for this healing process can lead to longer term chronic injuries.

It is also common for endurance runners to have an inflammatory reaction in the bones of their lower limbs. Symptoms are not always present but this reaction, often referred to as ‘bone oedema’, weakens the bone involved and can be a precursor to a stress fracture.

Other physical effects that ultrarunning may have on the body include:

Damage to blood cells

The number of blood cells can be decreased during an ultra run by a process of haemolysis: blood cells rupture because of the constant pounding of the feet during running. The average runner’s stride rate of 90 strikes per minute might be a bit lower during ultras but still amounts to something like 5000 strikes per hour.  The loss of haemoglobin and therefore iron from these damaged cells can cause temporary anaemia.

Increase in cortisol hormone

Ultra running causes an increase in cortisol – an anti-inflammatory hormone often referred to as the stress hormone. In general an increase at the right time is a good thing and part of the process of adapting the body during athletic performance. The problem arises if cortisol levels stay high for too long. It is then linked with poor immune function, weight gain and cognitive decline.

Weakening of the immune system

Intense physical stress for a prolonged period can lead to a change in the concentration of immunoglobulins. These protect us from both viruses and bacteria. It is often reported that around 30% of runners get respiratory infections after ultra running. With a lowered immune response, runners are more vulnerable to disease and infection.

Other physical symptoms reported by runners in the days after a race include sore throats, night sweats, restless legs, swollen lymph nodes and water retention.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of the all the physical problems that may be associated with ultrarunning but more to give an indication of the potential extent of the recovery task.

As well as the physical issues there is also:

Mental Fatigue

It appears that the constant surveillance of the body by the brain/mind can lead to mental fatigue. Tim Noake’s ‘Central Governor’ theory suggests that the brain is in charge of regulating physical activity and safeguarding the body from over-exertion. It would make sense therefore that the longer the time spent in the activity and the more extreme the conditions then the more the brain needs to work to maintain a homeostasis.

The brain, like other parts of the body, can tire. Glucose can be used up by mental processes triggering a series of reactions in certain areas of the brain, increasing amounts of adenosine which in turn blocks the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for feelings of joy and pleasurable reward. The absence of this ‘feel-good’ chemical makes everything feel harder and in some people can lead to depression. Interestingly caffeine blocks the increase in adenosine. (More about this in Alex Hutchinson’s excellent book Endure ).

The point here is that mental fatigue is real too, whether it happens via the mechanism outlined or some other process. Often after a significant physical effort over a prolonged period of time – training and racing – the mind/brain also needs time to recover.

Don’t be put off!!!

All the above might seem a bit scary. This is often the case when describing what are, in the main, physiological adaptations to athletic endeavour. Good training and sensible racing should prepare the body for the task. The issues need to be highlighted so that the appropriate recovery process is adopted to avoid problems developing. After this the body should be actually be stronger than before.

Recommendations for recovery

So our bodies (and minds) need to recover. What do we need to do?

We turned to three experienced and influential figures in Comrades running to find out what they recommended. Firstly Bruce Fordyce, nine times winner of the Comrades marathon. Secondly Coach Parry, the official Comrades Coach, and thirdly Coach Norrie, Two Oceans and Comrades marathon coach. Fortunately, they all more or less agreed on the best approach.

No running for two weeks. Coach Parry would prefer no significant exercise for three weeks but recognises that many people will not hold out that long. He suggests swimming and the use of stationary bikes to try to prolong the non-running period to at least three weeks.

Bruce Fordyce suggests gentle running after two weeks but no racing for at least six weeks or until the ‘spring’ has returned to your leg muscles. Even then he is talking short distances, 10k’s and cross-country. For a May Comrades he suggests no proper training until August so maybe, after a June Comrades, that would be a return in September for us.

Coach Parry agrees on shorter distances for the months after Comrades with maybe a half marathon during September or even later.

Coach Norrie stresses that it will take six weeks to repair muscle damage. During this period he encourages gentle exercise alongside healthy nutrition. The aim is to ensure good circulation to deliver the necessary nutrients to damaged muscle fibres. Again he sees the second half of the year as a time to race shorter distances.  He suggests that PB’s are to be had over these distances by gradually increasing your cadence, which has probably reduced during the longer runs, and making use of your solid endurance base. Coach Norrie is not in favour of attempting a marathon until late October.

All three stress not to rush back to racing especially long distance and, interestingly, all advocate getting involved in the cross country season which starts (in South Africa) soon after Comrades. They see the change of distance and terrain as being rejuvenating.

Recovery obviously varies from individual to individual depending on levels of fitness, training and age but the level of agreement above suggested to us that this was a good starting point.

What we did

For the first two weeks we did very little by way of running. Not being able to hold out completely we both attempted a short, slow run towards the end of that time. However our legs felt heavy and tired. We tried to eat well – with plenty of protein to help repair and build muscles, fruit and vegetables to replenish vitamins and sources of calcium to help bones. During these first two weeks we volunteered at parkrun and did some walking. Mentally we were not ready to put any effort in to running.

The excellent food at Kubili House in the Kruger National Park, where we spent a very relaxing few days post-race, certainly got us off to a good start nutrition-wise!

Making use of non-running time to volunteer at Richmond parkrun.

An ice lolly stop while run/walking the Tamsin Trail

The first event we had booked was The Harry Hawkes 10 miler – this was just two weeks after Comrades. Mindful of what we had read about recovery, instead of attempting to race the event we decided to adopt a run/walk routine of 4 minutes running, one minute walking from the start of the race. Afterwards we both agreed that we would not have been able to complete the distance as comfortably at a continuous, running pace equivalent to our average pace on the day (Cam 5:31 and Jacquie 5:51).

Run/walking was made popular by Geoff Galloway in the USA, initially for those starting out to run. The approach involved taking frequent walk breaks from the beginning of a run and gradually replacing the walk breaks with continuous running as fitness and strength is improved.

Run/walk has since been adopted by some runners as a  technique for completing marathons. Proponents claim that the benefits of regular walk breaks, from the beginning of the event, include preventing muscle fatigue, alleviating the psychological stress of running long distances, and improving post-run recovery, and that it results in faster over-all times.

‘Jeffing’ is not without controversy and maybe worthy of a separate post but for now it seemed to us to be good for our recovery runs especially the psychological aspect of running again.  We decided to continue to run/walk distances from 5-10k for the next few weeks. On average we ran 4 times per week.

Proudly wearing our Comrades t-shirts with Jarryd Hillhouse

In the start pen for Harry Hawkes 10 with Caroline Hargreaves.

Progress so far

Five weeks on and running up till now has been difficult. Neither of us has particularly wanted to make the effort to run though both of us were wanting to be outside. Our legs have felt heavy and tired. It has not helped that some days have been very warm. We have walked a lot and run/walked some. A few times we have just run but only for 5-10k at most. We have both run a very relaxed parkrun.

Last week we took part in our second event, the Run Through Olympic Park 5K. Our times were slower than previous attempts on this course  but according to the coaches it is still too early to be racing so maybe this is not unexpected.

On reflection we decided that the 10 miler that we ran two weeks post-Comrades was too long a distance to take on at that time, even run/walking it as we did. We don’t think that helped our recovery and perhaps set us back.

Unfortunately Cam has been badly affected in the last week or so by hay fever just as her legs were starting to recover so an attempt at running in an event at the weekend was aborted.

This week we have another 5-10K race. Maybe not yet time to go flat out but certainly the ‘spring’ is starting to return to our legs and in another week or so, hopefully, it will be time to up the miles.

What we have managed to do in the weeks since returning from South Africa is to plan some races for the Autumn and Spring. We are hoping that taking our time over returning to training/racing and keeping things varied will mean that we have a better second half of the year this time round. The next marathon that we plan to race is not until October with a half marathon strategically placed at the beginning of September. We have some exciting times ahead.