Marathon and ultra-marathon mountain bike races are hard endurance events to compete in and finish. The various terrains, from gravel roads to steep rocky mountain trails, combined with upward of 10,000 vertical feet of ascent, make for a long day in the saddle.
With finish times in the five to 10 hour range for most, these races can place a large physical toll on the body. How much of a toll will determine the length of recovery needed. Your recovery time will then determine when you can start to train hard and consistent again.
To do well in these races you need to push your limits. For some, just to finish will push their limits, for others it is to best a time or compete at the top. Regardless, whenever you push your physical limits, you’re going to experience fatigue both physiologically and mentally.
Studies on muscle fatigue, which are usually done on subjects performing shorter bouts of exercise, show muscle soreness peaking 24 to 48 hours post event but lasting up to five to seven days. Strength begins to rebound in 48 hours but a loss can be felt up to seven-plus days. Swelling is also associated with muscle damage and peaks within 12 hours of the event, and then again around five to seven days1.
Recovering from any event is going to depend on level of fitness, time of year and difficulty of the race. A few days off, resting and relaxing with either active recovery or easy riding is always a given, but then after the first two or three days, when the legs are feeling a little better, what do you do?
Training too much, too hard, too early can lead quickly to overreaching, which then takes extended recovery to rebound from. So it’s best to be smart, listen to how you feel and test yourself, to learn when it’s time to increase the intensity and volume of training again.
Jeremiah Bishop is a world-class athlete, a multiple time national champion and coach, now racing for the Topeak Ergon Global team. Topeak Ergon is focused on hard multiple day stage races and marathon MTB races up to 100 miles.
When Jeremiah recovers from a 100-mile ultra, he takes a few days off and then listens to himself. “I try to get off the bike for a couple days, hit the pool, do yoga or go for a jog. After three light days I introduce some speed work to see where I am. This system check can be a group ride, sprints or just hill jams,” says Bishop. “ I feel like crap if I just sit around all week, so this usually tells me I’m good to go for some maintenance-style work or if I need a few more days of easy stuff. Muscle trauma is a big factor for the ultra-long, six-hour plus race. If there is uphill running, it can take up to 10 days to feel back to normal in the legs. The aerobic system recovers a lot faster.”
Bishop also adds, “Early season is easier to recover from a 100-mile race. Later in the season, when I’m sitting on some form, I might recover for a couple extra days to keep my mind fresh. This keeps training exciting. I also lean toward more spaced and shorter, hard effort micro and meso cycles of training. You still have to go fast, it just doesn’t take much late summer.”
Listening to yourself and using all forms of feedback from power, form, heart rate, perceived effort and overall motivation will let you know when you can train hard again. When at least four of these five sources of feedback are in line, over several days up to a week, it is a sign of being fully recovered and ready to increase training volume and intensity once again.
Heart Rate and Recovery
Heart rate trends post-race can drift high or remain low with the first few workouts. Tapering, fatigue, and post-race recovery will likely skew heart rates. After a few days of training, heart rate will start to normalize. It is a sign of good recovery when heart rate responds quickly into zone 4 and 5, during a hard effort, along with low perceived exertions and good power numbers.
Power and Recovery
Power will rebound as recovery happens. Fatigued muscles have a hard time producing force for extended periods. To test recovery, work long, five to 10 minute Zone 3 and Zone 4 efforts, comparing power to season best averages.
To get within 5 percent of season’s best numbers or to be besting those numbers would a sign of good recovery. Repeating sprint and hill efforts, while maintaining power, is another way to measure recovery.
Perceived Effort and Recovery
Perceived effort will tell you how your entire system is working together. We have so many parts to our engine, from the heart to the lungs, legs and mind. When fatigued from the race, we don’t know which parts are fatigued the most. Power gives us a glimpse, heart rate does as well, but a low-perceived effort lets us know all systems internally are firing properly and that is a sign of recovery.
Form and Recovery
Form on the bike will tell you how your muscles are recovering. Fatigued, tight muscles will be sore and lead to poor form. If your spin feels choppy, legs are turning over slowly, and upper body fatigued—then it’s a sign you need more recovery.
Motivation and Recovery
Overall motivation and how you feel mentally toward training may be the most important form of feedback. If you’re experiencing little motivation to ride, take it as a sign you need more recovery.
Racing and training take a large toll emotionally, and at times you need to unload the emotional stress to have fun again. When you’re excited to get out and ride, you will get the most out of your training days, leading to the biggest gains possible.