Feb | 22
Running Tips

My Ultra Marathon Recovery in 7 Steps

I rang in 2017 by attempting the Ultra Trail Tai Mo Shan, a 100-mile ultramarathon through Hong Kong’s Hills. Around mile 60 I suffered food poisoning and battled nausea, dehydration and migraines before DNF’ing (Did Not Finish) at the 86-mile checkpoint. It was only the morning after, as I rehydrated and the headaches passed, that I realized the toll on my legs.

During the back half of the ultra I sprained my left MCL and developed severe inflammation in both IT bands.

Either of these injuries can sideline a runner for several months. In this post I will share my steps* for how I designed a recovery plan and kept myself on track to begin training again within thirty days.

Step 1: Take Stock

Following the race I gently stretched to inventory soreness and range of motion. I massaged each muscle, joint and ligament to gauge pain threshold. I began with my toes and feet and worked up to ankles, calves, knees, quads, glutes and hips.

Even before the inventory it was obvious my feet and legs had taken a beating. Four toenails were blackened or cracked and my left ankle had already ballooned from swelling. Both calves felt like stone (predictably, given the 40+ calf cramps out on the course).

My left knee was the sorest of all – I was unable to extend and contract without severe pain in my MCL (the medial collateral ligament connects the two bones in your knee). My quads felt like bowstrings pulled to their limit with both IT bands throbbing (the iliotibial band connects your knee and hip). Fortunately, my hamstrings, glutes, hips and back were merely tight but without damage.

Taking quick notes in a training log helps establish a baseline and enable closer progress tracking.

Step 2: Timely Triage

Lactic acid deposits can markedly slow recovery. Immediately following the inventory, I took two anti-inflammatory ibuprofens and drank as much water as I could swallow. I then set to work rolling each muscle to clear debris. I started out at an easy pace with gentle pressure but gradually accelerated as the tissue loosened.

It’s best to apply more pressure when you’re pulling the roller toward your core as this aids circulation and clears more residual faster.

My left knee and IT bands were too tender for any significant movement but rolling helped warm up my calves and quads for gentle stretching.

Stretching in the days following a marathon or ultra can damage exhausted or micro-torn muscle tissue. Start slow and use caution to avoid setbacks.

Next, in an effort to salvage four blackened toenails, I lanced blisters under the nail to drain the fluid and relieve pressure (with partial success as only two nails have fallen off in the weeks since). My face, neck and ears were sunburned from overexposure to tropical rays so I applied Aloe vera to reduce the sting.

The path to recovery can feel daunting so small wins provide an outsized mental boost.

Step 3: Sleep Smart

Sleep is our body’s time to rejuvenate and make replenishing repairs. But not all sleep is equally valuable.

Depending on your injury, different sleeping positions can significantly aid (or inhibit) your recovery. I sought to optimize MCL recuperation during sleep. The MCL shortens when your leg is extended while lengthening when bent. Sleeping with a straight leg (and shortened ligament) for several hours would make walking an ordeal the day following.

My solution was to sleep with both legs bent 90 degrees. This kept my MCL elongated and allowed gravity to channel more fluid from the IT bands, two key objectives in my recovery. I targeted seven hours of sleep split between a four- and three-hour block bookended by ice therapy sessions. This arrangement enabled me to reduce swelling while properly recharging each evening.

Sleeping smart accelerates healing so it’s worth devising a winning strategy.

Step 4: Chill Out

 The virtues of icing are well documented. I sought to reduce swelling in my ankle, knee and IT bands so went with a steady diet of ice baths. Shortening the treatment interval accelerates results so I began a thrice-daily icing schedule: 8pm, 2am and 6am. By dividing sleep around ice therapy sessions I experienced less knee and ankle stiffness the following morning.

Ice baths are unpleasant (especially early mornings!) but particularly effective at reducing swelling.

Step 5: Drink Up

Research suggests that besides sleep, fluids are your best friend. I aimed to drink twelve glasses of water, three whey protein shakes, and three glasses of fresh vegetable juice each day. My body craved protein and essential vitamins to aid in muscle repair.

Fluids are particularly critical in the first week of recovery so make a hydration schedule and set calendar appointments or phone alarms so we remember to follow it.

Step 6: Chow Down

An optimized diet provides recovery rocket fuel. After the ultra I stocked the pantry with salmon (omega-3 fats for anti-inflammatory effect), almonds (omega-6 fats for building antioxidant capacity), and Brazil nuts (magnesium, zinc, and a jolt of testosterone for faster recovery). To stay on track at work, I packed greens and three salmon fillets for lunch and a full stash of DIY trail mix for snacking.

I’m no Martha Stewart in the kitchen so I prepared a simple stir fry dinner of potatoes (to replenish muscle glycogen), broccoli and cauliflower (to eliminate free radicals while boosting anti-inflammation response), and eggs (which contain the vital amino acid leucine). Add your favorite meat and spices and dinner is served.

Recovery is taxing so your body will crave macronutrients to restock vital supplies. My appetite was ravenous the week following the ultra. Between five daily meals, snacks, and protein shakes I was consuming upwards of 7,000 calories.

The road to recovery starts in the kitchen so plan accordingly.

Step 7: Keep Score

I have a “small things, all things” mentality so aim for 100% consistency in training. I treated my recovery no differently.

For each day I adhered to the full recovery program, I placed a big red X on the wall calendar. The desire to keep building my “winning streak” kept me on track for the 2am ice baths and IT band rolling sessions that stung the most.

Find a fun way to keep score and you’re more likely to follow through, too.

 

Distance running is enormously rewarding – we have the fortune of finding strength in solitude while exploring nature’s surreal splendor. To continue enjoying this great gift, it’s critical we invest in recovery with the same focused determination we do our weekly mileage.

I am very fortunate to have pushed through rehab and am now back onto ultra training. I’ve qualified for a place at the Hardcore Hundred Miles, a trail ultra in the Philippines with over 37,000 ft. of cumulative elevation gain.

With just three months until the starting gun, I’m working to build my endurance, flexibility, and grit through a customized “Prehab Program” designed to prepare my mind and body for the stresses of the trails of the Philippines.

In the meantime, see you on the trails!

*These seven steps are reflections on what worked for me. I am NOT a doctor, and none of this advice should be taken without first speaking to a qualified medical professional.

About the Author

Greg Nance is the Seattle Seahawks 12Ambassador and works to expand education access as Chairman of Moneythink and CEO of Dyad.com. Learn more at www.gregnance.org and connect on Instagram for daily training tips and ultra stories: Nance.Greg.

About Guest Blogger
The Brooks Blog regularly features stories from our athletes, running partners and friends who exemplify Run Happy.
82 Comments
  • Kerric Knowles

    Great advice. It is interesting to learn the best practices for bouncing back from such a physically taxing race! I have my own recovery schedule for after long Ultimate tournaments (usually involving hours of Netflix) which is surely far less effective.

  • Luca Servodio

    Love it! “Small things, all things” is the new mantra.

  • Fergus

    Great read! Not sure what sounds more taxing, the 60 mile food poisoning or the early morning ice baths. Keep up the running

  • Ezgi Cubukcu

    Great piece on the recovery process post-ultra marathon and interesting to read about the diligence and consistency required to help recover and heal after such a grueling race. Love the tip on using a calendar to track your progress against your goals – definitely going to try that myself! Good luck on that next ultra!

  • morganhartley

    Recovery is just as important as the training. Love this piece! Taking inspiration.

  • Susanna Ma

    Very insightful and inspiring. It’s great to see the author covered the part we most likely ignore.

    Haha love this btw –> “The road to recovery starts in the kitchen so plan accordingly.”

  • Lisa Xu

    Such an inspirational article! Really admire the author’s mentality and grit. Every marathon runner SHOULD read this.
    Good luck for all the upcoming adventures.

  • Pat Moriarty

    I’ve been running for 42 years, most recently completely the Boston Marathon as a 61 year old. Greg’s (7) steps make a lot of sense to me. Far to many times during my running career I ignored the signs my body was giving me and payed he price. Every serious runner needs to adhere to Greg’s inventory.

    ~ Thanks for the advice

  • Marvin Mathew

    I had no idea about this, wow. I need to find a local bath!
    “The virtues of icing are well documented. I sought to reduce swelling in my ankle, knee and IT bands so went with a steady diet of ice baths. Shortening the treatment interval accelerates results so I began a thrice-daily icing schedule: 8pm, 2am and 6am. By dividing sleep around ice therapy sessions I experienced less knee and ankle stiffness the following morning.”

  • victorjih

    Thanks. It’s so helpful to hear about these types of tips. I’m always focused on the race itself rather than recovery…

  • Sebastian Marshall

    Fantastic piece. What’s the best way to start learning about biomechanics, such as sleeping with knee extended or bent? Any recommended resources?

    • Greg

      I’ve been lucky to have running pals who are into biomechanics and enjoy sharing their experience. Slowly built my routine with loads of trial and error. One YouTube channel to recommend: AskDoctorJo — lots of handy PT advice that blends scientific explanation with actionable advice and exercises.

  • Amber One

    Great piece! So glad to have met you at the event. Although I am only doing 1/3 of your distance! Still remember what you said in your previous post – Ultrarunning has become a mobile meditation where I worship in a natural cathedral.

  • Fabien Moureaud

    That is some nice piece of advice, thanks for the share! Keep it up!

  • Alan

    A super methodical rundown. (Ha!) Thanks for sharing!

  • Lonnie Stonitsch

    Very thorough, with lots of practical how-to advice that can be replicated. Good luck on the next race!

  • Patrick Wauters

    Great tips Greg! I completely agree that athletes pushing their bodies with races like your ultra need to take recovery just as seriously as training and racing. Thanks for concise checklist!

  • Kat H

    Thrice daily ice baths sounds agonizing, but it’s inspiring to see the lengths you’ll go in the name of health and recovery. Good luck on the upcoming ultra Greg!

  • Bob Stewart

    Greg is one of the toughest people I have ever known. He applies that toughness to his racing AND as this article shows, also to his recovery. His keen mind and love of the sport shine through this entire article.

  • WJG

    Great advice, especially on the sleep routine. More and more, the prep work matters on my recovery

  • Mike Jank

    Glad to know you’re back on the road! Keep up the great work and best of luck in the Philippines!

  • Jason D. Rowley

    Greg is one of the most tenacious and passionate people I know. I knew his training regimen was pretty strenuous, but I had no idea it was like this. Just the amount of liquids he consumes in a day seems like a challenge.

    This is a really solid breakdown, though. There’s definitely a lot to take away from this, even if ultra marathon running isn’t your thing.

  • Ted Gonder

    Great tips, Greg! Something I’ve been thinking about recently is how we as athletes tend to think of the “hard work and discipline” as being the training and the racing. Push harder, train harder, go harder! But I find that this is really just the easy part of the equation for die-hard competitors, because it FEELS like we’re doing the hard work. It’s not boring.

    Recovery on the other hand is boring, and as such tends to be even harder psychologically some days. JEEZ, do I really have to foam roll for another 10 minutes? This is taking forever and I’m not even sweating!

    But just as with any craft or endeavor, it’s the tedious day-to-day that ultimately leads to world-class victory.

    Live to fight another day, run another race, win another championship!

    Onward my man!
    TG

  • Ben Wilson

    I’m just starting to do a little running, and these tips from a seasoned pro are super helpful. Thanks!

  • Li Chen

    Great tips! I like how you explain in detail why those steps are necessary, super informative and helpful. Good luck on your next race!!

  • Karis Tsolomitis

    Whether you are an ultra runner or a casual athlete Greg’s tips are crucial for setting yourself up for a successful workout and maintaining a healthy body for a lifetime of exercising. Looking forward to incorporating some of these ideas into my long distance cycling training regiment and wishing you all the best in your next ultra!

  • Ben Hudgens

    I hope to never count the loss of fewer toenails as success, but the tips are spot on. I’m recovering from my own skiing injuries right now and going through these steps in my own right. Keep healthy Greg!

  • gleslie

    Very inspiring stuff! The attention to detail is awesome and reminds me of my rehab from a torn ACL and MCL in college. Finding ways to bring the spirit of competition to your rehab plan is huge in staying sane mentally and also for best results!

  • liz lemon

    great article, been trying to make an ice bath in my nyc apartment and ended up turning my living room into water world. please send tips on how to eat almond butter in normal serving sizes, i.e. not the entire container at once.

  • Samuel Kidder

    Excellent tips, especially re: the benefits of certain foods. I’ll try to apply these tips to my next epic 5k. PS- as a lawyer, the asterisk was very comforting.

  • Eoin Brown

    Never surrender never give up

  • Theo Hunt

    Greg, you are a machine! (In the good sense, like – spoiler alert- Rick Deckard, possible replicant, I know). Great work, but man that sounds painful. If you aren’t aware already rumble roller is the most effective roller I’ve come across. It is better at breaking up (potential) scar tissue than any other rollers I’ve used due to its spikes or prongs. It takes time to get used to but I’ve found it really helpful (*not a doctor either). Good luck in the Philippines!

  • Nirant Gupta

    Too bad about the DNF, but awesome job learning from it/getting back on the horse for the Philippines/ reflecting in a way that’s useful for the community. Thanks and best of luck with the next one!

  • Cheryl Marie

    Well, except for the testosterone-rich Brazil nuts, I’m on board with your recovery plan, Greg! I love that like everything else in your accomplished life, you turn recovery from injury and exhaustion into both science and art, thoughtfully parsing out what works and what doesn’t, and then in your great generosity, share it with the rest of us! Thank you for managing to turn something so excruciatingly painful into a teaching experience. I can’t wait to read about your next adventure!

  • Love that picture Greg – inspirational as always. Step 3 is key for everything in life, not just running. Training yourself to have an ergonomically appropriate sleeping position sorts out so many problems. Looking forward to the next post!

  • Daniel

    Greg, are you a fan of epsom salts? I’m often very curious of the impact of mineral supplements and anti-inflammatory compounds during the healing process, particularly if you’re expecting a quick turn-around.

    • Greg

      Daniel – I’m a big fan of hot soaks to warm up stiff muscles. I’ve read a bit of the epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) literature and the jury is still out on the science of mineral healing. It seems to help me sleep better and loosen up quicker during long runs but I may be experiencing a placebo 🙂 I haven’t seen any documented downsides so you can enjoy your epsom salt baths without guilt.

  • Hayley Anne

    Thanks for the pre Chilly Hilly tips…hills are speed work in disguise!

  • Daniel M. Donohue

    Man, what great insight into the myriad concerns and challenges you face when you push your body to its extreme limits! You’re truly an inspiration, G-nast. Keep at it; we’re all rooting for you.

  • Daniel M. Donohue

    Man, what great insight into the myriad concerns and challenges you face when you push your body to its limits! You’re an inspiration, G-nast. Keep at it; we’re all rooting for you.

  • Awesome tips — so much to learn from Greg’s experience here. Thanks for sharing!

  • Chase Mizzell

    Glad to see you made it through this one without bats haunting you in the night 🙂
    Love the recommended sleeping tips; I’ve tried with bent knees and it has helped my sore lower back after exercise.
    Your dedication and consistency are admirable. Proud of you, brother!

  • Ryan Vogel

    Crystal clear recommendations grounded in what works — Greg, thanks for taking the time and thought to articulate and share your lessons learned and methods practiced.

  • Re: icing, any thoughts on cryo tanks? Steph Curry apparently does it after most games. They are springing up throughout the Bay Area — $70/session.

    • Greg

      I haven’t personally tried a cryo tank yet but a running pal relayed it helped him work through joint pain faster than expected. Will dig into the literature to better grasp the benefits. When it comes to training and rehab I like to install “easy habits” — small, convenient actions which are likelier to stick. It’s easier and cheaper for most of us to keep ice in the freezer + develop a pre-icing ritual than to battle Bay Area traffic for the cryo tank. Let me know when you try the tank – Curious for your scouting report, Ben!

  • Great insights from a great operator, and I know for a fact much of this psychology spills over into Greg’s thinking as an entrepreneur. This guy’s one to watch in both fields in 2017. God’s speed my friend!

  • Joseph Constanty

    Great info Greg. I am going to apply some of these techniques to my recovery schedule after my football matches so I can get back on the road quicker the following week so I can get my miles in. Small things, all things.

  • Michael

    Awesome article. Love /readinghearing about your adventures – even when they don’t have the happiest of endings. Keep it up, man. Rooting for you!

  • Zach Peach

    Such an inspiring read! Thank you for sharing these 7 steps to incorporate into a winning strategy. Too many times I’ve been beaten up after races and long runs causing me to take time off and slow my progress as a runner. I will certainly work these steps into my recovery plan going forward. Thanks for sharing Brooks and getting me motivated to hit the trails!

  • Greg! Fantastic and inspiring article about what I will term your “ultra-recovery”. I didn’t realize that there was so much important minutiae when it comes to running and bouncing back from endurance events. Additionally, I am impressed with your attention to detail and self-discipline, but I am in no way surprised :). Keep it up and keep charging ahead. Take a vacation after your upcoming run in the Philippines! 😉

  • Chantal

    That is so inspiring! Thank you for sharing your insights and tips. Will definitely take the “small things, all things” Greg Nance mantra into my next endurance programme. THANKS!

  • David

    Great material here Greg! I’ll definitely be using this in my run-up to Montblanc and the Paris Marathon.

  • Smrita Choubey

    Thanks for sharing this Greg! I continue to be beyond impressed and inspired by your resilience. I’m currently training for half marathon #4 and feel like I always botch the recovery process. After the race is over I usually skip all the self care you noted here and then wonder why I am so sore for an entire week haha. Although I’m not doing anything nearly as rigorous as you, your outline provides a great overview of how to help yourself heal so you can continue training. Keep up the good work and thanks again for the inspiration!!!

  • Daniel Tedesco

    An energizing post. Thanks for these great recovery tips, Greg.

  • Chris

    Hey Greg keep up the good work. I liked the detail in your post. Looking forward to more from you in the near future.

  • Anh Hoang

    You are both crazy and very inspiring. As someone who is terrible at long distance running – this is really great advice and encouragement for me to start up smart. Thanks for sharing!

  • Monica

    Well written and full of good content!

  • Nick Hasko

    To echo what’s been said, this was very useful! It gives a great structure for physical recovery when you take beating attempting to achieve a big goal. I’ll definitely take some of this tips into the future in my own runs.

  • William O’Connor

    Great article, Greg! Sounds like some great tips for the other, equally important half of the ultra running equation. Can’t wait to read about the next race.

  • Donald Blake

    Great read. Lots of common sense in there but it is all too easy to forget about or skip it when tired following a race. Recovery is the first step of preparation for the next race!

  • Louis Demetroulakos

    Great article Greg!! The different steps are concise and powerful at the same time. Even reading your piece about “recovery” makes me want to go for a run. In addition, the personal side of your routine and story are also important to hear, as they bring more boom to the ideas presented. Thank you!!

  • Wenz Xing

    Seahawks hat is a good touch. Keep it up

  • May Yeung

    Simple, insightful tips! Kee up the good work!

  • kris10_f

    Wow, sounds like quite the battle. It’s a good reminder that you need to take care of your body not only before a race, but after. I’m sure you’ll be back in top-shape soon. Can’t wait to hear about your next adventure!

  • Isis Smalls

    Wow! Thanks for this “behind the scenes” look at the life of an ultramarathoner. As a complete outsider to this world, I would imagine that all I would want to do is pass out for the next month, but clearly the journey isn’t over after race. I’m just amazed by the amount of thought and planning that goes into the recovery. Great piece!

  • Addis Goldman

    Thanks for this Greg! I think everything is important, but the most important thing in my mountain climbing experience is mind over matter ie Step 7: Keep Score. The mind has the ability to stand in for the lack of physical strength in a state of bodily emergency and urgency. Strong legs are good, but an iron will will get you through those moments that require strength that goes beyond the body.

  • Kristen

    Very helpful! I always feel like I’m DYING after a long race! I’ve also never thought about how important it is to focus on perfecting my diet *after* a race. Good tip!

  • Jessica Michelle

    Great article! Wish I’d read this three years ago after my own IT band issues, as it could have saved me a lot of recovery time. Thanks for sharing! Best of luck in the Philippines!.I

  • Ben Blowes

    Great advice, thanks Greg.

  • Naman Sanghvi

    Love the attention to detail on this. remember talking to Greg back in 2011, and taking tips from him on preparing for my own upcoming half-marathon. I to this day use those tips for maintaining my fitness levels. Very inspiring! Kudos

  • Jessica Schumann

    It takes a whole lot of discipline and dedication to train for a big race. It however takes a whole different level of patience and discipline to recover the right way. All too often I see people run race after race and fail to listen to their bodies. My hats off to Greg for showing dedication before, during and after a race. He offers sound advice and we can all strive to be better at taking care of ourselves.

  • Go Greg!

  • Mike

    Great overview! Since I haven’t run many ultras it’s great to see what works for others who have more experience. I need to employ these steps for long training runs as well. I didn’t know that it was important to apply more pressure rolling towards the core and that you needed to ease into stretching, but this makes perfect sense. Thanks!

  • Dean Nance

    Love the article. My new Brooks shoes look great. I’ll continue with my 5k distance but I’ll still use this advice. At my age I need these tips.

  • Kara Zucker

    Incredible, well-written piece. As someone who grew up with marathon runners, definitely great advice if you do get injured!

  • Sean Patrick

    Great advice on recovery, and I think you have finally inspired me to start drinking fresh veggie juice daily.

  • Austin Y

    Greg – awesome stuff here and fantastic tips. My mother and father did ultras in the past and I saw through them how grueling it can be and what kind of a toll it can take on your body. Great that the world and Brooks have such a resource in you and that there are people out there sharing recovery tips with the rest of the ultra community. Keep up the awesome work.

  • Great recovery suggestions. I think these are equally useful for triathletes like me as we recover from ultra races that also take a significant toll. I have never included sleep positioning in the mix, but will throw that into my recovery after my next long race in May. I’ll check back here after the Hardcore Hundred Miles for your reflections and to hear about the race!

  • Josh Kerns

    Great advice here Greg. I can’t even imagine the dedication and sacrifice needed to even attempt an ultra marathon. You are an inspiration and I look forward to applying your advice to my far less strenuous exercise endeavors. But you are insane!

  • Mike Nance

    Appreciate the inspiration and the attitude!
    You keep me thinking about what I can do to kick-start and maintain my own trail running

  • Franziska Gonder

    Such an important post, Greg! Everybody keeps talking about how to get to the next level of performance through another 10xperformance workout plan…the topic of recovery instead is just not highlighted enough!

    Very much agree on the ‘food recovery’ point – A 80/20 paleo diet with only the healthiest carbs has helped me a lot.

    High Five! Good luck!

  • Nick

    Wow Greg this is a great breakdown of your recovery steps. Telling your experience really helps me learn as an amateur looking to improve myself!