Hal Koerner, one of ultrarunning’s best, once shared with us what University of Oregon track coach Bob Bowerman told athletes after a big win: “The next day, you just start again. Nobody cares what you did the day before.” Certainly motivational stuff, but don’t take it too literally. Definitely take some time off, especially if this is your first ultramarathon, Ironman, or other type of extreme race. Your body needs time to recover, say the coaches we spoke with—but just as importantly, so does your mind.
"Physically we are seeking recovery on two levels—superficial soreness and deeper-level hormonal recovery," says Duncan Callahan, an Altra Running elite athlete and official coach for this year's Leadville Trail 100 (a race he's won twice). "Training for and competing in extreme long distance events is not normal and not very healthy either, and I encourage folks to look at the long term when it comes to their training and racing."
Callahan recommends his 100-mile racers take four to seven days off completely from running and training, but not from physical activity altogether; he does suggest easy cycling (think biking to the store), walking (not extreme hiking), and floating, swimming, or jogging in the water. "I encourage folks to do what they can to promote movement in a gentle fashion," he says. "This will help with circulation, blood sugar control, and any mental anxiety from taking time off from training."
After this first few recovery days, he allows his clients to resume light jogging, but no more than every other day for 15 to 45 minutes. If you have another immediate goal on your calendar, he says, you can start training again at about the two-week mark, once you're feeling 100 percent again.
Ironman and ultramarathon coach Heath Thurston cautions against returning to competition too soon, however. "I feel fantastic coming off of an ultra, but I know that's still my body's endorphins talking," he says. "A lot of times people feel great and they try to race again two weeks later and just completely fall apart."
Long-distance triathlons require adequate recovery, too, he says: Although they might be easier on your muscles and joints than a running-only race, they tend to be a bigger cardiovascular stressor. "You're able to push yourself more intensely throughout three different disciplines," he explains.
Thurston recommends two to three full weeks of active recovery after any extreme endurance event during which athletes are charging hard for more than eight hours: Easy swims and bike rides are okay, but don't let your heart rate go outside of your recovery zone—and stop if you feel sluggish, sick, or like your head's just not in the game. "The time to push yourself mentally is in those training sessions leading up to the race—not afterward, when you really just need a break."
No races in the near future? Take a full month or two off from any structured activity, Callahan says. "This is not a license to do nothing, but I do strongly encourage people to get away from daily training, planning, logging, and the stress associated with all of this," he says. "The mental break is vital, and it's also important for the body to have an extended period like this every year."
Bottom line: To avoid physical and mental burnout after a long-distance athletic event, take at least two weeks off of running and any other moderate-to-intense exercise—or even longer if you're not training for anything else in the upcoming months.