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How Much Recovery Is Enough?

World champion athlete and coach Melanie McQuaid details the numerous factors that impact how much recovery an athlete needs after long endurance events.

Melanie McQuaid wins the 2014 Boise IronMan 70.3.
Melanie McQuaid wins the 2014 Boise IronMan 70.3.

You’ve completed an Ironman, ridden a 24-hour mountain bike race, or, in the case of Fast Talk Labs cofounder Chris Case, circumnavigated Iceland by bike. Now what? What type of recovery do you need, and how much?

Trying to establish universal guidelines for recovery from an ultra-endurance event is next to impossible. There are myriad factors that impact how an individual’s body handles the stress it has been put under by the particular challenge.

What can be established are the factors that should be considered when gauging how stressful an ultra-event has been or will be, before weighing their influence on your own reality.

First, defining ultra-endurance is important. Each endurance sport has its own guidelines and definitions of “ultra.” For example, ultra is defined as a run over 26.2 miles—beyond a marathon. For cycling events, anything over 100 miles can be considered ultra. And for triathlon, an Ironman distance (140.6 miles) or longer falls into that ultra-category.

These events will last anywhere from three to over 24 hours in length—and sometimes much longer. Obviously, this means ultra-events covers a massive range of intensities. Furthermore, there are grey areas in the definition of what an ultra-event constitutes; you’ll have to decide for yourself if these rules apply to the event you are recovering from.

So, what are the factors that you need to consider before deciding what your recovery needs are?

General guidelines for recovery needs

There are a variety of factors that have an impact on how long recovery will take. Generally, start with a day of recovery for every hour that the event lasted. For example, if you took 14 hours to complete an Ironman triathlon, start with 14 days of recovery.

This timeline is often inadequate and inaccurate as there are levels of recovery to achieve. Your musculoskeletal system is going to recover faster than your nervous system, so it can be challenging to know when everything is ready to go.

This “rule of thumb” also can go in either direction. In my experience as a coach, even highly trained professional athletes might be back to some regular training immediately following an Ironman race. However, to properly prepare for a peak performance at another race could take weeks or months. This is in stark contrast to a study on a male age-group athlete indicating “markers of fatigue” had disappeared within seven days, suggesting full recovery from the event within a week. [1]

In my experience working with pro and age-group athletes, you are better off maximizing recovery, rather than minimizing it, in the quest for long-term development and future strong performances. Each individual is a case study of one, which means your own experience with your recovery needs is invaluable.

In making your own decisions, the following factors determine whether you need more or less recovery time. Whether you are a full-time professional or an age-group amateur, these factors weigh into how long it will take until you are ready to train again. If you are ready to race again after that amount of time is another conversation.

Parameters affecting recovery

The following factors influence how much time will be required for your recovery. Remember, each factor must be weighed against the others to understand what combination is relevant for your needs.

Body morphology

Body morphology affects how quickly your body can adapt and repair from long endurance efforts. Generally, athletes that are more muscular require more time to recover and repair. Similarly, an athlete’s muscle-fiber type can weigh into recovery needs, as athletes with more fast-twitch versus slow-twitch fibers might require more delayed recovery, particularly from longer endurance events. [2-5]


There is some evidence that female athletes can tolerate long and strenuous races better than men, and that they may recover faster as well. This is related to body morphology, as females tend to have a higher percentage of Type 1 slow-twitch muscle fibers, which is associated with faster recovery. [2-5]

Current fitness

Your current level of fitness is a significant factor in recovery needs. The more specific fitness an athlete takes into a long event, the quicker that athlete can absorb that stress. This preparation might include weeks and months of specific training; previous races that presented the exact training stimulus; and years of accumulated training load. Simply put, the current fitness an athlete has, in addition to the years of exposure he or she has to endurance stress, the less challenging an ultra-event will present to the body.


Age generally affects how quickly the body recovers. Decreased hormone levels reduce capacity to repair muscle and connective tissue. Some older athletes might have difficulty getting adequate sleep, which is crucial for the body to repair and restore immune function. Sleep also impacts mental and neurological recovery.

The good news is a fitter, older athlete will still recover faster than the unfit, younger athlete. Current level of fitness is a major determinant as to how quickly the body will adapt to a race. Athletes at any age that are careful to maintain muscle mass and tissue durability via focused strength training will enjoy quicker recovery as a result. Finally, focused sleep hygiene can mitigate some of these recovery challenges. [5]

Nutrition and pacing

How the race unfolds can impact how long recovery will take. If the effort is well paced and fueled, the stress on the body is much less than if your nutrition or hydration strategy goes awry. Sometimes this is related to fitness and preparation, but even great preparation can come unravelled with unrealistic pacing. Glycogen depletion in the muscles creates massive stress on the body, and in very long events can take significant time from which to recover. [6]


Things like the quality of your nutrition and sleep, how much downtime you get, and your baseline stress load all affect how quickly the body can bounce back from an ultra-event. If you want to recover quickly, it is important to plan appropriate downtime and recovery strategies to give your body the opportunity to recover and repair.

Too often, athletes pack chores and activity into their recovery time, thinking that while they are recovering and training less is a good time to tick items off the to-do list. Building a deck, reorganizing the house, and taking on big, stressful projects at work all add up to equivalent training stress to your body—it really doesn’t know the difference. The more stress-free time you give yourself to absorb the race, the quicker you will adapt and get back to racing. [7]


The location and climatic conditions of your race also play a role. In hot environments, for example, heat production due to intensity is the main factor. So, despite the fact that some ultra-events require sustained exposure to elevated temperatures, there is a higher risk of heat related illness and/or delayed recovery in events where the intensity is relatively higher.

Event profile

The type of event—the terrain, the difficulty, and so forth—will affect recovery.

Higher impact activity increases neural load and increases muscle fatigue, meaning running events will have a higher recovery requirement per hour of the event than a cycling or swimming event. Long running events will require more recovery time than a long triathlon; likewise, the triathlon will take more than a long cycling event. For running events, the intensity of the effort weighs heavily into determining required recovery time. [10-11]

An elite runner will complete a marathon in around two hours, but elite runners generally only run one to three marathons a year. The neural load demand to running the marathon distance in two hours is massive. The faster a runner is traveling, the more neurological and impact stress is presented. A 50-kilometer trail race run at the same intensity of a 50-kilometer road event might require longer recovery if there is significant downhill. Downhill running adds eccentric loading that takes more time to absorb.

Considering the course profile and terrain helps inform the recovery required. For cycling events, the more stochastic/inconsistent the race is, the longer recovery will take compared to a race that is flat and steady. Mountain bike racing demands short, sharp efforts that demand more fiber recruitment and build more neurological stress. Hilly and punchy courses will be more challenging to recover from than something flat and steady.

Directing your recovery

To determine the timeline for recovery from a long endurance event, start by weighing the above guidance—and always lean toward more versus less time.

The following is a specific recovery plan for a 50-55 age group male athlete who raced the Leadville 100 mountain bike race and planned to do the St. George Ironman 70.3 World Championship five weeks later.

Leadville was the priority race; the St. George Ironman World Championship was an unexpected bonus qualification after a good performance earlier in the season. He decided to do St. George for the experience and mostly focus on Leadville. The goal was to arrive in St. George with a fancy belt buckle from Leadville and enjoy the hilly and hot conditions at 70.3 Worlds. Notable factors to consider in this recovery timeline:

  • Travel fatigue getting to Leadville and back from his home in Georgia
  • Temperature gradient from home to Leadville and humidity change from home to St. George
  • Stress from extreme altitude without time for acclimation; arrival date was not ideal
  • 10-plus hours of racing at high altitude on a mountain bike
  • Travel fatigue getting from Georgia to Las Vegas

Week 1

After Leadville, I had this athlete take a combination of complete days off and a choice of 20-30 minute swims, bikes, or runs through to the weekend. This unstructured rest was important so he could listen to his body and do what he felt like doing, and not what he was compelled to do.

He chose to ride too long on Wednesday and commented on it being fun but that his legs were tired. He tested himself at a 100-mile race at lower elevation the previous season, so we had some idea of how long he would need after Leadville. Still, we took it slow and took notes on how things were going.

On the weekend, I suggested riding two hours in the aero position on the bike on Saturday with an aerobic longer run Sunday. He rode three hours on Saturday and confirmed he was tired in the last hour and did not need the extra hour of riding. He also ran a bit longer than prescribed on Sunday but said that he felt good.

On Monday he was tired from the weekend. The fitness boost you get from long races can fool you into thinking you are more recovered than you really are. The truth comes out when you push a little too hard or, in his case, go a little bit too long.

The first week you need to be disciplined and do less because in the acute phase of recovery your muscle glycogen is depleted so you don’t have the same endurance for long training sessions and your muscles may still have damage, particularly from stochastic riding like mountain biking. These immediate recovery needs must be completed for you to resume normal training.

Week 2

His swimming increased to full volume with some intensity. Bike and run workouts were slightly less total volume, and included 50-70 percent of normal specific race intensity volume if the session was going well. He was reporting feeling very good for running but that his power was not 100 percent on the bike. This indicated some lingering fatigue, but the first layer of recovery was complete as his legs were bouncy on the runs.

There were two complete recovery days from endurance training in this week. Three days of this week were dedicated to body-weight strength training and mobility to elicit an anabolic hormonal response and speed up recovery. No heavy static strength training was included.

Week 3

All his workouts were feeling good. He did similar training to week 2, with one slightly longer workout on the weekend to maintain specific strength endurance leading into his World Championship race. Most of the focus was at or above race-specific intensity with lower overall volume. His endurance was not going to be a limiting factor, so we didn’t need to do anything but maintain this with his race-specific training.

There was a little more attention on leg speed both for the run and the bike. Similarly, strength training included abbreviated plyometric work. Long races dull the nervous system so injecting some speed into a really strong but not particularly fast athlete is important to stimulate neural engagement. Along with some race-pace work, we used small amounts of high cadence riding and quick uphill-strides running.

Week 4

Similar to week 3, I included a medium-long endurance run to build some rhythm for the half marathon he was running at Worlds. This week he resumed his normal strength training routine with plyometrics. This week started with 3-4 days of unloading again with a block of harder bike workouts on the weekend. This is how he normally tapers for a race, so we incorporated a trusted taper strategy.

Week 5

This included a normal 70.3 race taper leading into a good race for him in really tough and windy conditions.

In summary, the athlete was completely recovered by week 4, but because we wanted to get back to running as soon as possible, we may have delayed recovery in order to layer in some run training to get his neural engagement back sooner. After the 100-mile MTB race the previous season, we were only focused on cycling, so running stayed on the back burner. He was back to full training a week earlier as a result.

This is a consideration multi-disciplinary athletes need to make: Eccentric loading from running is hard on the quad muscles which are the same muscles you are fatiguing in long cycling races. Deciding how much is appropriate in the time frame available is athlete- and event-specific.

The art and science of recovery needs

To summarize, follow these simple suggestions to take advantage of the science and experience that goes into determining your recovery needs:

  1. Understand your body and the other factors affecting your recovery
  2. Design your recovery plan based not on a single example or set of instructions, but on the specific needs you have—by knowing the “why” behind what you’re doing.
  3. Finally, if it isn’t already apparent, good communication between coach and athlete can dramatically enhance a recovery plan.

If you aren’t rolling straight into another race, the following is a list of effective recovery activities to improve your post-race recovery:

  • Listen to your body
  • Employ yoga, mobility, and easy strength training
  • Choose unstructured low-intensity exercise
  • Sleep
  • Eat well
  • Do alternative, fun, and gentle activities

When you feel fully recovered, resume training for the next adventure on your bucket list.


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  2. Lievens, E., Klass, M., Bex, T., & Derave, W. (2020). Muscle fiber typology substantially influences time to recover from high-intensity exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 128(3), 648–659.
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