Recovering From a 100 Mile Trail Race: Tips from Top Western States Finishers

Tayte Pollmann’s articles are supported by American Trail Running Association corporate member Nike Trail Running. You can follow Tayte’s adventures on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Western States is an American Trail Running Association corporate member.

100 mile trail races can be some of the most mentally and physically challenging races to recover from. Over the course of the race, participants induce extensive muscular and tendon damage, sleep deprivation, GI distress, glycogen depletion, nutrient deficiencies and much more. It may be challenging to recover and feel strong after finishing a 100-miler, but there are many things you can do to heal your body more effectively.

Listed below are some post race recovery techniques used by the top finishers at the 2019 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, held this past June 29-30. These runners are some of the top ultra-distance trail runners in the world and they all have unique methods of getting their body back to 100% after running a 100 miler.

See the end of this article for a list of the top-five best ways to recover after finishing a 100 mile trail race.

Prior to winning Western States, Clare Gallagher was the top U.S. woman at the 2018 Trail World Championships. Photo: Miro Cerqueira

Clare Gallagher – Boulder, CO – 1st place female. Time 17:23:25
“Last week after the race, I went rafting, ate a bunch of junk, drank a bunch of cider, got acupuncture and slept under the stars all weekend!”

Kaci Lickteig – Omaha, NE – 3rd place female. Time 17:55:55
“After finishing Western States, I immediately took a bottle of water and started drinking it. I then got off my feet and started putting my warm clothes on to avoid getting chilled. After driving to the hotel, I was able to eat a protein bar and some donuts to help replenish my body before showering. After showering, I was exhausted and tried to sleep. Unfortunately, trying to sleep wasn’t easy with all the aches/pains, muscle spasms, and being wired from the adrenaline and caffeine. I at least made myself lay down and rest before getting back up in the morning to go watch the Golden Hour runners (runners who finish Western States in the final hour before the 30-hour cutoff).

The day after the race I tried to walk around and do some light stretching. I was also conscious of trying to rehydrate and eat whatever sounded good (which was not easy when your stomach feels queasy and off). I found that simple foods sounded best (fresh melon, Subway Flatbread egg sandwich w/ veggies, Fritos, water, and chocolate milk). I tried to eat small amounts every couple of hours. I was exhausted too and after traveling to the next hotel in another city, I took a nap for about an hour. Then I stayed inside with the air conditioner on and tried to keep my feet up and elevated since they were swollen.

The second day after the race I knew it was important to do light activity to facilitate the healing process. There was an outdoor pool that I walked around in. It was a low-impact activity, which helped to reduce the force on my joints and muscles. It also helped with decreasing the edema I had in my ankle. I put compression socks on my legs that were knee high since I was having swelling in my ankles. I watched my sodium intake and tried to drink as much as I could tolerate. I found that my stomach was still very sensitive to food and I had to eat whatever sounded good at the time. I tried to eat every couple of hours.

The following days I allowed my body to sleep and nap whenever I felt like I needed it. The deep exhaustion really stayed with me until I was able to sleep in on the following weekend. I didn’t set an alarm on the weekend and allowed my body to sleep as long as it desired, which ended up being 10 hours! So sleep is very important in recovery. Get as much as you can. I also won’t pick up real training and running until about 2-weeks after the race. I may jog here and there, but nothing formal or that may set back my recovery. I will go for walks and bike rides in order to get outside and help my body to recover. Not doing anything is not advised, the body needs motion to heal. Just make sure it’s at a low effort and fun!

I know I will start to miss running, but I will give my body patience before returning to run. If something isn’t feeling good during a run I will cut it short and walk. It’s more important to allow all the physiological and mental healing to occur. The active recovery will make you better in the long run!”

Addie Bracy – Longmont, CO – 9th place female. Time 19:53:38
“Honestly, I would say the best thing for my recovery was taking epsom salt baths. I took one at 2am after the race and then twice a day for the next 3 days and actually feel great now!

After finishing a 100-miler, I usually take a week of no running. I pretty much do nothing the first 3-4 days. Then I get out and move, whether it’s going for a walk or light bike ride. I don’t push hard but I think it’s important to get the blood flowing and flush things out. I will typically do a test run at the 7-day mark, but I keep it short.”

Tyler Green running through Foresthill in the 2019 Western States 100 Mile.

Tyler Green – Portland, OR – 14th place male. Time 16:51:32
“We had a vacation planned right after Western States, so I spent as much time as possible sleeping. I think I’ve had 8-9 hours every night for the last week. I also walked around a good amount. We like to say ‘motion is the lotion’ or ‘movement is improvement. It doesn’t need to be much, but getting around and moving is essential, and walking tends to be the simplest way to do that.”

Matt Daniels – Boulder, CO – 4th place male. Time 15:21:36

In addition to drinking more “Beer!”, Daniels also shared these additional recovery techniques:

I focused on getting a lot of sleep. The best recovery takes place during REM sleep, so I didn’t worry about setting an alarm. If I wanted to nap, I napped. Also, I really focused on taking in a lot of calories to get my hormonal levels back on track. Those were really the two biggest things I did. Other than that, I’ve just been catching up on work and maybe having an extra beer here and there!

Corrine talking to Nancy Hobbs after winning the 2016 USATF 50 Mile Trail Championships.

Corrine Malcolm – San Fransico, CA – 10th place female. Time 20:02:29
“Every race is so different, and leaves you with slightly different recovery needs.

I don’t run for at least a week after a 100 mile effort but that does not mean I’m completely inactive. In past years that means getting out on a bike, but I have a bulged disc and a pinched sciatica nerve so I haven’t been able to ride a bike for several months at this point. So, I include a lot of gentle walking and hiking. I live in a city so I walk to do errands, meet up with friends, etc. Aside from that (gentle movement), I try to get as much sleep as I can, I get very little sleep the night before the race and the night we finish running, but every night since then I’ve gotten 8-11 hours of sleep. I was lucky to have a vacation scheduled for post race for a few days so I didn’t need to set an alarm clock and could just let my body do what it needed.

Unless I’m injured I can generally start running again a week or so after the race I do however take it really easy and give myself the flexibility to keep things really reigned in and cut things short. I think it’s easy to jump back in too quickly and have it come back to bite you weeks down the road. With another big race (UTMB) planned for the end of the summer I’ll ease back into running over the next week and be back close to a normal training schedule two full weeks after the race.

If the race gave me a particularly bad gut (Western States did not this year), I try to eat low inflammatory foods for the week post race to let the gut injury heal.”

Chris Mocko -Boulder, CO – 12th place male. Time 16:29:32
“Top tip = keep moving! I didn’t do a lot of running, but tried to get out for at least 1-2 hours of walking/hiking each day. Should’ve done more pool time and more stretching as well!”

Brittany Peterson finishing on the track in Auburn at the 2019 Western States 100 Mile.

Brittany Peterson – Pocatello, ID – 2nd place female. Time 17:34:29
“I took 4 days off entirely of running, purposefully did some walking on those days – walked for a few errands, walked the dogs, etc. I had access to a pool and hot tub early after the race and this was helpful to move and facilitate circulation. I also focused on remaining hydrated. I feel like active recovery is important once soreness has subsided some. My first run back was only 30 minutes and a mix of walking and running, as my quads were still quite heavy, sore and tired. The goal of the run was to feel better after the run than before. I did 2 runs like this, but listened to my body to make sure the running was facilitating recovery and not adding fatigue (I didn’t even average 10 minute miles so it truly was slow and easy). My first real run back was 8 days post race and it was only 8 miles and still pretty slow, as my quads are still pretty heavy. At this time, running is still very cautious to ensure recovery without adding fatigue. This is how I will move forward while carefully returning to actual training. I also continue to use products for recovery such as a recovery drink after my runs and various muscle rubs (Super Herb Plus from Runner’s High Herbals). Foam rolling and light core routines are another important part of my recovery.”

Top 5 Ways to Recover After Finishing a 100 Mile Trail Race:

Sleep More
Sleeping more after your race is one of the most effective recovery techniques used by all the athletes featured in this article. Sleep will help your body repair and overcome the sleep deprivation you might be feeling from the limited sleep the day before and the day of the race. Consider taking short naps and getting at least 8-10 hours of sleep every night the week after your race.

Listen to Your Food and Drink Cravings
Listening to your body’s food and drink cravings after a race will help you meet optimal nutritional needs for recovery. Whether that means drinking beer or chocolate milk or eating fresh melon and a protein bar, make sure you listen to what your body needs. Total caloric intake should also be increased, but make sure your stomach is willing to cooperate. Unless you have an iron-stomach, it may be a few days before you feel able to eat normal meals. If you experience stomach issues, try eating easily digestible foods or smaller and more frequent meals to meet the high caloric demands of recovery.

Some trail runners LOVE beer for recovery.

Keep Moving
All the athletes featured in this article cited some form of easy physical activity as one of their most important recovery techniques. Low-impact activities, such as walking, swimming, or biking are best because they will increase blood flow to your damaged muscles without adding stress. Tyler Green’s “motion is lotion” is a great way to think about the benefits of easy exercise. Doing easy exercise lubricates your joints and helps you avoid post race stiffness.

Take Time Off
Taking time off after a race from your normal work, training and daily routines will help create an environment conducive to recovery. If possible, plan a short vacation after your race to allow yourself more time to sleep-in, meet your nutritional needs and relax. Turn off your alarm, let yourself snack, take naps, and gradually return to training for your next race.

Use Recovery Tools and Treatments
Using recovery tools and treatments, such as foam rollers, medicinal rubs, massages, chiropractics, acupuncture and epsom salt baths can help reduce stress on your body and mind. Find something you can do consistently and that works for you. Foam rolling and epsom salt baths are great things you can do on your own, whereas other treatments such as acupuncture you will need to find a specialist. Many races will offer recovery tools and treatments immediately post race, such as massages or chiropractic adjustments, free of charge.

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