It’s no secret that triathletes spend a lot of time in the water. Most of it, however, involves either training or getting clean. But water is also a powerful recovery tool. When the main set and hitting key intervals becomes our sole focus, we’re missing out on a chance to boost our overall performance, post-race or post-workout.
In North Carolina where I live, I’ve been able to enjoy lounging in various bodies of water immediately after a race. The Watauga River, still quite chilly on a warm April day, made a lovely circulating ice bath after a tough 15-mile running race in the mountains. Our numerous small lakes become popular destinations after the sprint triathlons held almost every summer weekend. And a favorite memory is standing waist-deep in the Atlantic with two of my coaching clients, under a starry autumn sky after the half-Iron distance Beach2Battleship race. In each of these circumstances, the water has served a triple purpose for recovery: it cools, it supports, and it brings closure to the event.
Water tells your body that the work is done and the rebuilding can start.
If you’ve ever endured an ice bath, you know the painful pleasure of cooling your legs and hips. Submerging your body in cold water creates vasoconstriction, which draws the blood away from the extremities and toward the center to maintain your core body temperature. This movement of blood from your limbs helps reduce inflammation after a pounding workout or race. When we exit the water, blood returns to our legs, bringing in new oxygen and hastening restoration of the muscles. Think of this alternation as a pump, creating an internal massage for your muscles.
Water also creates a gentle external massage for your muscles. The hydrostatic pressure of the water helps support your legs, and helps push any swelling in your legs back to center. The buoyancy we feel in water is a welcome shift from the way we usually experience gravity; it evokes an embryonic sense of weightlessness and sends us a signal to relax.
And that’s where simply floating—whether in an ice bath, a pool, or a natural body of water—can have a subtle but definite effect on your recovery: it tells your body that the work is done and the rebuilding can start. Think of how relaxing a warm bath can be at the end of a long, taxing day. Some of that effect is physiological (heat relaxes your muscles), but much of it is psychological. Taking the time to rest, outside of work and workouts, jumpstarts healing in both body and mind.
Here are three easy ways to include water in your recovery:
Ice It: After a running workout or a brick that involves more than 90 minutes on your feet, spend 10 to 15 minutes in a cool bath or a cold bath with ice. Some studies suggest 55 degrees as ideal; others say that cool water is as good as ice water. To make your ice bath a little more cozy, eat a warm recovery snack like oatmeal, cocoa, or hot soup as you soak.
Float On: After a race or tough workout, float or sit in the closest body of water. This could be the lake or ocean where your race took place, or a nearby creek. Swimming pools work, too, and in the winter they double as ice baths. Don’t go in water colder than 45 degrees, but anything under 82 will feel nice and refreshing. If there are pool toys around, thread a foam noodle under your arms and another under your hips, or hold onto a raft and let your legs dangle. Gently running the legs also feels great.
Heat Up: Don’t get into very hot water when you’ve incurred local inflammation in your legs—the heat can exacerbate inflammation. During regular training, however, a few minutes in the hot tub or warm bath can help you relax and increase the blood flow to your recovering muscles. Just be sure to soak after your workout, ideally, if your workouts occur near toward the end of your day, this can all be part of your unwinding for bed. (Because you’ve all been focusing on sleeping more since reading my last column, right?)
If you’re going to be at USA Triathlon’s National Championships in Tuscaloosa, Alabama this month, join me for a presentation on recovery. Coaches will receive CEUs, while athletes will learn concrete ways they can enhance their recovery. Click here for details.
Sage Rountree is a USA Triathlon Level 2 Certified Coach and author of The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga and The Athlete’s Pocket Guide to Yoga. Her extensive research and work with triathletes and ultrarunners have taught her to value recovery. She leads yoga workshops nationwide and presents regularly for USA Triathlon. Visit her schedule at sagerountree.com.