Competing in a future Ironman is usually the furthest thought from a triathlete’s mind when crossing the finish line. But time and the massage tent heal all wounds, and the thrill of finishing soon morphs into planning for the next challenge. While research on muscle recovery after an iron-distance event indicates that muscles require two to three weeks of recovery following an Ironman or marathon, it may be much longer before the mind and the rest of the body are ready to tackle another endurance event.
While many worry about the effects of long-distance racing on the likelihood of injury, surprisingly little research has been conducted on how long it takes for tendons, cartilage and bones to recover from a long-course triathlon. However, new research from Dr. Anthony Luke, director of the University of California, San Francisco’s RunSafe Clinic, utilized emerging technology to shed light on the changes in the knee joint’s protective cushion—the articular cartilage—after a marathon.
The study, conducted on novice runners completing their first marathon, used advanced MRI imaging before and after the marathon to investigate changes in the knee’s cartilage. The study found that while no structural change in the cartilage occurred after the marathon, signs of cartilage “stress” lasted up to three months after the event. These changes could be suggestive of a vulnerability that could later progress to structural damage if further stressed. Luke also notes that this cartilage vulnerability may not be perceptible, leading athletes to feel ready before they are fully recovered.
Given these results, Luke recommends that novice runners and triathletes who have just completed an iron-distance event wait at least three months before taking on their next long-distance race.
The good news for more experienced athletes is that a history of long-distance running conditions the cartilage, much like it does the muscles and cardiovascular system. Conditioned cartilage is better able to recover from the stress of doing an Ironman, shortening the recuperation time necessary before the next event.
Dr. Marc Safran, the associate chief of sports medicine at Stanford University, also believes that cartilage, like other structures in the body such as tendons and bones, needs the stress of regular running to become stronger. In fact, Safran’s research on Stanford basketball players indicates that running and impact have a positive training effect on cartilage durability. “While I believe in the value of cross-training when training for an event, cartilage, tendons and bones need the regular preparation that can only come from running,” he says.
Recovering from an iron-distance event is very similar to preparing for one: It takes time. Celebrate your accomplishment and budget two to three months for recovery before tackling your next Ironman.