As you plan your next race season you may be eyeing one of the 24 hour championships, Spartan 24 hour Ultra-World Championship or World’s Toughest Mudder, that are now re-occurring events every year. After running and climbing over things for such an extended period you might be wondering: “What is going to happen to my body?” Here is a quick guide based off the 15x 24 hour Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) events I’ve done:
First Hour: After finishing a 24-hour race you enter what I call the “The Constant Pain Phase”. While five minutes earlier you may have been moving at a slow jog, now even the shortest walks seem like an insurmountable task. While the muscles are exhausted and already feel sore, your joints throb in pain. There’s no real solution. You just need to ride the pain wave for an hour and it will subside. The best advice I have is to take your mind off the pain by being social, enjoying the post-race high, and maybe a special snack to refill some calories (I recommend chocolate-covered Oreos).
First Night: After racing for 24 hours and being awake for probably around 30+ you should sleep great right? Sorry, that is usually not the case. You are about to enter the “The Tossing and Turning Phase”. Your body will still hurt but only when you move it. This means every time you roll over or adjust position, the soreness and pain may wake you from your sleep making it a very unrestful night. If you spent a large portion of the race cold and wet, get ready for some wild temperature fluctuations as your body struggles to maintain homeostasis. Whether you are too hot, too cold, sweating, or freezing, you’ll get a little bit of it all. It should go away after one night (2014 it lasted a couple of days for me). Add in your circadian rhythm being off from being awake for 30 hours, plus what may have been a large amount of caffeine taken to help fuel your performance and the night isn’t going to be super relaxing. Sorry.
First Week: “The Recovery Phase”. As a general rule, here is what I recommend: Don’t mess with anything. If your toenail is going to fall off, just let it go naturally. Don’t pick at blisters or scabs. Your body knows what it needs to do to heal. Skip the Ibuprofen. The stress of racing followed by natural inflammation and recovery is how you improve. If you reduce swelling via Ibuprofen, the medication will reduce your ability to improve from the stress of racing.
You may have trouble going up and downstairs for the next couple of days (downstairs is worse by the way). The muscle soreness will generally disappear within about 72 hours, which goes for any endurance event. Don’t jump back into training immediately. Your body has been through a lot and just because your muscles aren’t sore does not mean there is not damage to them. Remember you also stressed your nervous system to the max. It will need time to recovery as well. Get ready for some extra naps possibly during times that are not planned. While you may think that you’ll be starving from the extreme caloric deficit, it usually takes your body a couple of days to realize how many calories were burned before it wildly upregulates the desire for food. Feel free to indulge (a little), although binge eating isn’t recommended.
For all the World’s Toughest events in Nevada my lips were so chapped they cracked and were painful for several days. I knew it was coming this year and tried to prepare with chapstick. It did not seem to help. Event dependent be prepared for some other unique type issues like wind burn, sunburn, chaffing problems or any other scrapes/bruises you sustained on the course.
First Month: “The I’m Not Actually Recovered Phase”. The next month will largely be determined by where you raced. You will likely get some degree of all of these:
Sickness: When I raced World’s Toughest Mudder in Las Vegas (2014-2017) I got sick every year from inhaling a ton of fine dust/sand on the race course. I’ve also gotten sick after 24 hours of Shale Hell. Both are not surprising based off pushing your body hard, a drop in your immune system post hard effort and often riding the line of being cold and wet for extended periods of time.
Skin Peeling: At many events you’ll also get to experience the finger tip peeling. After abusing your hands in dry air, being dunked in water and scraped on rocks/obstacles the top layer of skin will be dead so it will start peeling off. Don’t freak out, it’s normal and not a big deal. Just don’t sign up to be a hand model (sorry George Costanza and David Duchovny’s in Zoolander). Of note, if you have a manual labor job or continue to use the gym, it speeds this process along.
Poor Performance: If this is your big event for the year, I recommend taking the month off. It will take you several weeks to bounce back to “normal”. An elevated heartrate is often a sign of overtraining and if you jump back into training, you’ll likely notice a high heartrate despite a slow pace. While you may see some athletes race for 24 hours and continue their seasons, perhaps even scoring a couple more wins or podiums, they usually don’t feel like they are back at 100%. It is just their 90% is better than some of their competitor’s 100%.
Injuries: This is likely when you’ll be able to tell if something is actually injured. After running a 100 mile race a couple weeks after 2014’s World’s Toughest Mudder (not recommended), I had to get a wheelchair to make it through the airport. Despite my mom suggesting I go see a doctor, I told her I needed to wait a week because everything was hurting and everything was swollen. After a week I was pretty sure I was fine and after a month I knew I had done no real damage. If you have some numb toes or fingers (especially if it is a cold year), don’t worry. By the one-month post-race mark, the feeling will likely come back completely or part of the way. I’ve lost feeling in fingertips and toe tips several times from military and racing. While I won’t tell you that it is healthy, I will tell you that it happens and not to panic unless your toes are showing signs of frostbite. (Editor’s note: If you have medical concerns following ANY race The OCR Report recommends you consult your personal physician immediately.)
From the First Hour to the First Month, this is a pretty good “on average” here on what will happen to your body after a 24-hour race. It will vary from person to person and even event to event based off things like your training leading up to this race, your training history, how close to your max potential you were pushed, proper fueling during the race and the physicality of the event. For example, during my Endure The Gauntlet 48 hour multi-lap I only covered 90 miles, a distance I’ve covered in three different World’s Toughest Mudders because the obstacles were much harder and the heat significantly affected my performance (You can read about that in my book Ultra-OCR Man: From Special Forces Soldier to Record Setting OCR Athlete).
While physically 24 hours of OCR takes a toll, mentally it can also be devastating. Check back soon for “What Happens To You Mentally After 24 hours of OCR?”
Want more tips on Ultra-OCR? Check out the Ultra-OCR Bible: A Complete Manual to the Toughest Obstacle Course Races in the World.