Ironman Recovery: A Veteran Competitor’s Tips

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While some people prefer to spend a Saturday Netflix and chilling, for Jill Walker, there’s nothing better than heading out for a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride, and topped off with a 26.2-mile run—aka an Ironman triathlon.

Walker completed her first Ironman in 2007, and was instantly hooked. “I just, you know, enjoyed being out there all day,” she says. “What better way to spend a day than swimming, biking, and running?”

Which is why, over the past 16 years, she’s completed 68 of these extreme endurance triathlons. That math works out to more than four Ironmans per year. For comparison, the average athlete takes about five or six months to train for this kind of race, and then another two to four weeks to recover afterwards.

Walker doesn’t exactly do average, though. Earlier this year, she and her husband, Dougin, completed six Ironman races on six continents in six weeks as part of their quest to join “the club” of people who’ve done every Ironman in the world (a club of which there are currently only five members). Last year, they completed two Ironmans in one weekend—one in Kalmar, Sweden, on Saturday followed by another in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Sunday. The Tampa, Florida–based couple even got married on the bike course during the 2022 Ironman in Cozumel before finishing the rest of the race. Casual.

Walker’s number-one key to recovering well enough to compete so often

This begs the question: How in the world does someone keep their body not only healthy, but recovered enough to compete in major endurance events so close together? (And Walker is competitive—during her six-in-six-weeks challenge, Walker won her age group in the Philippines and took second in Brazil.)

“Sleep is my superpower,” admits Walker. “I get, on average, nine to 10 hours a night.” Even in foreign hotels, or on planes during travel days, she sleeps well, she says. “I can just lay down anywhere and go to sleep. Once my head hits the pillow, it’s like I go into a coma,” she jokes.

Jill Walker. Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images for Ironman

This ability to sleep helps explain how Walker can manage such high volume. As experts will tell you, sleep is the most powerful muscle recovery tool we have. “Non-REM sleep is associated with the highest levels of growth hormone release during a day, allowing muscles to heal and grow,” Ben Smarr, professor at University of California San Diego in bioengineering and data science, previously told Well+Good. That human growth hormone helps repair the microscopic muscle tears that happen during exercise, helping your body bounce back and grow stronger.

And for endurance athletes like Walker, the muscle repair process that happens during sleep also helps improve your body’s stamina, according to Jeff Monaco, Gold’s Gym director of education. “If an individual is engaged in endurance training, the body will respond by increasing the oxidative capacity of those muscle fibers through increases in mitochondrial density and size,” he previously told Well+Good, adding that sleep also helps to keep your endocrine, immune, and nervous systems functioning properly so that your body can operate at full strength. (FYI: mitochondria are your cell’s battery packs aka energy sources.)

The effects of all this physiology are something Walker has long relied on. “I know there are a lot of people that are like, ‘I can sleep six hours and be fine,’ ” she says. “I’m just not one of those people.”

Her other recovery tools

Sleep may be the primary recovery technique Walker uses to get her to start line after start line, but it’s not the only one. Here are a few of her other non-negotiables:

1. Chocolate milk

“We have chocolate milk after any kind of workout, any kind of race,” Walker says. Research has shown this tasty childhood treat has an optimal ratio of carbs to protein for post-workout recovery.

2. Consistent body work

Walker and Dougin go to a chiropractor and also get a 90-minute massage every week. “It’s not a relaxing massage,” Walker clarifies, with a laugh. “Our massage guy beats us up, but it’s what we need.”

3. Normatec boots

Hyperice’s Normatec 3 Legs use a rhythmic series of compression from your feet up to your hips to encourage blood flow for faster recovery. “They also get me to sit still,” Walker admits.

4. Massage guns

Walker regularly uses portable massage guns, which have been proven to increase muscle strength and power, and to reduce muscle pain. In fact, having one is such a “must,” that when the couple forgot to bring their Theragun to a race, they ended up buying a Hypervolt while they were there. They also own the Theragun mini for easy packing. “It helps refresh, and make you feel better,” says Walker.

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