FKT Long Term Recovery
In January 2022, Paul Cuthbert and I (Tom Bartlett) set the Fastest Known Time for the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT). One of the biggest reservations I had about the FKT attempt was the risk of injury and long term damage to my body. I had previously noticed how some people I knew from the ultra-running community never seemed the same after a big multi-day or multi-week effort. It felt as if sometimes they never returned to their original racing capability. I was 23 years old for this FKT attempt and, whilst I knew I wouldn’t be helping my 5k race time, I wasn’t willing to compromise my long term health and development. Much like the FKT Gear List & Analysis and FKT Tactics articles, I thought it would be a good idea to write up my experience recovering from the FKT attempt in the following weeks and months.
When Paul and I finished the FKT, I was broken and empty. I don’t think there is any better way to describe it. I had spent many days thinking about what getting the record and finishing would feel like. In my sleep-deprived state, the thought often made me feel like I was going to cry. However, when we finished, I felt nothing. No tears, no smiles, no joy. I was just done. Maddie drove me home and I went to try have a shower. I couldn’t stand up properly so Maddie had to fetch me a chair. This was unsurprising as I couldn’t walk or stand up without my trekking poles for the last day of the FKT. After the shower I ate some food, tended to my feet, and went to sleep. I slept from 8am to 3pm, and then went back to sleep from 7pm till 9am.
I slept around 14hrs a night for the first week, often supplemented with 1-2hr naps in the day. I was tired, irritable, and perpetually hungry. It wasn’t much fun. I had run plenty of races from 5km up to 160km before this FKT attempt, as well as hiked over 7000km of long distance trails around the world. Because of this, I thought I would have had a fair idea of what the recovery would be like. I didn’t think the recovery would be easy. In fact, I expected to be tired, irritable, hungry. What I didn’t expect what how deep the fatigue was. After a running race, I find that only certain parts of my body feel sore and tired (e.g. legs from running and sometimes arms from trekking poles). I didn’t feel as sore after the FKT attempt (I think marathons are the worst for acute soreness), but the fatigue was on a different level. I felt chronically tired.
For the first two days after the FKT I didn’t do anything. Then, for the first two weeks I would try get outside each day in some sort of fashion. Sometimes I would feel a bout of energy and use it to go for a gentle stroll, easy spin on the bike, or a float in the ocean (I was lucky to be at the coast during this time). However, after 20 or 30 mins I would feel like I had overexerted myself and that I needed to go lie down.
After two weeks, I improved significantly. I started doing 60-90 min rides and even felt like I wanted to do some easy jogging (20 mins). I didn’t sustain any injuries on the FKT and I was starting to enjoy the exercise. However, running and riding felt foreign and my muscles weren’t firing the way they normally do. I felt as if I had lost all my years of training and that I was back to square one, figuring out the basics.
Because of this, after a few short runs the base of my left heel started hurting (an old injury). Luckily, I had preemptively lined up an appointment with my physio for 2.5 weeks after the FKT. He assessed that, despite not being injured from the walk, my muscles weren’t yet recovered properly and I overloaded my achilles tendon running, triggering referred pain into my heel. In summary, although I felt I had the energy to run, my body wasn’t quite ready.
I was sick of spending time on fire trails after the FKT so I focused my time on the road bike, enjoying that it was fast, simple, and that I could pick easy flat routes that were kind on my body. It took me a month before I felt energised to ride hard and to want to push up hills. The one month mark represented a significant turning point for me, where I finally settled back into a somewhat-normal training pattern and rediscovered why I enjoyed being outside so much.
The thing that struck me the most about recovering from the FKT was the lingering sense of fatigue. It was often a two steps forward, one step back experience, where even 2.5 months later I’d say I’m only 95%. Although my training has largely returned to normal, most of it has been very easy with the emphasis very heavily placed on spending as much time at the coffee shop as possible. When I have done efforts or races, they have only been short and whilst I was having fun.
More broadly, whenever a significant obstacle has popped up in life, I haven’t felt like I was ready to put my best foot forward. It is only 2.5 months down the line that I feel I am only now turning that corner. I remember hearing from others with similar experiences that recovering can often be the hardest part, and I am grateful to Maddie and my family for looking after me whilst I have been pretty useless! I thought it would be interesting to compare how I perceived my recovery with what Maddie observed so she has noted some thoughts below. I asked her to write this before she saw what I had written.
My most distinct memory of Tom finishing the FKT was how he couldn’t seem to walk straight, almost appearing intoxicated as he staggered across the finish line. I had never seen him look so tired, and was quite surprised that he didn’t fall asleep in the car ride home. In the following days, Tom looked pale and would randomly start shaking. He spent most of his time just lying on the couch, and was much quieter and more reserved than normal. I had never seen him sleep so much before!
Even when his energy seemed to momentarily return, it would quickly be diminished after short tasks, such as walking, cooking or even playing board games. I remember he had more cravings for ‘junk’ food than normal, and one time asked me to do a Macca’s run to grab him some chicken nuggets and a burger.
I would estimate that it took more than a month for me to notice his energy levels were returning to normal.
Some interesting recovery data
Recently, Paul pointed out to me that we both had some interesting recovery data. Since we both wear Garmin watches 24/7, they track our heart rates and can determine our resting heart rates. Although heart rate data from a Garmin should be taken with a grain of salt, we both had interesting trends I thought were worth sharing. You can see the results below (my data left, Paul’s right):
From the graphs you can see there is a big jump right around the FKT (late January). My resting heart rate jumps from around 42bpm up to 50bpm, and slowly drops down to around 43bpm after a month (which coincided with when I wanted to start training harder!). Paul’s heart rate jumps more significantly from around 52bpm to 63bpm, presumably since he was tracking his heart rate during the FKT whereas I was not. After the FKT, his heart rate also takes around a month to stabilise back to pre-FKT levels.
I don’t think this data indicates we were recovered after exactly one month, but it is a nice and reasonably accurate physiological measure that can provide some insight into what the recovery was like.