Whether you just raced the New York Marathon or some other marathon, you know that after training for months, and running hundreds and hundreds of miles, sometimes the last thing you think about is what to do when it’s over and done. Here’s a hint: Your training needs to include a post-race recovery plan.
Finishing a marathon, whether it’s your first or 40th, is a celebratory milestone. But before you crack open the champagne or collapse on the couch, you need to jump on that recovery plan.
The first few hours are especially critical — but full recovery takes up to a month. By planning your recovery as seriously as your training, you’ll help yourself feel better and ultimately, be able to run faster sooner after the race.
Hour 1: The Immediate Essentials
As soon as you cross the finish line, start replenishing those calories. Since it’s hard to consume lots of calories during a hard race effort, most runners are in a major calorie deficit post-race and need to start reversing that before the body starts to break down.
It can be difficult to eat when you first cross the finish line, but do your best to start replenishing your carbohydrate stores with about 200–300 easily digestible calories, in solid or liquid form.
Proper hydration is also important for recovery, regardless of the temperature. Because cold weather may decrease thirst, you may be dehydrated even if you aren’t feeling thirsty. Water is key, but sports drinks and warm broth will also aid electrolyte replacement. And though it may not be at the top of your list of fun things to do after your race, gauge for adequate hydration by monitoring your urine color (it should be pale yellow).
During this initial phase, you’ll want to resist the urge to sit or lie down. Your body needs a transition period to adapt from running for several hours, so keep walking and moving for 10–15 minutes. You want to facilitate a gradual change in heart rate and circulation rather than an abrupt stop, which could lead to lightheadedness and cramping.
Finally, as soon as you can you’ll want to change into comfortable, dry clothing. This is especially important on a cold or rainy day when you’ll quickly lose body heat once you stop running. Even on a warm day, you’ll likely feel a bit chilled after finishing your marathon as your circulation returns to normal.
2–4 Hours Post-Race
Next, it’s time to focus on a few precautionary steps to address any pain you may feel as your post-race euphoria wears off.
That’s where the ice bath comes in. Brutal as it sounds, a short stint in cold water can do wonders to help jump-start your recovery by reducing inflammation and increasing circulation. It doesn’t have to be as cold as it sounds: 55°F is the optimal temperature, but anything below 65°F is beneficial. Bundle up your top half while you submerge your lower half in the cold water for about 10–15 minutes.
Within four hours of your race, you’ll likely get your appetite back. Nutrition is an essential component of the recovery process, and treating yourself to a well-balanced meal with complex carbs, protein and healthy fats will help you feel significantly better in the days ahead.
Although you’ll want to keep moving throughout the day after your race, avoid static stretching, massage and foam rolling for at least 24 hours. In this post-race window of time, your body is especially taxed and sensitive.
12–24 Hours Post-Race
Sleep is your best friend in the recovery process. However, keep in mind that no matter how tired you may feel after racing, restlessness and/or muscle soreness may make your first night’s sleep less than ideal.
Along with sleep, continue to focus on your nutrition. Quality whole foods will expedite the recovery process and leave you feeling more satiated, no matter how tempting sweets or other empty calories may be.
As for anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen? Use common sense here. If you’re in pain, taking these in moderation after a marathon should be OK. Always consult a doctor if you have any medical conditions or are taking other medications.
24–48 Hours Post-Race
Over the course of the next 24 hours, continue to focus on sleep and nutrition and include active recovery. One additional strategy to minimize delayed-onset muscle soreness involves active recovery. Go for an easy walk or very slow jog for 10–25 minutes. If that sounds too intense, focus on zero-impact cross-training like cycling, yoga, swimming or pool running.
Remember: The point of active recovery is not fitness, but rather to increase blood flow and prevent muscle adhesions that can contribute to soreness. After this recovery effort, allow yourself complete rest for the next several days. If you have any injury or sharp pain that persists, it’s time to consult your doctor.
After a few days of complete rest, you can resume easy cross-training, a core session or body-weight strength work. Take it easy though because even if your soreness has significantly diminished or gone away, muscle damage can persist for a couple of weeks. Soreness (or lack thereof) is not a good indicator of how efficiently your muscles have healed.
Dynamic stretching is particularly effective during this time period, and by day seven, you can attempt a super short, easy run. Always err on the side of caution! While it’s normal to feel a little clunky when you first resume running, nothing should be overtly painful. Stop after 20–25 minutes no matter how good you feel, and allow another 48 hours before your next run to help with injury prevention.
Once you complete your second run with no major issues, you’re well on the road to recovery. Continue to run easy for the next week, starting out with runs every other day and a rest day in between. If all goes smoothly, you can build up to a 45-minute run by the end of the week. Keep the runs unstructured, and don’t focus on pace.
You may not believe it, but your fitness will return! It takes longer than a few weeks to lose your fitness, especially after a big marathon training cycle. The higher your fitness, the longer it sticks around during a recovery period.
Days 14–21 and Beyond
By now, you can resume back-to-back runs and continue to increase your weekly mileage. Slowly begin to build back into full training and incorporate low-stress speed work, like strides at the end of a run.
A structured, conservative approach to recovery will help you avoid running injuries and get you back on track quickly to prepare for the next big event on your racing calendar!