Running can be hard on the body, especially when you’re on your feet for more than an hour. In fact, research has shown that too much high-intensity exercise can actually do more harm than good.
Fortunately, experts say you don’t have to avoid longer runs if you take the necessary approaches to rest and recovery. Here are five must-do’s to properly recover from a long run — and ensure you’ll be ready for the next one.
Rehydrate and Refuel
The most important thing you can do immediately after a long run is tend to your hydration and nutrition needs, says Abby Bales, a physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning coach from New York City.
“Your body will be in a state of depletion,” she tells us. “If not addressed, this will prevent you from fully benefitting from the physiological effects of your training.”
It’s crucial to replace the fluids you lost during a run, so knowing your sweat rate can help you avoid dehydration — or overhydration.
And while a pancake breakfast might be tempting, Beth Shaw, a USA Track & Field running coach from Clearwater, Florida, says to avoid stuffing yourself with a carbohydrate-only meal. Instead, aim for a balanced mix of protein and carbs, such as an omelet and smoothie or a bagel, hard-boiled egg and fruit. Try to consume this meal within 30–45 minutes of your run. Being short on time is no excuse for skimping on your recovery nutrition. “Chocolate milk is also a great recovery drink,” Shaw says. “The protein in the milk and the sugar in the chocolate are the perfect post-run combination.”
Maintaining a well-balanced diet in the days following a run will also do wonders for your recovery, as you’ll provide your body the nutrients it needs to heal and prepare for your next round of exercise.
If you’re like many runners, the cooldown period isn’t always high on the priority list — after all, you have places to be once your run is done. But Bales says skipping a proper cooldown can actually have some pretty nasty results.
“If you stop too soon, your blood can pool in your extremities, causing a loss of blood flow to more important things like your heart and brain,” she says. “This might cause you to get dizzy or lose consciousness. Your muscles can also seize up and spasm.”
A good cooldown should bring your heart rate back to normal levels and should include at least five minutes of walking, rehydrating, and static and dynamic stretching.
The days following a long run should be low-key, with a focus on getting as much rest as possible. Try to stay off your feet for extended periods of time and prioritize sleep, especially the night after your long run.
“The body repairs itself best when at rest during REM [rapid eye movement] cycles,” Bales says. “Without proper sleep, an athlete cannot expect to reach his or her full potential.”
Find Your Personal Recovery Arsenal
It’s 2016, and sports technology has blessed the running community with some amazing tools to aid in your recovery. However, just because a product exists doesn’t mean it’s right for you.
Shaw recommends testing out a variety of recovery methods — including compression gear, foam rolling and ice baths — to find an approach that suits you. But be wary of trendy gimmicks, she advises. “There’s not enough science behind some of these recovery practices,” she says. “You just have to test and see what’s best for your body.”
Practice Smart Activity
Unless you’re training for a multiday ultramarathon, avoid logging another long run too soon. Our experts recommend an easy and short (no longer than 45 minutes) workout the next day, if you’re feeling up to it.
“Total inactivity will make your muscles tighter,” Bales says. “Too hard of a workout won’t allow your muscles to heal.”
Shaw says an easy bike ride, swim or other form of cross-training can be just as effective, as long as it’s low-intensity.