Whether you’ve trained hard or completed a race (virtually or otherwise), recovery is an often overlooked aspect of a complete training plan. Ideally, you’ve visualized all the things you need to do to have a great race. But have you considered what you’ll do afterward, from the moment you cross the finish line and beyond? If not, now’s the time. A proper recovery plan is almost as important as your training plan, and it can help ease the transition into training for your next week. Here is our guide to recovery, from what to eat and when to how to get back into training.
It’s tempting, right after you cross the finish line, to find the nearest chair/curb/flat surface and sit down. But just as your body needs to stretch and warm up before a workout or race, it needs to cool down afterward. Try to walk around for 15 minutes or so to keep the blood flowing and prevent cramps.
“Your cooldown is equally as important as your warmup,” says Holley DeShaw, a licensed massage and sports performance specialist in Oregon. Continuing to move around “moves your blood flow from your working muscles from the race into more resting blood flow patterns. Also, this helps facilitate your body’s own process of lymphatic drainage and gradual cooldown of intensely worked musculature which helps to assist in the reduction of metabolic waste buildup and cramping issues post-race.”
No matter how much water you downed, no matter how many energy drinks you grabbed, your body will be crying out for more water. How much exactly depends on a range of factors — from how much you weigh to how much you sweat to how fast you run. Or, as DeShaw puts it, “This really depends on each individual, so it is important that each runner learns their own body and how much water/electrolyte intake they need to keep well-hydrated.”
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You should also consider the weather conditions. For example, more humidity means more sweat which means more water loss which means you need to hydrate more. In general, experts recommend drinking to thirst, and you can use a little trial and error after your long runs during training.
You can also try electrolyte tablets or powder in your water if you like. “Electrolyte replenishment is extremely important, and I always recommend looking into a salt tablet as well for sodium replenishment,” DeShaw says. “But, beyond that, runners should be aware of potassium and magnesium replenishing to maintain optimal muscle function as well as fluid balance within their bodies.”
Running is hard on your body. You’ll need a little fuel to help repair your muscles. Some combination of carbs, protein and healthy fat — experts usually recommend between 3–4 times as many carbs as protein at this stage — helps kickstart the recovery process. Your goal is to repair muscle glycogen (i.e., sugar), so be sure to help yourself to bananas, granola bars or bagels. “You want to restore your body, which includes increasing muscle energy and replenishing antioxidants and fluids,” DeShaw says. “So, carbs, proteins and electrolytes are all essential, even as soon as between 20–30 minutes post-race.”
Flush out lactic acid and toxins with a rubdown, and it will make a difference later. “I recommend, for optimal recovery, a massage facilitating a flushing and facilitating of lymphatic flow focused on the lower extremities — your legs — anywhere from 2–3 hours after the race to within the first 24 hours after completing the race to aid with the body’s process of recovery and optimal health and wellness,” DeShaw says.
Make sure to stretch out those muscles to help avoid cramps now and reduce soreness later. “Stretching is wonderful to lengthen back out muscles that have tightened up during your race,” DeShaw adds.
Your body’s simplest built-in recovery mechanism is still its best. Get to bed early, turn the lights down and ease into sleep. You’ll need it.Mark McClusky wrote a recent Atlantic article on the benefits of sleep for athletes, citing the work of Stanford researcher Cheri D. Mah, “When it comes to recovery from hard physical efforts, there’s simply no better treatment than sleep and a lot of it.”
No matter how well you finish, you’ll experience an endorphin crash after the race is over. That means even if you aced your goals, you might feel a little down. Spending some time calming your brain helps you recover. “To rest and meditate is part of the mind-body connection and integral to someone being in a mind frame of getting their optimal results during a race and training,” DeShaw says.
Consider taking an ice bath. Fill a tub with cold water (a little below 60ºF/15ºC works), and get in up to your waist for 10–15 minutes. This might help reduce inflammation and prevent tissue breakdown, while also helping your body naturally clear out metabolic waste.
Emphasis on might. Experts are mixed on whether ice baths (and similar treatments) do what some claim. Essentially, there’s little to no evidence that they work, but there’s little to no evidence that they don’t work. A study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise found they don’t hurt, but don’t quite help the way they’re advertised. If you elect to take an ice bath, do it for your enjoyment — because it might help you mentally and emotionally, not because it will help you physically..
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Another treat for your body is a good foam roll. “Foam rolling is an excellent option to soften and release tight IT bands, quads, hamstrings and calves,” DeShaw says. Again, this is all about getting your blood flowing, which helps reduce soreness.
Your muscles did a lot of work today, so help the recovery process by giving them the food they crave. (Indeed, one recent study in the academic journal Nutrients found protein may have a more meaningful effect on recovery 24–72 hours after your race.)
There’s no reason to keep going hard. Your muscles and joints need to recover, not just from the race itself, but from the long buildup of training. You also don’t want to get hurt. You can still get up and move if you want. Experts suggest some light exercise is OK — think going for a walk for an hour, not hitting the trail for a 15-mile run.
It’s always good to document our experiences, particularly if we’re hoping to repeat them. At some point, take a little time and journal about your race. What goals did you set, and did you meet them? Why or why not? What could you do better next time? What did you enjoy the most? You don’t have to get your Walt Whitman on or anything; even just a few little notes can help clear and focus your mind. Recent research also suggests journaling can benefit you both physically and mentally — it can even boost your immune system.
According to MyFitnessPal, you burned roughly 3,000 calories on race day. Your body is going to crave food for a few days afterward. Happily, you can eat more than usual. Also, you will feel better, and it will aid recovery, if you focus on a protein-rich diet of whole foods.
By now, you’ve had adequate time to rest and reflect. You might also be feeling a bit of the post-race blues — that sensation of “Now what?” that follows any significant achievement. Consider signing up for another race. It doesn’t have to be a marathon; even a 5K gives you something to train for and anticipate. Just be realistic about your training program and what it entails.
Every dream deserves a plan. So whether you’re gearing up for another marathon in a few months, trying for your first ultra or slowing it down with a shorter race, make a training schedule and stick to it.
You still need to ease in, but it’s time. Get after it!
Whether you want to run your first mile or set a PR, having a plan gets you there faster. Go to the MapMyRun app, tap “Training Plans” and set your next goal — you’ll get a schedule and coaching tips to help you crush it.