Congrats, your marathon or half-marathon is over! Or, if you’re reading this because you have a race coming up, don’t worry — it’s almost over. But what happens after you cross the finish line?
Proper recovery is just as important as proper training. For some athletes, this concept is easy: You finished your race, now you reap the rewards of a calm rest week. For others, resting is nearly impossible. One challenge is done, and now you’re champing at the bit to get started on the next adventure.
Thankfully, there’s a middle ground, which is actually the ideal for proper recovery: a little movement, a little rest and reward — and some serious reflection before diving into the next big thing. Tom Clifford, a running and triathlon coach in North Carolina, is an expert on the subject of recovery. He knows it’s just as important as the training, and his coaching accomplishments speak for themselves: He’s coached over 40 athletes to achieve a Boston Marathon qualification and coached Christa Iammarino to achieve the Olympic marathon trials “A” standard. He shares some great tips for what to do right after you cross the finish line, from 30 minutes after to the following week.
30 Minutes Post-Race: Get a Rub Down
“The first things runners should do is to get on dry clothes, rehydrate and begin getting healthy carbs back in the body,” Clifford says. Don’t parade around in the metallic sheet that volunteers give you at the finish line. While you may dig the superhero vibe and the “look-at-me-I-just-finished-a-race” message that it sends out, the heat wrap won’t keep you warm for long now that your body is starting to cool down. Your sweaty clothes should be traded for a cozy, comfy outfit as soon as possible.
Once that happens, any muscle cramping will typically subside. Then, Clifford says, treat yo’self: Head over to the massage tent, if there is one, for a light massage.
“The muscles in your legs have taken a huge beating,” Clifford says, and that causes a lot of imbalances over the course of the race. If you can get some of the knots out of your legs, you can put yourself on the right road to recovery. After getting a rub down, take a few minutes to stretch out with whatever stretches are comfortable for you.
2 Hours Post-Race: Rehydrate and Refuel
That first snack may have taken the edge off your hunger, but you’ll still want to get in a full meal in the couple hours immediately following the race. You’ll want to replenish carbs, of course, but don’t ignore protein — try to get in at least 20 grams within a few hours of the race ending.
And while it’s tempting to grab that post-race beer, Clifford warns that booze will harm more than help. If you’re too tempted, since plenty of post-race festivals feature a beer garden, at least make sure you’ve guzzled some water with electrolytes (think: Nuun tablets) before you imbibe. Even then, keep it to a minimum and make sure you get food in your stomach to combat the effects of the alcohol. And don’t think about going to the beer tent until you’ve taken the first step of getting changed and letting your body settle a bit.
“You have to let your body do its thing to recover,” Clifford says. That means, sadly, you can’t expect your body to be feeling amazing the night after a big race. Try to avoid taking anti-inflammatories, though. Your body needs the inflammation to heal. The soreness you’re feeling might suck now, but it’s all part of the process.
If you’re still sore, try an ice bath to speed up the recovery process. But remember that inflammation and soreness are your body’s ways of letting you heal and a warning to take it easy. So don’t start training again, no matter how excited you are after your race. Take this day as a rest day, or go for an easy walk. Use the time to jot down some of your initial thoughts about the race (how it went, how you felt, high and low points, etc.). You’re not going to start replaying it in your head and plotting for the next one just yet, but the initial reactions can be helpful when you do start the planning process again.
1 Week Post-Race: Get Moving
We’re not talking about interval training again so soon, but Clifford refers to the week after a hard race as the “reverse taper.” It’s exactly the opposite of what you did the week before the event, when you tapered your training down before the race. Now, you’re slowly bringing your mileage back up.
Keep your pace “really easy,” and feel free to take breaks for walking. Or, if you’re really sore, don’t run and just take a few days to walk or aqua jog. Don’t take the week completely off, though — that won’t help you recover.
Dietwise, don’t go overboard. You’re training less, so you won’t need as many calories. Clifford says to keep your protein intake high, and focus on protein eaten in combination with higher-quality carbs like fruits and veggies. This will help your body repair and speed up the healing process.
Two Weeks Post-Race: Assess and Set New Goals
You’re now officially far enough removed from the race and, hopefully, physically recovered. Now, it’s time to start thinking about the next race.
What’s the Difference for 13.1 Versus 26.2?
Whether you did a half- or full marathon, the recovery process is essentially the same, if you ran your full effort. For some of us, a 13.1-mile race is a huge challenge, while for others who’ve been running longer, an easy-paced 13.1 is a walk in the park. But if you’re going hard, a half-marathon is nearly as tough on your body as a 26.2-mile run, especially if you’re new to running.
Someone who’s done marathons for 20 years may recover faster than someone taking on his first half-marathon, so if you do a half, your recovery process should be essentially the same. The only difference will be that you don’t need to replace quite as much fuel or water post-race, and you may be able to shorten your reverse taper by a day or two. But, listen to your body, and, if you’re still feeling sore five days out, keep taking it easy and slowly ramp your running back up.