Did you know that the hours, days and weeks following a big race can be almost as important as the training leading up to it? It can be if you want to recover happily and healthily. While a this advice is most relevant to races of longer distances – say the half or full marathon – many of the principles can be applied to shorter races as well, especially if you’ve gone “all out” at that race. I’ve been just as tired after a hard effort 5k as I have been on “easy” runs at longer distances. We will break this up into 2 basic time frames – immediately following your race and what to do in the following weeks.
Race Recovery: Immediately after the race
- Keep moving. You will want to walk around for at least 10-15 minutes after you cross the finish line. I know you’ll feel like taking a seat on the closest curb, but you really don’t want to get stuck down there. Walk through the finish area, snap some pictures with your friends, and do some gentle stretching. Don’t stretch to the point of pain, just enough to keep from tightening up. If you are going to be driving some distance after the race, wait as long as you can to leave and then plan on stopping a few times to get out and stretch. I had a 3 hour drive home after my last marathon and that was one BRUTAL drive. I think I stopped 4 times to just get out and stretch my legs.
- Refuel. Most races these days are doing a better job at the post-run fuel line. Grab some water and a banana if they have any (the potassium will help prevent any cramping and the water will rehydrate you). Eat a light snack with a good mix of carbs, protein, and fats 30-60 minutes after finishing. Chocolate milk is an excellent choice. Some fruit and a piece of toast with peanut butter are good choices. If your race offers alcohol at the finish line party and you have a DD, feel free to have some if your body can handle it, but go easy. You’ll feel the effects much faster than you may realize.
- Legs up the wall. Yes, I know it looks funny, but resting with your legs stretched above you and against a wall for 3 or 4 minutes can help with swelling and circulation. Don’t do this right way though and be careful getting up.
- Compression. Many runners swear by the use of compression socks or sleeves to speed recovery. There are even compression shorts and shirts if you want to take it to that level, some with build-in sleeves for ice. If your race offers one, take advantage of the free post-race massage.
- Ice bath. The ice bath, while horrifying to many, really does wonders. Even sitting in a tub of cold water from the tap can help reduce inflammation/swelling and then as the tissue rewarms, increased bloodflow to the area speed healing. Here’s a good article on ice bath do’s and don’t’s.
- Warm bath or hot tub. If you really can’t stomach the idea of an ice bath or your race was in cold temperatures, a warm bath can help relax your muscles as well.
- Water. This should go without saying, but after your race you should be drinking water like it’s your job. This will help flush out the lactic acid that builds up in your muscles and will keep you from being as sore.
Race Recovery: The week after the race
- Rest. This doesn’t mean spend the next week in bed, but you’ve earned a few days off from hard core training.
- Active recovery. Try to keep up that movement you started right after the race in the day or two following. Go for a walk or an easy bike ride. If you are a very fit runner, a short 1-2 mile EASY jog would also probably be ok. Listen to your body. If you don’t feel like running, that’s completely okay.
- Gauge your return to training based on your race distance. For how ever many miles were your race, you should take that many days off from hard training. (This doesn’t mean no workouts. You know what “hard” is for you.) For a 5k – 3 days should be sufficient. For a 10k – maybe take a week. If you’ve just run a marathon, take it easy for the next 3-4 weeks. You can certainly run if you feel up to it (and you did not finish the race injured), but no speed work, hill training, etc. EASY RUNS.
- Learn. Every race is a learning opportunity. Make note of what worked and what didn’t. Fuel, carrying your own water, areas of chafing that might need more glide next time. You get the idea.
- Deal with your feelings. Races – especially huge goal ones – can result in a multitude of emotions. Some post-race blues aren’t uncommon when you’ve devoted the past 9 to 16 weeks (or more) to training and now your calendar is empty. If can leave you feeling a bit lost. If your race didn’t go as planned and maybe you missed your “A” goal, be prepared to deal with this as well. It’s okay to be sad and be upset, but don’t dwell. Use it as a learning experience. We all have bad runs sometimes, it just really sucks when one happens on race day. Whether your experience was good or bad, take a couple days before you make any major future-race decisions. Talk to your friends about how you’re feeling if you need.
- CELEBRATE!!!! You’ve just devoted many weeks to training and ran your race! Be proud of yourself. Post those race medal selfies on Facebook! No one can take that sense of accomplishment away from you.
Whether you’ve run a 5k or 50k, hopefully these race recovery tips will help you get back on the roads after your race feeling healthy and strong.