Post Race Recovery Tips For Runners

RB41: Post Race Recovery Tips For Runners

Post Race Recovery Tips For Runners

Show Notes:

In this episode, I continue our 3 part series on race week preparation, race day strategies and post race recovery. Today, we wrap up with Part Three: Post Race Recovery Tips For Runners.  We’ll look at what you should do immediately after your race and in the days to come to get you fully recovered and ready to go.


So Race Recovery…. So let me first preface this with the fact that how you approach race recovery really comes down to a few things:

1. The distance you run
2. How hard you ran your race
3. Your bodies ability to heal which can be a influenced by a combination of your age, your fitness level, genetics, and how well your training base was going into the race.

Everyone is different in the time it takes to recover after a race but one thing I want to make clear is that you are just as likely or more likely to get injured after the race as you are training for it. You should take post race recovery just as serious as your training because it really deserves its own phase in your training cycles.  So with most training, you have your base building phase, your sharpening phase, the taper, your race and then the recovery phase.

Your recovery phase starts the minute you cross the finish line and what you do in the first few hours after a race and few days after a race can impact how long it can take for you to fully recover so you can resume training. But, also note that having a solid training season leading up to your race can also impact how fast you recover.  For example, if you are inadequately prepared for your race, you will suffer both during and after it.

So the best way to jump into this is to assume that you are well prepared for your race, you ran it, had a great time and you just crossed the finish line.

First thing you want to do is keep walking. Do not stop. In fact, if you can try to find space that will allow you to cool down. Whether that is a light jog, or walking but try to keep some form of movement for 7-10 minutes afterwards.  In bigger races, you will have a recovery area which will allow you to walk through it, grab some water and sometimes chocolate milk, maybe some food like bagels or bananas, or pretzels,  but keep moving.  Do not stretch for a while as it may activate a stretch reflex that can cause cramping or even injury. You will want to stretch later, but for now movement is your friend.

Sudden stops can make you dizzy, nauseated, light headed or even make you pass out.  We talked a little bit about this in the last episode.

After the race, slowly re-hydrate with water, or a sports drink,  and then if you can tolerate chocolate milk, some of that would be great. I know many of you will scream blasphemy, but you want to avoid alcohol immediately after a race. (at least for a few hours).  I know a lot of races serve it, and one beer probably won’t hurt you, but your liver is hyper sensitive after a race because it has been working hard releasing liver glycogen so you want to give it a few hours to settle before you start drinking alcohol.

In addition to drinking water and re-hydrating is to slowly start introducing some sort of food, ideally within 30-45 minutes of finishing. YOu want to look for a 3:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio where 3 parts are carbohydrates and 1 part is protein.  It probably is less important the exact ratio but you do want to get some carbohydrates and protein into your system.

Carbohydrates to replace what you lost and to start building up your glycogen you lost and the protein is to help facilitate muscle repair.  Now if you did a 5k or 10k, it is not as critical compared to a half or full marathon but you do want to eat and build your energy levels back up. During that 45-60 minutes after a race (or even a long run for that matter),  your body will absorb way more and faster than if you wait a few hours then try. If you wait, it could take you an additional 24-48 hours to top off your muscle and liver glycogen that you previously absorbed very fast.    I wouldn’t sweat it too much, just get something in your stomach as soon as you can tolerate it.  Some people need an hour or two before they get hungry and other people like me are starving by the time I reach the finish line.  It just depends on you.

Now some people sweat a lot and may notice dried salt on their body, especially in areas they sweat heavily, like your forehead for example. This is the salts or sodium from your sweat that is left over as your sweat dries.  This is a sign you may want to take in a little extra sodium so eating a salty snack like pretzels is a good thing.  You may also find you need more sodium when you race longer distances so if you see a lot of that, make sure you are bumping up your sodium intake when you run as well with either a salt tablet or sports drink like Gatorade.

Then,  throughout the day, re-hydrate slowly and eat as you wish and you will be good to go.   Shoot for one glass of water every 1-2 hours.

So the biggest thing most people experience after a race, or hard effort race is muscle soreness.  This is caused by inflammation due to damage to the muscle tissue themselves and when this soreness comes several hours after a race that is delayed onset muscles soreness or DOMS.  Other things like muscle spasms during the race can cause more pain later.

Avoid hot baths or hot tubs as it may promote swelling and exacerbate delayed onset muscle soreness.   One thing I did once was get in a swimming pool and just float and lounge around for a hour or so and I had zero soreness the next day and that was after a hard race too, so the pool did wonders for me, it was like a big ice bath but not so crazy uncomfortable, which by the way, ice baths are awesome for reducing inflammation.

If you are experiencing pain after a race, pain relief could be aided by icing, light massage, light activity like walking or biking, anything that has light and easy movement.  Slow gentle stretching (but no deep stretching) and continuing to drink water to help flush out waste products that were left behind during the cellular activities of converting fat into energy and so on. I find even a 10-15 light walk every few hours goes a long way.  Avoid anti-inflammatories for at least 4-6 hours after a race, again just due to that liver sensitivity and anti-inflammatories just aren’t that good for your liver when it is in that state, so if you can tolerate not using them and use ice instead, your body will be better off for it.  Once the liver has had a chance to settle down, you are good to go if you feel you need them.

Now if you are really fit, or trained pretty well, you may not experience any soreness. This last of soreness can be a great sign that your training was right on par of what it should be, but soreness is not always an full indication that you trained poorly as well. It is more tied to your intensity level of your race.

So let’s switch to the day after your race.  If you race a lot then this may not be a big deal for you, but if you just raced a race that was a big goal race for you. It could be that first 5k, or 10k or maybe that half or first full, something that you spend a considerable amount of effort training for, then it is not that uncommon to have a little post race depression.

You typically feel a real high after finishing, but after a few hours you may start to feel a little down.  That is normal.  It may be as simple as you just completed your goal and you haven’t picked a new one yet or it could even be disappointment because maybe you didn’t run that well.  I think a lot of it has to do with your brain kind of settling back in after a period of extended endorphin’s being released whatever it is, don’t dwell on it as it goes away quickly and sometimes the best medicine is to get out and go for a walk, or go catch a movie or something.  Get some sleep if you need it. Your body is possibly more fatigued than normal so pamper it, get rest, get sleep, take care of it.

Regardless of the outcome of race day, celebrate your accomplishment. Even if you had a complete meltdown and did not finish, it is OK,  every race is more experience and every race has a lesson.

So recovery.How long should it last?   Well here it comes down to your level of experience as well as your natural speed to recover.  General guidelines have you set up a recover period of about 1-2 days for every mile you races.  That doesn’t mean you aren’t running, it just means you aren’t running hard or running excessive miles.  If you are running half’s and fulls, you can expect your legs to fatigue easier for a few days out to a month, again depending on your running experience and how hard you races.

So the easiest way to explain this, is if you are familiar with tapering (or slowly cutting back your mileage as you approach race day) which depending on the distance can be anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, think of your return to running as a reverse taper.  You slowly increase your mileage until you are back to your training miles.

Now some of you who have raced a lot can run a lot of races with very minimal recovery times and that is OK unless you are truing to go hard at every race.  Those of you who run some races at easy paces and others hard will be fine as long as you aren’t running every race hard.  Some people have the mistaken belief that they can run every race hard. You can if your races are spread out, but you can’t if you are racing a few times each month.  I have seen massive improvements in times by only racing hard every 2-3 months and then doing races more for fun at easier paces in between.  In other words cycling your PR attempts every few races than every race. But really it comes down to how you approach races and your goals.

I’ll finish today with a question that I get quite a bit.  How do I taper / reverse taper when I have two back to back half or full marathons that are relatively close together.  If the two races are within 2 weeks of each other for a half, or 3 weeks of each other for a full. Focus on recovery and don’t worry about longer runs.  You can do a moderate long run, but no need for those peak runs because you are well within what would be a normal taper period. Since your races are close together focus more on the recovery than the maintenance aspects.  If you are in that 4-6 week range. then reverse taper, do a long run and then taper again.  It really depends on how much time you have, and what you can reasonably fit in there that still allows some recovery and some tapering.

Happy Running everyone!

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Steve is the founder and head running coach of Steve is host of the RunBuzz podcast and founder of PaceBuilders, a complete online training program for runners. Steve is a RRCA / USA Track and Field Certified Running Coach and resides in Lewis Center, Ohio.