How to Recover From a Race

You need a plan for after you cross the finish line too.

For many runners with big races on their calendars, many months would have been scripted with detailed training plans dictating when to run, when to rest, how to stretch, what to eat, and everything in between. The minutes, hours, and days after the event are a lot less defined. Yet this often overlooked transition period is critical, especially if you raced a half or full marathon. “What you do to recover after a race plays a big role in how you will perform at the next one,” says Corey Hart, a physiologist and doctoral candidate at the University of Utah’s Vascular Research Lab. Here’s what is happening inside your body and mind following a race, and the steps you can take to bounce back strong.

0–24 Hours

Refuel with a high carb drink containing a small amount of protein. “Muscles are most permeable to energy uptake in the 30 minutes following a hard effort,” Hart says. For the next 23 hours, your priority is muscle repair – and that means protein. Hart recommends frequent snacks that are high in carbs but also contain 25 to 30 grams of protein.

Light foam rolling and compression clothing improve bloodflow to remove toxins from muscle. Otherwise, it’s generally best to “relax – let the body initiate its natural recovery processes,” Hart says. Many runners literally “run around” recovering, which is counterproductive.

“Celebrate!” says Kristin Keim, M.A., Psy.D., a sports psychologist. Many runners have type-A tendencies, always looking for the next challenge. Keim says pausing to reward yourself and reflect on your accomplishment is important. If you find yourself struggling to sit still, let alone sleep, worry not. According to Michael Joyner, M.D., a physiologist, a number of factors – ranging from GI issues to elevated eurochemicals – can interfere with sleep. When you do finally feel drowsy, don’t cut yourself short. Sleep is vital to recovery, so don’t be afraid to hit the snooze button.

24–72 Hours


Now is the time to try light exercise. Active recovery expedites the body’s natural repair process by delivering more oxygen and nutrients to the muscles. Just keep it easy – go for a walk.

Continue to wear compression clothing, and if you get a massage, make sure your therapist keeps the pressure minimal. “You want to let your muscles heal, and deep-tissue massage can cause muscle damage,” says Hart.

Popping ibuprofen might be tempting, but unless you sustained an acute injury, many experts advise against it. “The inflammatory response is signaling recovery,” Hart says, “and that is not something we want to mask.”

The immediate post-race high is wearing off, but dopamine and serotonin levels are still elevated. “Simply moving past the race is tough,” Keim says. So don’t feel bad about the urge to write a race report and post pictures on social media. Even after a disappointing race, Doug MacLean, a running and triathlon coach with QT2 Systems in Ithaca, new York, encourages athletes to fully process the event rather than trying to block out negative feelings. “It’s not until we internalise what happened at a more subconscious level that we can objectively analyze what went wrong, make adjustments, and truly release from the past,” he says.

3–7 Days

Although you may be getting anxious about not training, fatigue is likely pulling you to the couch. This is especially true for runners who raced longer distances or trained hard for an extended period. Hart calls this “central system fatigue”. “While training, you are constantly suppressing fatigue or downright ignoring it, which can throw your hormonal profile out of whack,” he says. When your body lets its guard down a few days after the event, all the builtup fatigue sets in. “Do not fight this fatigue,” Hart says. Instead, stick to light active recovery and remember that the priority is to rest so your body can return to hormonal balance.

Enter, for some, the postrace blues. “Stimulating neurochemicals are declining, and at the same time you are reintegrating into everyday life,” Keim says. An ensuing rut can be compounded by the fact that most runners’ antidepressant of choice – a hard workout – isn’t an option. Keim urges runners to “maintain their identity as athletes.” To do this, analyse your race, think about goals for next year, and perhaps most important, reframe rest as a key part of your training plan. By viewing rest as something you are actively choosing to do to improve as an athlete, you are less likely to feel like you’ve lost the athletic part of yourself.

7–12 Days

Your muscular and hormonal systems are still returning to baseline, so this is a good time to slowly introduce some intensity into workouts. “The main thing to remember is that you can’t train if you are injured,” Joyner says. Thus, err on the side of doing too little versus doing too much, and “focus on reading your body and backing off if soreness and fatigue don’t improve.” Joyner and Hart agree that cross-training is a good low-risk approach. Add intensity into other sports (a hard hike or swim). By the end of this period, your central and muscular systems should be back in tune and you can ease back into running.

You probably will feel a healthy urge to start running again. Now is a great time to develop a new set of goals. This might mean running faster, running further, taking running more seriously, or perhaps taking running less seriously. But if you are feeling burned out and the thought of running evokes dread, that’s okay, too, Keim says. There is no rush to get back into things, and if the thought of structured training refuses to catch on, you can still run casually for general health, stress relief, and social fun. “You shouldn’t have to search for the motivation to train hard,” Keim says. “You’ll know if and when it comes back.”


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