There is no doubt that after a hard race your body can feel completely waxed, like you will never run another race in your life. This is how Sara felt coming out of her first marathon. She then had another major event less than two weeks away, so she really had to recoup. Remarkably, she was able to rebound in time for the World Cross Country Championships and be the first American to cross the finish line.
How did she do it? Recovery—something that’s key to racing, and really, any fitness plan. Here’s how Sara and I recover from races so we can prep for the next ones—listed in order of what to do, first.
Step 1: Refuel at the Finish Line
Replace calories and fluids as soon as possible after a race. You just caused serious trauma to your muscles and in order for them to heal, you need to replenish them with adequate hydration and nutrition. Note: It won’t always be easy. Sometimes your stomach won’t cooperate right after a race, and it may feel like you’re force-feeding yourself. But do it: Your body is starving for the building blocks it needs to get stronger. (You can also incorporate liquid calories (like chocolate milk, or a shake), if your stomach is too finicky about hard foods).
Aim to take in 300 calories of carbohydrate (it can vary depending on the length and intensity of your race). Bonus: You can also eat simple sugar to help replace glycogen in your muscles. For Sara and myself, this sometimes means chowing down on gummy bears—the only time we’ll do it.
We also make sure to consume 20 grams (which can be more or less depending on your size and run intensity) of protein, usually in powdered form, for a shake.
Whatever you choose, make sure your recovery nutrition isn’t high in fat, as that could slow digestive absorption.
Step 2: Go For a Walk or Jog
The worst thing you can do is sit for several hours immediately following a race. Instead, it’s important to bring new blood to your muscles, to help flush any toxins that have built up, and speed recovery. Once you finish a race, walk for at least 20 minutes, and if you’re up to it, try some light jogging.
Sara and I typically jog for 20 minutes to cool down, however after a marathon I may just walk and call it good. It depends on how much energy I have left. After I ran 2:06 in the London Marathon, I did jog a couple of miles—but those were probably the slowest miles I’ve ever run in my life.
(Optional) Step 3: Boost Circulation with Ice Bath and/or Massage
Soak your legs in contrast baths—meaning tubs with hot and cold water—within a couple hours post-race to boost blood flow. When we trained at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, CA, we would often spend 5 minutes in a cold bath set to 50-55 degrees, and then go directly into a hot bath for 5 minutes. We would alternate between hot and cold tubs until we had been in each three times.
If you have two bathrooms in your home, you can fill one tub with a few bags of ice and cold water, and fill the second tub with hot water. If that’s not possible (you only have one bathroom), opt for a 10-minute ice bath. Repeat the ice bath after another two or three hours. (Or you could make do with alternating cold and hot showers.)
Sara and I have also spent many moments together soaking our legs in icy creeks and lakes around the world. Finding a beautiful body of water to soak in keeps your mind off the freezing pain until your legs go numb.
If your budget allows, massage is one of the more pleasurable post-race recovery routines, and can be done instead of, or in addition to, your optional ice bath. If you can’t afford a professional massage, you can always recruit your significant other (Sara and I often work on each other) or get a foam roller and a softball and roll your legs out while watching a movie—a regular scene in the Hall house.
Step 4: REST!
Time off is key. I would often take two complete weeks off following marathons. I later decided to jog 30 minutes for two subsequent days after the race before taking my complete break, to help reduce soreness.
Why rest? Your body needs time to regenerate for your next big training phase. I neglected this step after running the London marathon in 2:06 in 2008—I was so excited to train for the Beijing Olympics that I didn’t give my body enough time, and my performance at the Games paid the price. I’m sharing this so you can learn from my mistake.
If you run a shorter race, you may not need two weeks—a few days of rest after a 5K would suffice, for example. Just make sure to only rest—which means no cycling, strength sessions, or other forms of cross training.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.