After months of disciplined training, you’ve done it—crossed the finish line of your goal race. Time to put your feet up and indulge, right? Not so fast, says Jenny Spangler, former elite marathoner and coach of runners of all abilities. The tendency, says Spangler, is for runners to say, “I’m done. I’m just going to hang out on the couch for a week.” Down time is on the horizon, but first, it’s important to keep moving.
As soon as possible after a race of any distance, Spangler recommends that you do a short cool down, jog, or walk. The next day, regardless of how you feel, do something for 20 to 30 minutes—jog, walk, swim, or bike. Coaches often call this a “shake out” workout: just enough activity to get blood to your aching muscles, clean out waste products, and start the healing process.
It’s advice Spangler herself has followed. “I recover so much quicker if I just suck it up and do something,” she says. Stay mobile on Monday. If you want to take Tuesday off, that’s fine.
The same goes for nutrition. Post-race is the time to hydrate (with water, not beer) and eat healthy foods. “Don’t immediately reach for junk food,” Spangler advises. While you may have accomplished your goal at the finish line, the race plan continues through recovery before you can fully relax. Here’s what to do in those first 24 hours, depending on the distance you’ve covered and the shape you’re in.
Short and intense, the 5K will leave you sore, but not too beat up. After the first day’s shake out, Spangler recommends taking two to three days completely off—then quickly building back up to your normal volume of training.
“Keeping your routine consistent is important,” says Spangler. You don’t want to take off so many days that you fall out of the habit.
Spangler makes an exception to this advice for those who need to heal. “If you’ve been nursing an injury leading up to the race and it was all you could do to get through, then you might need some time off,” she says. Even if you’re uninjured, the weeks after a race are a good time to take care of your body. Use the downtime to do things that you might have ignored during hard straining, such as stretching and foam rolling.
10K to Half Marathon
“For the half marathon, I usually start feeling the effects later on, the next week,” says Spangler. Your shakeout will likely feel pretty good, but then Spangler recommends taking about a week entirely off. “Do some light cross training—if you need to do something,” she adds.
People tend to underestimate the recovery they need from these moderately long races, and worry that they’re losing fitness. Spangler points out that it takes 10 days to 2 weeks before you begin losing the big cardiovascular gains from training. “Taking a week or two off isn’t going to kill you,” she says. Besides doing the extras to take care of your body, use the time to plan your next big goal or do a house project you put off when you were focused on training.
The marathon takes your body to the extreme. Everyone is beat up after 26.2, and many are injured. You still need to move some the day after, but a walk is sufficient. If you got through the race cleanly—no cramping, limping, or other issues—Spangler recommends taking a week to 10 days completely off, then easing back into cross training and light jogging.
Rebuild your miles gradually, stepping up in a similar pattern that you stepped down during your taper before the race. “Start with a quarter of what you’ve been doing,” says Spangler. “If you’d been running 40 miles a week, do 10-15 miles the first week back.” The next week you could do 50 percent of your normal mileage, easing back into things after that. Add intensity gradually as well, not hitting full workouts hard again until a month or so after your marathon.
If you’re dealing with injuries from your training or the race, now is the time to address them. Don’t train hard again until you’re fully healed. There are no hard-and-fast rules; pay attention to your body, listen to your doctor and health care advisors, and rebuild as you are able.
Going Back For More
As to when you race again, Spangler agrees with the recovery rule of former masters marathon world record-holder Jack Foster, who said he took at least a day off racing for every mile covered. So, you can think about racing again 3 to 4 days after a 5K and a couple of weeks after a half marathon, but not until nearly a month after a marathon.
“The big thing is to take care of your body the first days after,” says Spangler. Then, take enough time so you come back to full strength without injury, but not so much that you get out of your workout routine or lose fitness.