Your heart is pounding, sweat is pouring down your body, your clothes and hair are sticking to you, but nothing can erase the perma-grin that’s now plastered on your face. You’ve just completed a race, and whether it was your first or your hundredth, a 5K or a 50K, you’ve achieved something big that you’re going to proudly remember for years to come.
Although you can’t feel it now because of the adrenaline, your muscles have been pushed to their limits and will likely be stiff and sore tomorrow. The way you treat your body now will pay dividends when you try to race again in the future.
According to coach Hal Higdon, you could be recovering from a race or marathon for up to three weeks after the event. And during those next minutes, days and weeks, there is a specific way to approach your diet, your workouts and your sleep schedule.
Here’s how to take care of yourself immediately following the race.
The Hours After the Race
Diet and Hydration
You likely stuck to a very specialized diet as race day approached. Most runners do.
Edwina Langley at The Evening Standard spoke to a number of exercise and nutrition specialists ahead of 2015’s London Marathon to get their dietary advice.
James Pisano, a trainer at Core Collective, spoke to Langley about what to drink during and after your race. During your run, he recommends a blend of water with fruit juice. fit8 CEO Kieron Vorster suggests this as his “golden rule”: “for every kilogram of weight lost post-run, drink a litre of liquid.” The trainers Langley spoke to also mentioned the importance of restoring the electrolytes that you lost while sweating, and said that raw coconut water is a good, less sugary substitute for your favorite power drink.
All that sweat means a depletion of salt, too, so it’s time to restore salt levels. “Salty carbs and plenty of protein will help restock stores and aid recovery,” Langley says. “While it may be a struggle to eat at first, it’s important to do so as soon as possible.”
And if you’re feeling up to it, a celebratory dinner may not hurt.
Dealing with the Post-Race High
Kathleen Doheny at SafeBee talked to a few athletes who have run several marathons and know just what to expect after you come down from that post-race high. When you’ve made a race your prime focus for so long, you might feel unsure of what to do with yourself after it’s over. You might feel a little bummed out, or you might even feel depressed. Many runners experience those feelings, which tend to abate within a few days. If they don’t, consider contacting a mental health professional.
Your body is going to be tired. While the amount of time it takes you to return to fitness will vary from person to person, the one universal rule you must abide by is to listen to your body. It will let you know when to resume training.
Scott Douglas and Uta Pippig at fitness site Take the Magic Step both know a thing or two about running in marathons — they’ve completed plenty. While they don’t suggest getting right back into your workouts, they say that if you can take a walk after the race, you’ll help stimulate your tissues and get them in restoration mode.
“After running a marathon, try to keep in mind the so-called ‘recovery window.’ This is the period immediately after prolonged exercise when the muscle enzymes that support glycogen production — the primary fuel your muscles relied on during the race — are elevated,” they explain. “…During the first 30 to 45 minutes after you cross the finish line — the prime recovery window — your muscles can absorb more glycogen (at a ratio 4:1, that means four parts carbohydrates to one part protein).”
Doheny at SafeBee spoke with Cathy Fieseler, a Texas-based sports medicine doctor, who says, “If your legs are wasted, you need to take time off.” This is a sign of injury, though you might only require rest. In that case, Fieseler advises that you take at least two days off.
Two Days After the Race
If you found that you didn’t really have an appetite after the race, your hunger should return to normal levels a day or two afterward. John Carlson, the coach for the Road Runners Club of Woodbury in New Jersey, notes that this period is all about taking it easy. “One to two days after the race, continue to eat well, drink fluids, and get plenty of rest,” he says.
Registered dietician Melanie Flinn has some tips on getting protein and some carbs in your diet at the Mizuno blog. She says feel free to eat these foods right after the race and in the days after:
- Pita bread pizza
- English muffins with eggs and your favorite vegetables
- Chicken tacos
- A sandwich with whole-wheat bread, avocados, cheese and meat such as roast beef, ham or turkey
- Chocolate milk
- Energy bars with ingredients like nuts, oats and quinoa
The team at running app Great Run Training also suggests incorporating these foods into your diet:
- Peanut butter on a bagel — As your body recovers, allow for foods higher on the glycemic index scale, such as both peanut butter and bagels. These “can help replenish energy more quickly — ideal if you’re feeling wiped out but need to get on with your day.”
- Skinny lattes — Green Run Training points to a published study from the Journal of Applied Physiology in which the researchers discovered that by drinking just a bit of coffee (8 mg of coffee for each kilo you weigh) that you’re sending 66% more glycogen to your body. A latte with milk will also introduce electrolytes and protein into your system.
- Tuna sandwich — A great source of both carbohydrates and protein. Try multigrain or rye bread for the most nutritious meal.
- Banana smoothie — Bananas are a fantastic way to recover lost carbs, and blending them into a smoothie with cinnamon and honey is a flavorful and healthy treat.
- Plain yogurt with pomegranate seeds — Toss in your own pomegranate seeds. Plain yogurt has less sugar.
Women’s Running writer Jenny Bozon recommends that you still make sleep a top priority in the days after your race. Your body is still in recovery mode, so you must respect it, she says.
“It’s easy to underestimate the importance of rest in recovering from a race. A lack of sleep will compromise your immune system, which is already significantly depleted after running a marathon. A solid eight hours sleep will not only boost your defenses, but is also crucial to muscle repair….most muscle repair occurs between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., so it’s worth getting to bed early.”
Sara at Loving on the Run echoes that advice: “Sleep is so vital for recovery after a marathon. This isn’t the time to try to burn the midnight oil. Let your body recover and aim to get the full 7–8 hours of sleep per night. Your body will thank you!”
She also emphasizes the importance of a little relaxation: “The week after [a race] I give myself a break and relax, I relax my diet, spend time with friends, family, and do pretty much whatever I want.”
Douglas and Pippig at Take the Magic Step insist “deep recovery is your top priority” when it comes to deciding whether you want to exercise. If you’re feeling up to it, they suggest jogging between 10 and 15 miles, which can help keep your muscles flexible and prevent them from getting too achy.
However, if you feel like this is too much for you, skip this step.
“Avoid running if you strained a muscle or have bad blisters on your feet,” they insist. “Take a break from running if you experienced something which doesn’t allow you to run in your usual style — an altered gait can just create other problems you really want to avoid.”
If you are game for some physical activity, you have to be careful. The two mention that hilly marathons can really take a toll on your soft tissue, and so stretching too much too soon could lead to muscle tears. Take only 10 minutes to stretch. It’s recommended that you focus on each muscle in and around the legs as you do so, including the glutes, hip flexors, hamstrings, quads and Achilles tendons.
Two Weeks After the Race
Jenny Sugar at PopSugar raced a half-marathon and found afterward she began to gain weight. “Although I was running four or five hours per week, I wasn’t burning enough calories to make up for my insane hunger,” she deduced.
While the day of the race and the days following are all about replenishing your body, you cannot let high-calories days or carb binges turn into habits.
Liz Applegate at the Runner’s World Comrades blog compiled a great list of foods you should gravitate toward if you plan on training and staying fit for future races:
- Go grass-fed and range-free when possible. These foods, which are excellent sources of protein, are also leaner. “Compared to their stockyard-raised, corn-fed counterparts, free-range, grass-fed animals may contain more omega-3 fats and less artery-clogging saturated fats due to their healthier diets and higher activity levels.”
- Get dairy from mammals. Applegate notes that animal dairy provides a variety of nutrients besides just calcium, including stearic acid, which manages blood-cholesterol, and whey protein, which helps muscles repair themselves faster.
- Don’t cut the skins off vegetables and fruits. These contain phytochemicals, and the skins have a range of benefits depending on which fruits and veggies that you eat. Applegate writes that the quercetin in onion skins and the resveratrol in grape skins stave off sickness, certain types of cancer and heart conditions.
- Start eating seeds. “Seeds, including whole grains, many beans, and even tree nuts, contain the crucial mix of nutrients needed to grow a new plant, which means they are packed with health-boosting compounds,” Applegate says. “In addition to traditional nutrients like protein and essential fats, seeds contain bioactive compounds such as phenolic compounds and ferulic acid, which act as antioxidants.”
As your body returns mostly back to normal over two weeks, so will your sleep schedule. You’re probably not sleeping an extra hour or two anymore. However, now is not the time to grow lax with your sleep habits.
The writers at Runner’s World Magazine South Africa note the obvious correlation between your ability to exercise and how much sleep you get. “Not surprisingly, how much you run impacts how much you need to sleep, but it’s not a simple more-means-more equation,” they say.
“Research has linked moderate exercise to higher-quality, more efficient slumber — possibly by increasing levels of a compound called adenosine that promotes sleep. And so, people logging moderate mileage might actually need less sleep than those who don’t run at all. But as anyone who’s ever trained for a half-marathon or longer can attest, sleep needs change at the start of a new running program or in the midst of a tough training cycle.”
As mentioned earlier, listen to your body.
If you failed to work out in the two weeks after a race, that’s OK. Katie Rosenbrock of The Active Times spoke to certified Level 2 USA Track & Field coach Marty Beene, who told her that “about two weeks off is a good length of time. … In fact, that’s a good length of time to take off after any major goal race or racing season, not only the marathon.”
Once you do resume your fitness routine, take it easy. Beene suggests that you start with light swimming, walking or cycling. Otherwise, it just takes patience.
“For runners who want to do some more racing, just keep in mind that we can’t keep improving in perpetuity,” he says. “We do have to have a period of ‘detraining’ from time to time, usually once or twice a year at least.”