If you’ve recently completed your big target race, perhaps a marathon or half marathon, what’s the best way to recover? How quickly can you get back into training? And is it normal still to feel tired for a while afterwards? We explore the issues around race recovery…
1. Recovery: You are the best judge
Crucially, everyone is different. There is no rule about how long recovery takes. Some people can run fast marathons in consecutive weeks, while others need weeks or months to recover from one big race.
Pay attention to how you feel. Don’t be too swayed by what other people are doing; instead, listen to your body and allow yourself time until you feel ready to run or train. If you are tired, give yourself a proper break and don’t feel bad about it. If you have pains or injury niggles, give them a chance to repair.
Recovery is mental as well as physical. Giving yourself a break from hard, concentrated training is not only about allowing the body to mend physical damage, but also to give yourself a mental rest so that when you return to running and training you feel refreshed and motivated.
What you eat and drink in the hours and days after a big race will make a difference to your recovery. Sports nutritionists recommend ensuring you eat healthy protein and carbohydrate to promote this process.
Protein is vital for muscle repair. Immediately after your race (or hard sessions during training) consuming around 20g of protein within 30 minutes will help to kick-start the recovery process. After that, regular protein intake will continue to enable muscle and tissue repair.
Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver. As the body can only store a certain amount, these stores are heavily depleted during a long endurance race and need to be replaced. (However, there’s no reason to binge on carbs, and your stomach may not feel like tolerating a large amount of food straight after a race. It can be better to eat small quantities regularly.)
Replenishing those vital vitamins and minerals is important too, with plenty of vegetables.
What about drink? It’s important to rehydrate properly after a race but not to excess. Ideally it’s good to drink regularly through the day, and to have drinks which contain electrolytes, which are easier to absorb.
Finally, I also think it’s good to enjoy yourself after a big race. Now is the time to treat yourself in whatever form that takes for you personally – whether it’s a few drinks or a food you’ve been trying to avoid during training. But after a few days, put some thought into your diet again so that you don’t start gaining too much weight and undoing the physical benefits you gained from training.
Sleep is essential for physical and mental recuperation. During sleep, physical processes take place which are necessary for your body to heal and repair, including bone and muscle tissue regeneration, more water reabsorption through the kidneys, and stabilisation of hormone levels. Sleep is also essential for the brain and cognitive mechanisms to function, enabling you to concentrate better and control your mood.
Poor sleep is more likely to lead to poor food choices, which makes it easier to get into a cycle where your blood sugar levels fluctuate too much. In turn, this may make it harder to get to sleep easily. So sleeping well and eating well go hand in hand. Sort this out by ensuring you control your food choices for a few days and go to bed early (even if it is hard to drop off to sleep – the rest will still be helpful).Surprisingly, the night after a big race many runners find they don’t sleep so well. It is puzzling – you’d think you’d be exhausted right? There are several reasons why sleep may be harder the night after a race: elevated core temperature; elevated cortisol; possibly excitement and the emotional remnants of your day; maybe even that you’ve taken on a lot of caffeine in the form of gels. You may also be hungry or dehydrated. Don’t worry too much about this one night, just give yourself a chance to catch up in the following few days.
4. The first few days: The body
Physical recovery can be tough in the few days after your race. After a marathon, the body has taken a real battering.
During this period, immunity can be low, so it’s important to look after yourself well. The points above about nutrition and sleep are important for this.
Your muscles also need to repair damage. To help with this, try:
- Walking around: Movement is essential to avoid seizing up too much. Gently walking, even immediately after your race, will really help you to stay lose and keep blood flowing.
- Stretching gently: A light stretch routine every day can help to keep the muscles loose and combat tightness. However, keep the stretches short (max 15 seconds) and don’t over-stretch or you will cause micro-tears to the muscles. Some people also find yoga or pilates very helpful.
- Compression socks: The idea of compression socks (which are basically the same as those widely used for medical purposes) are that they improve blood circulation by compressing the veins in your legs.
- Massage: This can stimulate repair and alleviate knots or tension in the muscles. However, proceed with caution! Deep tissue massage can be harsh. It may be advisable to wait a few days after your race before any deep tissue massage to avoid further damage to the muscle tissue.
- Foam rolling: In a similar way to massage, using a foam roller can help to iron out knots, but don’t overdo it in the few days straight after your race.
5. The first few days: The mind
Mental and emotional recovery is important too. A big race can be a huge emotional experience, and the training working up to it can be mentally draining.
So take some time to celebrate your achievement! Enjoy yourself. You’ve been very focused and structured working towards one goal, so take a breather, relax and be proud of yourself.
Do whatever it takes to feel good and refreshed. Assess your race if that makes you feel good, and if things didn’t go to plan then try to gain some perspective on it.
If you need a break from running for a while, don’t beat yourself up about it. That’s wholly understandable and normal, and by giving yourself permission to have a break you are more likely to rediscover your mojo sooner!
It’s also good to reflect on your race. Write down your thoughts, and the lessons learnt. This is very valuable information so you can gain from the experience, and read back your thoughts when you come to your next race. If there are particular things you know held you back or that you could improve on, make a note of those and revisit them when it comes to planning your next training programme.
6. Cross training
When you are ready to return to exercise, you may find it helpful to add some variety for a while.
Cross-training is an excellent way to keep up exercise and cardiovascular fitness, while using your muscles in a different way. This will stimulate blood flow whilst avoiding aggravating any injury niggles or damage from your race. Cycling, swimming and using cross-trainers in the gym can be great for this.
7. Getting back to running
Don’t forget that you run mainly for enjoyment! You might need to work on rediscovering your motivation and finding the fun.
So when you feel like running again, consider doing something different from your well-trodden training routines of the past few months. Maybe run on some trails, or head out to the fells. Or perhaps try running much shorter races than you’re used to – if you’re a member of a club, you may have an opportunity to take part in relays or track races, or local 5k leagues. During the summer months in particular, all of these are fun and often sociable.
I’m also a big fan of running without a watch, particularly when you are in a recovery phase. This way you run on effort rather than slipping into a habit of thinking you ought to run at a particular pace. Run according to how you feel for a while without beating yourself up if that is slower than you’re used to.
8. Goals: Set a new one!
Although you need time for recovery, you probably don’t want to allow your fitness to slip too much, or to start putting on weight and losing some of the physical adaptations you’ve gained from training. Give yourself a break, but also give yourself a reason to get back on track again.
Setting yourself a new goal is a great way to do this. It provides a framework for training, and gives you a focus.
Sign up to that next race, and get yourself excited and motivated again!