Congratulations! You’ve crossed the Finish Line of your very first half marathon. You trained for weeks – months even – and now you are done. You savor your triumph. It is not every day someone runs a half marathon, after all. You wear your medal to work, in the car; you may even sleep in it. Go ahead! After all, you earned it! Your hours and hours of hard work, training, eating smart and running have paid off into one fantastic race day.
And now it’s over. Just like that.
Now what should you do?
Recovery has to be an integral part of your training, and it begins the moment you cross the finish line. You must recover so that you can run and race again.
Take the first five or ten minutes after you cross the finish line and keep moving with easy walking – this can easily be the time it takes you to walk through the chute, collect your belongings and meet up with your family and friends. Walking at an easy pace allows the body to come down more gradually and circulates blood back to normal distribution quantities and regions on your body. It prevents fainting and blood pooling in the legs that occurs if you immediately sit down post race. It also allows your body to process the lactic acid that builds up during the race.
While you’re walking, start drinking the first liquids that are put into your hands. Keep drinking (small sips) even if you feel nauseated, you need to replace the fluids your body has lost. Sipping water is fine, but make sure you find a recovery drink such as Gatorade or fruit drinks to replace your body’s glycogen stores. Avoid diet soft drinks and alcohol – they do not offer any benefits to your body. I like to drink Chocolate Milk because it offers the perfect ratio of carbs to protein (4:1) for recovery.
After your walk, get off your feet! Sit down – or better yet – lie down and prop your feet up, easing the flow of blood to the heart. Many runners even stretch (gently to avoid further trauma to the muscles) horizontally. Your body will let you know what feels good.
Within an hour after your finish, you need to start thinking about eating some solid foods. A banana is beneficial because it is soft and easily digestible, plus provides extra potassium to your cells. They are my favorite post-race food as a matter of fact – I get upset when they are not available so I started carrying one or two in my bag just in case. As you progress throughout your day, start eating balanced food again. You need to replace the glycogen your body has burned. A 150 pound runner needs about 300 calories an hour to effectively replace lost glycogen stores.
When you get home (or back to your hotel) you may want to take an ice bath to relieve sore muscles and start returning your body to a normal body temperature. Take a cool shower instead of a hot one to further decrease muscle inflammation. Within 24 to 48 hours, you may want to get a gentle massage to help push waste products out of the body and regenerate healthy blood flow.
Next, take a nap or at least try to, for a couple of hours. I never have a problem with this. I could sleep all day after a race, but after three or four hours, you need to eat again – this time a full meal. Your first post-race meal should resemble your last pre-race meal. You need carbohydrates and protein. I usually crave a steak after a marathon or half marathon, and I make sure to pair it with extra bread, potatoes or pasta to make sure I am consuming adequate carbs. Remember, even high carbohydrate diets have some protein in them, so don’t be afraid to eat the meat!
So, what about running? The most common post-marathon mistake is resuming training too soon.
Take one week off running and let your body heal. Research indicates that recovery is speeded and conditioning is not affected if you rest for 7 to 10 days after your race. Yes, take one week off running. Although the stiffness subsides in a few days, there is still internal healing happening and running too soon increases the chance of an injury down the road.
After your week off, you can begin cross-training easy for 20-30 minutes during the week and focus on flexibility, if you feel like you need to be active. Cross-training will also help to increase circulation to the healing muscles without major impact and pounding. Gradually increase your mileage similar to a reverse taper. Start back running limiting the weekly mileage to only 25% of what it was before taper started. The next week go to 50%, then 75%, then back to full mileage. The general rule of thumb is to take one day for every mile to run easy and not race. Meaning, take 13 days of easy running before racing or running hard again.
To summarize: Drink plenty of fluids, carbo-load after the race (as well as before), and don’t start running again too soon.
The bottom line? You know your body best. If you are experiencing aches and pains or sore, take more time to rest. If you get sick, this is not uncommon since your immune system has taken a severe hit, rest until you are better. Listen to your body, recovery is important to keep you running happy and healthy for a long time to come.
Another important part of post-marathon healing is recovering your mental health, yet is one of the aspects of training that people do not seem to talk about very much. You may experience not only physical, but mental fatigue if not mild depression. This is a normal part of racing! Not much can be done except for you to understand it is normal, sleep more if you can and don’t exert yourself physically or mentally. Many scientists believe this mild state of depression is a result of depletion of neurotransmitters in the brain.
There is a wealth of information about post-marathon recovery. Two of my favorites are The Lore of Running by Tim Noakes, MD and Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide by Hal Higdon. You can find a great deal of information and apply it to your specific situation.
Until the next mile marker,