Whether you have a 5K on the books or you’re planning to tackle a half-marathon in the near future, what you do after you cross the finish line is just as vital as what you did leading up to race day. While recovery has become a bit of a trendy term, that doesn’t mean it’s a fleeting fad or something you should breeze through.
The rest you take post-run or -race, as well as how you refuel and rebuild your body, sets you up for your next significant achievement — whether that’s back to clocking miles or choosing a different fitness objective altogether. And how precisely you rest and refuel can differ depending on the distance and intensity you put into your run. So follow this step-by-step, expert-approved guide to getting back on your feet and feeling fantastic, no matter how far or fast you go.
Immediately Post-Race or -Run: Keep Moving
It’s probably tempting to instantly stop or sit down after you cross that finish line, but you want to try to keep moving, even if just for a little while. “If you immediately stop, you build up lactate acid and that will stay in the legs,” says Corinne Fitzgerald, an NSCA-certified personal trainer and head coach at Mile High Run Club in New York City. This will only leave you more sore and stiff later on and until the next day.
To avoid the post-run aches, aim for a five-minute jog — or if that sounds impossible, a brisk walk around the block. If you just finished a half or full marathon, consider making this recovery distance a little longer. While that probably sounds like the last thing you’ll want to do, it’s your best defense against becoming extremely sore. Feel free to go as slow as you need to flush out all that lactic acid waste in your legs.
A Few Minutes After Your Finish: Stretch
After you shake those legs out, you’ll want to take some time to stretch. While stretching won’t necessarily help you avoid injury or improve performance, it can help your nervous system calm down, putting your body in more of a resting state, says Blake Dircksen, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., physical therapist and run coach at Bespoke Treatments.
Furthermore, to be frank, it simply provides a pleasurable sensation. The overall recommendation for stretching after a race is that you desire to maintain a mild approach, remarks Dircksen. Avoid exerting excessive pressure, and halt if the discomfort intensifies into genuine agony.
Try these stretches after you cross the finish line:
A. From a seated position, stretch both legs straight out in front of the body. Bend the right leg and place the right foot on the inner thigh of the left leg. (It will resemble the tree pose in yoga, but while seated.)
B. Bend forward at the waist. Hold this position for as long as it feels comfortable, then switch sides and repeat.
A. From a seated position, bend both knees and bring the soles of the feet together.
B. Bend forward at the waist. Hold this position for as long as it feels comfortable.
A. From either a standing or lying position on the side or stomach, bend one knee behind the body.
B. Hold the ankle or foot and activate the glute muscles to release the quadriceps. Hold this position for as long as it feels comfortable, then switch sides and repeat.
30 Minutes to 2 Hours Afterwards: Refuel
“Nutrition is unequivocally the most important factor in aiding recovery after a strenuous effort,” says Dircksen. So ensure that you have a snack or a meal after you finish (regardless of the distance you covered) and make sure it contains a combination of carbohydrates and protein.
In general, runners should aim for approximately 15 to 30 grams of protein within 45 minutes to one hour after completing a workout, says Pamela M. Nisevich Bede, R.D., author of Sweat. Eat. Repeat. To determine the amount of carbohydrates to consume, multiply the protein count by two to four.
In addition to a quick snack, such as a glass of chocolate milk after running, it’s also important to include a meal later in the day that combines carbohydrates and protein. Your body can only convert glucose (derived from carbohydrates) into glycogen (which your muscles use as energy) at a certain rate, so it’s crucial to evenly distribute your fuel, explains Bede.
Regardless of the distance you covered, hydration is also crucial since most runners finish a workout in a dehydrated state, notes Bede. If you tend to sweat a lot during a run or if you run in extremely hot and humid conditions, consider adding electrolytes such as sodium or potassium to your beverages. This will help replenish the minerals lost during a sweaty run, which may aid in recovery.
When You Get Home: Engage in Dynamic Movements
Take control of your recovery when you arrive home with some active stretching. Try engaging in standing hip circles, a mobile hamstring stretch, or a quick standing quad stretch in which you alternate sides every few seconds. “After completing your run, your muscles are warmed up, but if you wait until later in the day, you will have cooled down, so it’s not advisable to immediately transition to static holds,” explains Fitzgerald. That’s why dynamic stretches are a better choice later on. Additionally, these movements can help prevent stiffness.
The Evening After a Race: Receive a Massage
Immediately after a race, it’s important to initiate and continue the healing process, which could involve a professional massage or a form of compression therapy such as NormaTec recovery boots. “You need a healthy healing process to flush out the accumulated waste from your legs,” says Fitzgerald.
Try to schedule a massage session for later in the day. However, if you are unable to fit it in (due to celebratory activities, for example), the following day(s) will work as well. Consider it a well-deserved treat for accomplishing your goal!
The Next Day: Stay Active
Although it may be tempting to spend the day after a race or long run curled up in bed, this won’t benefit your muscles. Try jogging (or briskly walking) for just 15 minutes, or up to 45 minutes if you have the endurance. “The day after the race, a short shakeout run is a fantastic way to alleviate some of the stiffness and restore blood flow to your muscles,” says Dircksen. If you are still experiencing discomfort from your stride, consider using an elliptical or another cross trainer, he recommends.
You can also go to the pool or jump on a bike for a more gentle way to move, suggests Fitzgerald. “Utilize your time off from running as an opportunity to engage in activities you didn’t partake in during training,” she recommends. It’s completely acceptable to refrain from tying up your running shoes for a few more weeks — especially if you completed a long-distance run or logged some very fast shorter miles. Just aim to discover another method to incorporate movement into your day.
The Following Few Days: Foam Roll
Grab your roller and spend five to 10 (or even 20) minutes on your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. Some research indicates that myofascial release (or breaking up tension in the connective tissue known as fascia) from foam rolling can combat post-exercise muscle soreness.
“If you’re struggling with some discomfort and pain in a specific area, direct a bit more attention there, as foam rolling can have a positive effect on pain modulation,” suggests Dircksen. Aim for about 45 seconds per muscle group and maintain a slow pace. (If you haven’t stocked up on one yet, try one of these top-selling foam rollers.)
One or Two Weeks Later: Strength Train
It’s extremely important to provide your body with the necessary rest without immediately returning to an intense workout routine, but performing exercises that benefit the muscles you engaged while running can aid in your recovery and help you stay strong. Consider incorporating clamshells, glute bridges, and planks as the initial few bodyweight exercises back into your routine when you feel ready, as recommended by Fitzgerald.
Up to Three Weeks Later: Assess Your Body
You may fully recuperate from a 5K in just a few days, but a marathon? That’s a different story. “You might still be in the recovery process even three weeks later, so it’s important to acknowledge that and give your body a bit more time before diving back into your workouts,” advises Fitzgerald. “Similar to how you have to gradually increase your mileage before race day, you also need to gradually reintroduce it afterward,” she notes. Pay attention to your body and take as much time as necessary to rest and recover.
In the days and weeks following a major race, the most critical aspects to focus on are nutrition, sleep, socializing, and light exercise, says Dircksen. “Massage, foam rolling, and bodywork are excellent ways to engage the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, [the rest and digest system], which is beneficial for facilitating recovery and rejuvenation, but should not replace proper nutrition, sleep, and mental health plans,” he says.