Post-Race Recovery

By: Douglas R. Dirschl, MD

While you are putting together your race plan for the marathon, don’t forget that the finish line may be the end of the race, but is not the end of your running season or career. You should also plan for a solid recovery after the race to keep you healthy and fit and running. Recovery starts the minute you cross the finish line. Make sure to rehydrate and eat a meal or meal replacement rich in protein and carbohydrates within 30 minutes of finishing the race. While there are many recovery drinks and foods out there, all of which are good, it turns out that chocolate milk has just about the optimal mix of protein and carbohydrates for consumption right after an endurance event – check it out! Keep moving after the finish line so your muscles can cool more slowly (yep, that’s why the chute at the end of the race and the walk to the ‘meet-up’ area after the race are so long – smart, huh?) and try to keep your muscles warm and flexible with some heat (shower/bath/etc), massage, and/or a gentle walk later in the day. There is some research that asserts that ice baths may be highly beneficial in the first 24-48 hours after a long endurance event, but this is recommended only after a normal cooling down period; it could be dangerous to plunge your muscles into an ice bath immediately after the finish of the race.

You’ll be tempted to keep up your intense workout routine in the days immediately after the race. For your body’s sake, don’t. Although there are few hard and fast guidelines on how long a body needs to recover after a long race, nearly all sports medicine experts agree that recovery should be your top priority. Plan now to take the proper time to recover so you don’t injure your body. Injury could delay your next big event and affect your future performance. Allow yourself the rest your body is craving after the marathon. If you have a strained muscle or blistered feet after the race, avoid running until you’re healed and can do so comfortably. If you feel any joint pain, try swimming or light spinning on a bike before attempting to jog or run again. If you’re still in a fair amount of pain after a few days, see a sports medicine professional to determine if you have an acute injury.

On the other hand, if you’re truly feeling fine the day after the race, it’s okay to go on a short run to help reduce stiffness and soreness - but only if it truly feels better to run than to not run, since reducing discomfort and recovering are the early goals after a major race like a marathon. To avoid slight tears, stretch your muscles only after a short warm–up and do it gently – passive stretching of cold muscles (before you jog) is not recommended and can be dangerous. Over the days/weeks following your marathon, you may mix short runs with cross training activities such as short bike rides, swimming or deepwater running, until your energy level returns to normal. You must listen to your body here and don’t push too hard; increasing your activity level (or mileage) after the race will need to occur slowly, at a rate that is dictated by how your body feels and responds. (I learned this the hard way, scheduling two marathons only 5 weeks apart. This might be okay for an accomplished marathoner but for me, as a runner doing his first and second marathons, it was too aggressive. My performance in the second race was much poorer than the first, and I was fortunate to have avoided injury.)