How to Recover After Any Distance Race

When runners have an upcoming race, they spend countless hours focused on training and working and building up to the big day.

But what happens after all that?

There’s a LOT of work that goes into the time before a race, and a lot of effort needed for running the race itself. With weeks or months of training, your body is in dire need of some rest.

And we know that most runners have a tough time sitting still long enough to truly allow their bodies to recover. But, it’s an essential component to your training and injury prevention, and it’s non-negotiable for healthy running.

Plus, there’s good news — even though recovery looks different for every athlete (and varies dependent on the length of your race), there are a handful of best practices that apply to just about anyone!

In the same way running biomechanics can be based on an ideal “formula” for movement, so can your recovery. So let’s review!

Is Recovery Important for Runners?

The answer to this question probably seems obvious… but we’re going to review it anyway.

Every runner knows that recovery is a pillar of solid running training, and it becomes especially essential after training for and completing a race.

Your body has been subjected to a ton of stimulus, including extra loading, external forces, and repetitive momentum, so it needs time to recuperate before tackling the next big thing. The amount of work you put your body through is bound to create some degree of microdamage to the tissues. And while this damage isn’t necessarily enough to directly cause injury, continuing to use the same tissues will only exacerbate them further and snowball into a larger issue without sufficient rest.

Recovery is a staple for running injury prevention and allows your body to physically and physiologically wind down and reset itself.

Typically, you will have some form of immediate, post-race recovery, as well as best practices for the days following your race. Most of the actual recovery techniques are similar for any kind of race — the biggest difference is how long you implement them.

Ultra Marathon Recovery

Let’s start with one of the heftiest race distances: the ultra marathon.

As you can presume, as one of the longest (traditional) race distances, the ultra marathon requires longer and more thorough recovery than others.

In the first 24 hours after your race, really focus on laying low — stick to heat, ice, or light stretching, paying close attention to where you might feel soreness, pain, or possible injury. Some runners find it helpful to wear pressure boots right after their race to push swelling out of the leg as much as possible.

After those initial 24 hours, you should start moving again! Active rest is essential after an ultra, otherwise you run the risk of the muscular tissue tightening or constricting around the joints after a prolonged period of intense training.

However, once you hit the 48-hour mark, you’re probably going to feel the after effects of your race. You’ll be sore, stiff, and tired, and you likely won’t have much energy to do rigorous physical activity. Instead, spend time on lighter workouts like an easy bike, an easy swim, or a simple walk around the neighborhood. This will keep your tissues moving and pliable, helping to increase your heart rate and blood flow. (At this point, you might also benefit from some targeted foam rolling or massage.)

The duration of your recovery depends on your level of training. (Those that have run ultras in the past may not need as much recovery as those who haven’t!) Ultimately, you want there to be enough recovery time for you to return to your base level of training without experiencing any pain or compromised running form.

And we know that sounds vague — but when in doubt, err on the side of caution! Under-recovery is a silent enemy for runners: you won’t recognize that it’s happening until it’s too late. If you stack race on race or run too many races in a row, your risk of injury goes WAY up well before you can catch any signs of overtraining.

Marathon Recovery

Recovery between ultras and standard marathons are effectively the same, with the latter simply being less intense and shorter in duration.

A majority of marathoners are able to recover in about 7-8 days. They’ll start out with immediate, post-race recovery within the first 24 hours, focusing on the tried-and-true recovery methods like heat, ice, massage, foam rolling, etc.

In the 48-72 hours following their marathon, runners will start easing into lighter activities. They typically don’t have to spend a lot of time on light, active rest — in most cases, people are back to performing recovery or “shakeout” runs by the end of the week. These workouts will target a very slow distance pace and only last about 2-4 miles each, ensuring that you’re truly easing back into activity.

After that, most runners will be back to normal training approximately by the 10th day after their race. You can continue to implement certain recovery practices like yoga, stretching, and foam rolling through this return to training, but you likely won’t need a whole lot more than that.

Half Marathon Recovery

Although the recovery process for half marathons is based on the same recovery formula as the previous two sections, you don’t literally halve the recovery time from a marathon.

With half marathons, your running caliber can affect the duration of your recovery time. For instance, if you’re a seasoned runner who’s familiar with races, you might need around 2-3 days for recovery. You won’t need as much immediate, post-race recovery and can likely ease into that lighter movement within the first 24 hours after your race. Work through the basic recovery methods and a couple of recovery runs — you should be good to resume your standard training by about day 4.

However, since half marathons aren’t quite as daunting as the other two races, there are many novice runners who participate as well. If you’re still in the earlier stages of your running career, you may need closer to 3-7 days of recovery. In this case, you can mirror a similar recovery plan as marathon runners and incorporate a more gradual return to your regular training.

(A friendly reminder for novice runners: if you aren’t quite sure how long you should spend on recovery, give yourself the full timeline! Recovery is essential for any level of running, and practicing solid recovery habits early on will help ensure best practices as your training progresses.)

Recovery for 10k and Under Races

Great news — for shorter races, you don’t really much by way of recovery!

Seasoned runners effectively don’t have to dedicate specific time to recover. You can typically train through it and keep on chugging through your usual training plan (as long as you aren’t consistently stacking one 10k after the other).

Even for novice runners, there isn’t a lot you have to do. You might experience some general soreness or tightness in the joints, but you’ll only need about 2 days of active rest to get your body back to baseline. Focus on those same tactics for light movement, especially activities like foam rolling, yoga, or stretching to help loosen up your tissues and build up that mobility again.

Don’t Skimp Out on Recovery!

You and your body go through so much — physically, physiologically, mentally, and emotionally — to get through a race and all of its preceding training. You deserve ample recovery time in the aftermath, partly to ensure that you aren’t overtraining and can prevent injury, but also as a reward for all of the hard work and time you put into completing a race.And remember that spending time on recovery is not wasted time for your training! We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: recovery and active rest are integral parts of successful running, and it should be one of the top priorities as you map out your game plan for training.

By Dr. Kevin Vandi DPT OCS CSCS

Dr. Vandi is the founder of Competitive EDGE Physical Therapy — with his background in physical therapy, orthopedics, and biomechanics, he is a highly educated, compassionate specialist. Using state-of-the-art motion analysis technology and data-driven methodologies, Kevin has assisted a wide range of clients, from post-surgery patients to youth and professional athletes. When he isn’t busy working or reading research, he spends his time with his wife Chrissy and their five wonderful children, often enjoying the outdoors and staying committed to an active lifestyle.

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