Recovery Practices After a Hard Race or Run

When it comes to a long or intense run or cardio workout, how you wind down after workouts is just as important as how you warm up beforehand. Vigorous exercise takes a toll by depleting glycogen (stored in muscles for quick energy), breaking down muscle fibers, and making you tired all over. 

But there are things you can do to recover. Know how to treat your post-run body to prevent injury and increase your athletic performance.

1

Eat and Drink for Recovery

Woman rests on stairs after a run

Solovyova / Getty Images

Certain foods in combination can help prevent soreness after a run—namely complex carbohydrates plus protein to help repair and rebuild muscles.

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) advises aiming for a ratio of 3:1 complex (non-sugary) carbs to protein and snacking within a half-hour of exercise when your muscles are most receptive to rebuilding glycogen stores.

It is a good idea to prepare a post-run snack before you head out for your training. That way, you are more likely to stick to the best choices for recovery and less likely to grab the first thing you see. Examples of good post-run snacks include:

  • A plain bagel with peanut butter or almond butter
  • A quarter cup of nonfat yogurt topped with a half-cup each of whole-grain cereal and fresh berries
  • Ready-made protein bars that have a 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein
  • Six whole-grain crackers, a couple of slices of cheese, and an apple

It is also important, according to ACE, to drink lots of water to help your body regulate its blood pressure and temperature, and to transport essential nutrients through the body.

To rehydrate yourself, stick to plain water if you ran for less than 90 minutes. After a long run of 90 minutes or more, your body will benefit from a sports drink, as it replenishes glycogen to your muscles.

There is a 20-minute window after a hard workout where you may want to get some protein in your system.

2

Stretch or Walk

Whether stretching is necessary for runners is somewhat controversial among fitness experts. Still, there's no question that the ideal time to stretch is after a run, while muscles are warm and pliable. Stretching before a run, while muscles are cold and stiff, can put them at risk for tears

Spend about 15 to 30 seconds per side doing your runners' stretches. But be gentle, especially if you ran for 90 minutes or longer.

After running for more than 90 minutes, you are better off walking for a short period—if you have the time and have the proper fluids/calories. Your muscles will be tired after a long run, and acute muscle damage is possible with stretching after a half or full marathon.

3

Take an Ice Bath

Taking an ice bath after a long run can be an efficient way to reduce inflammation and soreness throughout the entire body. If the idea of submerging yourself into an icy tub is less than appealing, leave your clothes on and bring a hot beverage (in an unbreakable cup) to sip on while you soak.

You can even wear a wool hat! If you can't tolerate an ice bath, use ice packs on areas that are most prone to getting sore, such as your quads and knees.

4

Mix Up Your Activities

Cross-training is a great way to protect muscles from being overworked without taking a total break from exercise. On days you need to give yourself time to recover from running, do a low-impact activity such as biking, strength training, swimming, yoga, or using the elliptical trainer at your gym.

Even going for a short walk will give your running muscles and joints a break while allowing you to maintain your fitness level. Cross-training is also perfect for travel when running outside or on a treadmill may not be accessible.

  • For the recreational runner: Try supplementing your three to four days of running with two to three days of cross-training.
  • For the competitive runner: If you run four to six days a week, try substituting a low-intensity cross-training workout for an easy run or a rest day one to two days a week.
  • For the injured or sidelined runner: You may need to cross-train more frequently, but speak with your doctor or physical therapist to advise how much cross-training is recommended for your specific injury. Cross-training can help injured runners maintain fitness levels and better deal with the frustration and disappointment of being sidelined from running.
5

Get a Massage or Try Foam Rolling

Massage is more than a feel-good indulgence after exercise: It's also an effective way to help reduce muscle tension and soreness, prevent injury, increase range of motion, and more, according to the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA).

When booking your massage, look for a massage therapist who's certified through the AMTA or Associated Bodywork Massage Professionals. Some therapists specialize in working with athletes, but any qualified therapist will be able to help.

If you prefer to work out the kinks yourself, try using a foam roller or other massage tool. If you are new to foam rolling, start with the following:

  • Get the right position: Position the roller under soft tissue and avoid rolling directly over bone or joints.
  • Start at the center: Work from the center of the body out toward your extremities.
  • Be thorough: Roll over each area a few times until you feel it relax. Expect some discomfort at first.
  • Don't overdo it: Keep sessions short and have a rest day between sessions when you start.

Keep in mind that after a long race, foam rolling should be delayed for at least a day or two as acute muscle damage is possible immediately following a marathon.

If you have any heart or vascular illness or a chronic pain condition, do not use a foam roller without your physician's approval first.

6

Clock Plenty of Sleep

After a long hard run or race, a good night's sleep is critical. Your body needs extensive downtime to recover and repair itself. In fact, you should be sure to sleep at least eight hours a night in general for your overall health, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

This means that even on nights after you haven't exercised, you should be in the habit of going to bed and getting up at times that will allow you to log eight hours of sleep. 

For running athletes, the aim should actually be for more than eight hours of sleep every night, according to a Stanford University study published in the journal Sleep. Athletes who extended their sleep to more than seven to nine hours per night improved their sprint running times and performed better on reaction tests.

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2 Sources
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  1. American Council on Exercise. Nutrition support for long-distance running. Updated April 1, 2015.

  2. Mah CD, Mah KE, Kezirian EJ, Dement WC. The effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball playersSleep. 2011;34(7):943-950. doi:10.5665/sleep.1132