Exactly What to Do (and Not to Do) After Running a Half Marathon
You did it! You just ran a half marathon (or maybe even a full marathon — you overachiever, you). So, what now? Well, sadly, collapsing into the grass, celebrating with a beer, and spending the rest of the day on your couch in a Netflix binge isn't expert-advised.
Fear not, here's the game plan for exactly what you should do from the moment you cross the finish line until you go to bed that night, according to people who do this stuff for a living. Of course, everyone's recovery will look slightly different based on their ability, fitness level, running experience, and dietary needs. But these recovery guidelines will help you navigate the 24 hours following the race so you can bounce back as quickly as possible. (And here's what to do after a workout — within 30 minutes, to be exact)
Don't: Go Horizontal
Yes, you just ran a ton of miles and standing on two feet now feels harder than ever, but it really is important that you keep moving for at least 10 to 20 minutes after you've finished to let your heart rate drop. "Runners who cross the line and sit down — no matter how great it may feel immediately — risk stiffening up or potentially pulling a muscle," says Roberto Mandje, Olympic distance runner and New York Road Runners coach. By walking, you promote active recovery; you're still pumping blood through your fatigued muscles and simultaneously clearing all the excess metabolic waste (lactic acid) that you accumulated during the race, he says. (More: Here's Why You Should Never Skip Your Post-Workout Cool Down)
There's another important reason why continuing to move is so important: Since your body had been pumping blood and oxygen to the working muscles, stopping abruptly can cause blood to pool in the lower extremities, decreasing your blood pressure. That can cause some runners to become dizzy or light-headed and even pass out, says Dennis Cardone, D.O., chief of primary care sports medicine at NYU Langone Orthopedics. (It's also not recommended to jump in a car or airplane within a few hours post-race, for the same reason, says Dr. Cardone.)
Do: Drink All of the Water
The number-one priority after you've completed a race should be rehydrating (besides taking your race medal selfie at the finish line, obvi). "Ideally you should aim to drink about 16 to 20 ounces per pound lost during a race," explains Katie Kissane, R.D., a board-certified sports dietitian. Since most people aren't stepping on a scale before and after, you should aim for about 16 to 20 ounces of water or an electrolyte beverage immediately after finishing, says Kissane. Then shoot for another 16 to 20 ounces within the next hour, and continue every hour until you're rehydrated.
And sports drinks are a must, according to Marni Sumbal, R.D., an exercise physiologist and board-certified sports dietitian. "It's important to consume sodium in your rehydration beverage instead of just plain water so that you don't urinate all that you are consuming," says Sumbal.
While the amount of fluid you'll need will depend on the length of the race, heat, humidity, and how much you were hydrating during the race (if you stopped at every water station you might not need as much), the easiest way to monitor your post-race rehydration is with the age-old urine test. Light yellow indicates a person is hydrated and dark yellow/amber usually indicates dehydration.
Do: Stretch Out Those Legs
Mandje recommends doing some basic static stretches after the race, paying special attention to your quads and hamstrings to help promote better blood flow to the area. Try a basic quad stretch: Hold on to something to support yourself, bring your foot behind you, grabbing the ankle, and slowly pull toward your glutes, holding for 5 seconds. Repeat a couple of times on each side. Then give your hamstrings some love: Lying down, keep one leg flat on the ground, and grab the opposite leg behind the calf, gradually bringing it toward your chest. Do the same with the other leg. (FYI, these are the six best post-workout stretches)
Do: Change Out of Your Clothes
You probably already want to do this anyway, but it's important to plan ahead and have a friend who can bring you dry (or warmer) clothing to change into, says Mandje. Thanks to cold sweat and reduced body heat, "walking around in your race gear means risking getting ill once the sweat has dried and the race's adrenaline has subsided." (Not to mention the fact that trapping that sweat and bacteria against your skin in damp workout clothes can cause acne, or worse: yeast infections.) And in the meantime, be sure to grab one of those shiny thermal blankets at the finish line, says Alexis Colvin, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. More than just a souvenir, it'll make sure you don't end up cold and shivering while you find your dry clothes.
Do: Wear Compression Socks
While you're doing that outfit change, you might also want to consider adding a compression sock into the mix. Although some research has indicated there could be some effect on muscular endurance, the jury is still out on whether compression gear can really boost your performance while you're running. But hey, if you're like Olympic-medal-winning runner Meb Keflezighi and think it helps, go for it. However, there is evidence to support the use of compression gear after you finish. That's because they can prevent blood from pooling in the lower extremities, says Dr. Cardone. (As mentioned above, when blood pools to your lower extremities, it can lower your blood pressure.) Consider putting on a sock that comes up to the knee and keeping them on until you go to bed to prevent pooling and to possibly prevent lactic acid buildup and any swelling, he says.
Don't: Go for Too Many Beers
Sure, if you really want to treat yourself to an ice-cold beer to celebrate, it's not going to be that big a deal, but all the experts agreed on this one: Alcohol is not recommended for at least 24 hours while your body returns to normal. While beer is often a part of the post-race celebration, consuming alcohol on an empty stomach while your body is depleted means it will enter your bloodstream much more quickly (read: you'll feel the effects faster than you normally would) and will actually dehydrate you further, says Sumbal. Not to mention, alcohol can also negatively affect muscle recovery and cause restless sleep, she says. That's the exact opposite of what you want. If you must have one, just make sure you have 20 to 24 ounces of water in your system first, says Kissane. (Related: Signs Your Casual Drinking Could Be a Problem)
Don't: Eat Acidic or High-Fiber Foods
Many people can't tolerate foods high in fat or fiber immediately after a race. During a race, there is less blood flow utilized for digestion; the blood is focused on supplying energy to the working muscles, and it takes some time for your body to recover and settle back into its normal blood flow allocation after a race, explains Kissane. To avoid gastrointestinal upset, go for a low-fiber, easy-to-digest meal. And the same goes for acidic foods and drinks. Skip the coffee and orange juice (sorry, but you should probs pass on the mimosas) at brunch since they can cause stomach problems on an empty stomach, too.
Do: Eat Lots of Carbs
"The key to recovery is to get carbohydrates within 60 minutes after a race," says Kissane. This will help restore glycogen in the liver and muscle. "Some people don't tolerate solids well after a race, so fluids containing carbs such as chocolate milk or fruit juice are perfectly acceptable," she says. (See also: 14 Post-Workout Snacks Trainers and Dieticians Swear By)
Do: Get In Some Protein
While the timing of protein may not be as critical as getting in those carbohydrates, it's recommended to have a meal containing both carbs and protein within two hours of finishing, says Kissane. "The protein will help with repairing and rebuilding muscle after the race," she says. (Mandje recommends a recovery beverage that has about a 4:1 carbohydrates-to-protein ratio to kill two birds with one stone.)
Don't: Melt Into the Couch for the Rest of the Day
Yes, you can face plant onto the couch when you get home — you earned it — but plan to get up every hour to mobilize your sore muscles and keep yourself from getting too stiff, says Sumbal. Your body will thank you when you wake up the next morning.
Do: Take an Epsom Salt Bath
Sumbal recommends a magnesium and Epsom salt bath the night after running a race. Dr. Colvin suggests an ice bath, which studies suggest can help reduce next-day soreness. (Docs are admittedly mixed on the effectiveness of both, but if you think they work, there shouldn't be any harm to enjoying one post-race.) If a bath isn't an option, be sure to do some light stretching before you get into bed, says Dr. Colvin.
Do: Ease Back Into Your Regular Workouts
Odds are you don't plan on doing any sort of running in the 24 hours after finishing a race (unless you're trying to break some sort of world record). But it's important to remember to ease back into it in the days following — and "don't expect to be where you were in the weeks leading up to the event," says Dr. Cardone. While there's no one right or wrong answer since the amount of recovery time you need will vary based on factors such as your age, running experience, and how hard you ran, the rule of thumb is to take one day off per mile raced, says Mandje. "At a minimum, avoid intense runs or workouts and stick to easy jogging in those first 10 to 14 days."
Most importantly, listen to your body. "If you're experiencing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), it can last up to four days, in which case you should take off from exercising completely until it has improved," says Dr. Colvin. Once your muscle soreness has subsided, you can add in lower-impact activities such as biking and swimming before you stride back into running, suggests Dr. Cardone. You'll avoid the scary risk of bone injury and probably enjoy those post-race miles even more.