Proven strategies to fast-track recovery after serious mileage.

By Cassie Shortsleeve
September 12, 2017
Photo: Getty/Laurie Cinotto

You might know what you *want* to do immediately after a marathon or half marathon (eat, sit, eat, repeat), but the work doesn't necessarily end right when you cross the finish line.

In fact, a solid recovery plan can not only help you bounce back fast, but it can also fend off any risk of injury. Don't worry, it's not all work (hello, massage!). Read on for the recovery tips that help you bounce back after major mileage.

Eat Whatever You Want That Night

After all, you did just run 26.2 miles (or 13.1-still, it's a feat worth celebrating). "The goal is to recover the energy you expended in the race and to do so in a manner that leaves you feeling satisfied," says Krista Austin, Ph.D., a performance coach who has worked with the likes of Meb Keflezighi. (To us, that means pizza.)

Just focus on refilling your stores of carbs, fueling up on good-quality protein, and drinking plenty of water, says Terrence Mahon, a high-performance coach for the Boston Athletic Association. The good news is that you're probably craving a lot of these foods already. A marathon pretty much empties your tank of glycogen stores (energy stores of carbs) and you most likely are dehydrated as well, he explains. "Building the stores back up ASAP will help to repair the muscle damage from running 26.2 miles and also work on reducing the inflammation." (Related: 3 Things to Do After a Workout)

Watch That First Step Out of Bed

"You're bound to be pretty sore, from your toes all the way up to your legs, and you may not be ready for it," says Mahon. He suggests doing a few stretches while still in bed to help to bring some blood flow to your legs before they get back to work. "I like to do some ankle circles as well as a few stretches where I bring my knees up to my chest just to loosen up my hamstrings, glutes, and low back a bit."

Once you're up? Move. "Improving circulation will aid in your recovery," says Matt Delaney, C.S.C.S., a Tier X coach and a manual therapist at Equinox Columbus Circle. The muscular contractions of walking help bring blood back to the heart, he explains. "So get up and go for a light walk to help assist with this process."

Do Something the Next Day (Just Don't Run)

"The biggest mistake people make post-marathon is that they stop moving," says Austin. But that's a big no-no. Light exercise in the days following a race can significantly help recovery by keeping the body from growing stiff and by maintaining range of motion, she says.

But a jog isn't exactly the solution. "I don't want someone to go out for a run and have to shuffle or hobble along in a manner that is totally unlike their normal running stride," says Mahon. (That'll up your injury risk.)

Instead, take it easy on the running front. "You don't want to try and run too fast or too long for a good two to three weeks after the race." He likes keeping the longest run at an hour or less until a full 14 days post-event. The same goes for weight training and hard resistance work that requires a lot of leg work. "Your body needs some time to rebuild and the more you allow it to do so in that first two to three weeks post-race, the stronger it will return."

Try a light swim. "Being horizontal and exercising is a great way to get the blood moving from your heart to your legs in the easiest manner possible," says Mahon. Yoga, light bike rides (i.e., not SoulCycle), and stretching can also help. After five days of light work, aim for five full days of rest, Austin says.

Eat the Way You Normally Eat the Next Day

"Oftentimes individuals believe that a marathon entitles you to eat whatever you want for days after the race," says Austin. Bad news: It doesn't. "In all reality, the marathon is a short enough event that we can recover energy utilized in racing in the time period immediately following the race." That means that if your diet is normally made up of lean proteins, nutrient-rich carbs (think: quinoa and fruit), and healthy fats, go back to that the next day.

Cool Off, Then Warm Up

You probably won't want to dip your whole body into a freezing cold bath, but 10- to 15-minute ice baths the first three to five days post-race will do wonders for muscle soreness, says Mahon. A day or two after the marathon (after you're rehydrated), Mahon's also a fan of warm (not hot) Epsom salt baths. "This does a really good job at softening up the muscles as well as providing some much-needed magnesium back into the system."

Be Careful Rolling

Yoga, stretching, and foam rolling are all great recovery aids, yes-but since your body is already super inflamed (and you don't want to cause further tissue damage), you need to do them gently, says Mahon. As he puts it: "Now is not the time to seek flexibility gains or to prove how tough you are by rolling out your quads with a PVC pipe."

Hold Off on the Massage

Scheduling a rubdown right after your run isn't your best bet. "It is best to wait until the acute symptoms of the muscle damage sustained have subsided before scheduling a massage," says Delaney. "This can be anywhere from 48 hours up to a week depending on your training history and overall recovery plan." The general idea: You want the body to heal up before beating it up once again, says Mahon. (Here are the mind and body benefits of getting a massage.)

Be Patient

"Sports scientists will tell you that it could take a good three to four weeks until all the inflammatory markers in your blood return back to normal levels after a marathon," says Mahon. "So, although you may feel okay on the outside, you still may be beat up on the inside."

Of course, if you kicked your training plan's butt, you might feel A-okay after 48 or 72 hours, says Austin. "Recovery is highly dependent on doing the right workouts in training so that on race day your body is not too shocked by the forces it needs to absorb."

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