Wednesday, October 13, 2021
As a running coach, one of the most frequently asked questions we get is what to do after your target race. This is a normal and valid question. You’ve just spent several months building up to one day to run one race. A certain sense of “let down” is normal, even when your race goes well. It is important to understand that allowing your body to recover from your race is just as, or even more important than the training that went into the race.
So, what do you do? It is important to keep in mind that the longer the race, the longer the recovery. The gist of this post will focus on the recovery process after running a marathon or a half-marathon, as these races require the most recovery. As endurance athletes, we don’t like taking days off. We’ve just spent months with the attitude that more is almost always better. But, after our race, this is not true. Allowing your body (and your mind) to recover from a race can be the single most important aspect of your long term running success. The ways that I try to explain this to athletes has varied over the years because I do find that 1) everybody is different; and 2) not everybody is going to listen to a coach’s advice. So, I’ve tried to come up with simple things to keep in mind on your road to recovery:
First, don’t run until you can do so completely pain free. I used to tell people that they should take a week to ten days completely off after running a marathon but, I found that most people don’t listen to that advice, and it varies greatly from athlete to athlete. So, it’s important to not rush yourself back. If you can’t walk pain free, you shouldn’t be running. If you can’t walk down stairs pain free, you shouldn’t be running. The risk drastically outweighs the reward. Honestly, for most of us, this usually means taking 7 to 10 days off but the important thing to remember is to not run until and unless you can do so pain free.
Second, when you do return to running, do so gradually. A simple way to do this is to take whatever you did to taper for you race and do that backwards. To put this into specifics, my typical race week taper for a marathon would be (assuming the race is on Sunday) – 5-6 miles on Monday, 5-6 miles with some marathon paced stuff on Tuesday, 4 miles easy (or a rest day) on Wednesday, 4 miles with some marathon pace work on Thursday, rest day on Friday, and an easy 20-30 minutes on Saturday (the day before the race). So, once you can return to running pain free, follow that pattern, just backwards.
Third, keep in mind that your recovery starts almost immediately after you cross the finish line. It is important to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. And, when you think you’re sufficiently hydrated, you should drink more water. Try to eat something within 40 to 60 minutes of finishing. Ideally, you should shoot for something with a 4:1 carbs to protein ratio but, if you’re at a race and can’t really figure that out – grab a bagel, grab a banana, and grab a Gatorade (or equivalent) because your electrolytes are completely out of whack. If you do have the ability to determine what you eat, some simple ideas that fall into the 4:1 carbs to protein ratio include – a bowl of cereal, peanut butter and jelly, and chocolate milk. If you are forced to be grabbing post-race grub (like most of us are), that’s fine, take whatever you can stomach at the moment and then try to eat a meal within 90 to 120 minutes of finishing.
Fourth, give yourself a break. You just pushed your body to its limits for however long it took you to run your race. That’s a lot! If your race went well, take a minute (or an hour or more) to let it all soak in. Be proud of yourself! You crushed it! You set a goal for yourself several months ago and you worked really hard to achieve that goal. That’s awesome! So, be nice to yourself. If your race didn’t go well, that’s okay too. You pushed your body to its limits on that day and you gave it everything you have. Be proud of yourself! You worked really hard and, despite things not turning out the way you had hoped, that’s okay. It doesn’t diminish the accomplishment and doesn’t erase all the work you put in. So, be nice to your body. Get a massage, stretch regularly, use your foam roller and/or Theragun with some frequency. And, while you shouldn’t be running, after a couple of days, you should get your body moving. Make your dog walk that extra block, get on a stationary bike and pedal very easy (this does NOT mean take a Peloton class), go for an evening walk, etc.
Lastly, and very importantly, DO NOT, under any circumstances, make any plans to run any other races until at least 3 days after this race. As athletes, we push, push, push and we always want more out of ourselves. When you finish your race, if it went well, you usually take time to pat yourself on the back and then you immediately think about what you can do better. The truth is – you may be able to do better. BUT, recovering from this effort is the only way you can do better. If your race didn’t go as you hoped, you probably want to jump back in and figure out what is next. I caution against this. There’s a reason most professional runners only run 2 marathons a year. The reason is – we can’t always be “on.” We can’t always be in training mode. Our Garmins won’t always tell us we’re “peaking”.
We need to recover.
Jeff Burger is our Charm City Run Boston Marathon and Elite Racing Team Coach.