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Expert Q&A: post-half marathon recovery tips

Tips to help  you recover from a half marathonIt’s the day after a half marathon and you are sore in places you’ve never been sore before. It’s time to focus on recovery! But what does this mean and what exactly should you do? We asked three coaches – Jason Saltmarsh, Theresa Kavouras, and Denny Krahe – to share their tips. And while there’s no one magic formula, there are a few common themes.

How much time off should runners take from running after a half marathon? Why?

  • Kavouras: In general, it is good for a novice runner to take off a day for each hard mile ran. A half marathon would equate to about 13 days. The seasoned runner might not need as much down time; 3-4 days away from the run would be sufficient. Every runner is different. The important thing to remember is that if you get out of bed feeling like you couldn’t run a mile, then don’t run a mile.
  • Saltmarsh: I would recommend 15-20 minutes of walking the day after the race followed by a week of easy runs increasing from 20 minutes to 45 minutes in duration. The body needs some rest after a 13.1-mile race effort, but most runners would like to hold onto their fitness levels. This plan provides for three essential pieces of recovery. First, the walking provides a gentle way to increase blood flow to the sore muscles. This delivers nutrients and flushes out waste products from damaged muscle fibers and expedites healing. Second, the one-week period is long enough to address not just the sore muscles, but any damage suffered at the cellular level during the race. Third, active recovery allows the athlete to maintain their high level of fitness.
  • Krahe: There really is no hard and fast rule you can apply here. For each runner the amount of time off is going to be different, and honestly for the same runner the time required will vary from one race to the next. There are so many variables at play (fitness, course, temperature, level of hydration, body chemistry, etc) that having a universal amount of time to “properly recover” is naive at best and irresponsible at worst. That said, in most cases a couple of days (at least) makes sense as a minimum, but it really depends.

What are the potential risks of resuming training – or racing – fairly soon after a half marathon even if you feel good?

  • Kavouras: The potential risks returning to running too soon after a hard event would certainly be injury. Much like a resistance workout, your muscles, tissues, ligaments, etc, actually are damaged in the process. It is the recovery or rest time where they can heal and regenerate. A weight trainer wouldn’t work biceps two days in a row. You shouldn’t run the day after that hard half marathon, either.
  • Saltmarsh: Hard training or racing shouldn’t resume for at least the same number of days as the race distance you just covered. So, for a half marathon, you’ll want to hold off on those gut-wrenching workouts and race efforts for about two weeks. If you jump in too soon you’ll risk injury, general fatigue, and declining performance.
  • Krahe: Doing too much too soon after a hard race can definitely cause some problems, both mentally and physically. If you’ve yet to fully physically recover, hard training brings with it an increased risk of injury, a delayed recovery from the original race, and/or a change in form as you try to run harder that can cause new injuries/issues to appear. From a psychological stand point, it can be frustrating that you’re not able to hit the same splits or times as what you’re accustomed to doing, even if you feel like you’re pushing as hard or harder.

In the days after a race – not immediately after – what is the most important thing to do?

  • Kavouras: The most important things to do after a hard race is to refuel and replenish. Drink plenty of water, eat plenty of whole foods. Don’t over indulge in sugary, highly processed foods. Remember, your body is in recovery phase. It is attempting to heal itself. If you dump a lot of crappy food into it, it will just slow the process down or stop it completely. Rest is good, but don’t lay on the couch for three days. Get some walking in to keep the blood circulating. Warm showers followed by cold ice packs on sore spots will help. Prop your legs up against a wall for a few minutes a day. Some foam rolling 48 hours after the event can be helpful as well. But I’d advise from doing anything hands on to your legs for at least 24 hours after your run.
  • Saltmarsh: Sleep. Your bed is the most important recovery tool you own.
  • Krahe: I definitely advocate getting the heart beating and the muscles pumping, but at a low intensity! This can include running if you’re willing to keep the pace conservative, and can also include your typical cross training activities at a lower intensity. Other great options include yoga and Pilates, especially since most runners would benefit from improved flexibility and core strength.

Written by Rob Haneisen.

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