The 2 Phases of Post-Race Recovery

We all have rough races now and then, but when the symptoms last for longer periods of time, it means your body is trying to tell you something. Listening to your body is the true sign of a wise runner.

It's easy to get caught up in the race craze, as there are races every weekend (and fun ones at that). You can run in the mud, in foam, through fire, up mountains, and even have people throw things at you along the way. But even if a runner is participating in a race for fun, running frequent races without adequate rest can lead to poor performance, aches, pains and injury.

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There's a difference between health and performance. One requires you stay in a balanced harmony while the other requires you reach beyond the edges of your limits to see how far, high, fast and long you can run.

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The key is to train like the elite runners and combine periods of training with recovery phases during the year. This becomes even more important the harder you push to improve your performance or the more events you run in a year (or both). What goes up must come down, and when you respect the cyclical aspects of life (night/day, sun/moon, sleep/awake) and live by them, the reward is balanced health.

Everyone's recovery varies, and trying to write the perfect recovery plan is a little like telling everyone to wear the same glasses prescription. Younger runners with a solid race base and good nutrition may recover faster than older runners with the same background. Runners with a balanced approach to training, good nutrition, sleep and low stress, may recover faster than those that burn the candle at both ends.

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It's wise to develop your own personal plan using the fundamentals of short- and long-term recovery. That is, make it yours by keeping track of activities you enjoy, your nutrition, mood, energy level, hours and quality of sleep. The more you tune in and pay attention to how you're feeling, the better you'll be able to develop the right recovery plan for the given season.

There are two phases of post-race recovery: short-term recovery that lasts for 5 to 7 days, and long-term recovery that lasts for weeks or months.

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Short-Term Recovery

This phase takes you from the finish line, through several days after the event, and includes all the logistics needed to heal from the demands of the event, including:

  • Walking for 10 to 15 minutes post-race to bring your body back to its resting state and flush lactic acid from the muscles.
  • Eating a snack within 30 to 40 minutes post-race to begin replenishing glycogen (carbohydrate) stores and heal muscle tissue (protein).
  • Soaking in a cold-water bath for 5 to 10 minutes and wearing compression tights for the afternoon (not while sleeping). Both can help decrease inflammation in the body and speed the rate of healing.
  • Sipping fluids throughout the day.
  • Spending 5 to 10 minutes in the "Legs Up on the Wall" yoga pose. It refreshes circulation, gently stretches the legs, and is a great way to internally celebrate your race (especially when wearing your medal).
  • Waiting at least 2 to 6 hours after the race to foam roll and at least 24 hours for a massage. This allows your muscles time to replenish fluids and energy and recover from the demands of the race.
  • Giving your body time to heal with low-impact cross-training and yin activities like restorative yoga. Because running is a high-impact sport, racing hard or frequently demands equally intense recovery. You'll gain more by doing less with activities that are easier on the body. (Try These Foods That Speed Up Recovery).
  • Throughout the week, continue to be active with short, easy-effort, low-impact activities (20 to 30 minutes elliptical, cycling, restorative yoga). The goal is to get your circulation moving and focus on mobility (foam rolling, massage) rather than train or burn calories. Your body needs downtime, especially in the first week after the race.
  • The muscle soreness typically subsides within 3 to 4 days post half or full marathon, but the healing goes beyond muscle soreness. Give your body time to heal without running for a week, and stick with the activities and the regimen mentioned above.

What you do after week one depends on your goal. If you're in mid season and have another target race (and all things feel well), transition into easy-effort running to get back into your training regimen. Typically this means a week of easy running for a shorter duration, followed by a longer week of easy-effort running, and finally a week of harder-effort running blended in. Again, everyone is different, and if you're training for multiple events within a season, read this post for more ways to transition optimally.

More: 7 Post-Race Recovery Tips

Long-Term Recovery

This phase takes you from short-term recovery—when you can walk normally down the stairs again—through the complete healing for the season or year (including the event).

Two to 6 Weeks Post Season: Do activities you enjoy that allow you to move in a variety of patterns and aren't competitive. Trading one sport for another is still pushing the limits and won't allow for optimal recovery. For instance, the fall is a great time to hike in the woods, mountain bike on trails, inline skate, do yoga or Pilates classes, Zumba or paddle. This is the time to move for the fun of it and give your body time off from the structure of a training plan.

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Run short and easy: If you choose to run during your recovery phase, keep it short and easy and weave playful runs into the mix. For instance, running three times per week for 30 to 40 minutes, where one is a fartlek run with 10- to 15-second pickups sprinkled in. It's nothing that will compromise your recovery, but it will help maintain running fitness without too much stress to the system. This works well for Type As who have a hard time taking time off.

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Include yin with your yang: Incorporate complete rest days, where you move with the flow of daily life, but don't work out. This might include doing chores around the house, walking your mail to the post office, raking leaves, walking the dog, and dancing with your significant other. Do life on low, and trust that it will rejuvenate your running just like getting a good night's sleep.

Four to 6 Weeks Post Season: Coming off the recovery season is an exciting time because you're well rested and healed from the training season, eager to get started on your next goal, and ready to begin training. This is the time to build your base with easy-effort running (aerobic), which sets the tone for the rest of the season.

Running your best depends greatly on best recovery practices. Tune in, plan ahead, and recover hard. It will allow you to run strong for the rest of your life.

More: 5 Phases to Speed Up Your Running Recovery

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