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Race Day Recovery: 5 Tips for After You Cross the Finish Line

Nov. 30, 2021

Whether you've just crossed the finish line of your first race or your 20th, marathon recovery — especially post-race recovery — is important. With the proper race-recovery knowledge and techniques, you can recuperate faster — and better! — as well as decrease your risk of getting injured and having to sit out your next long-distance run.

Dr. David M. Mann, orthopedic therapy and sports medicine specialist at Houston Methodist, shares his expertise on how all runners can achieve optimal recovery after a big race.

1. Race-day recovery begins before you even reach the starting line

It almost goes without saying that following a gradual training program to condition your body for a 26.2-mile run can help prevent and lessen injury. "The recovery process begins before the race starts," Dr. Mann emphasizes.

That's also why the night before any race, you should make a point to hydrate, eat a well-balanced meal with protein and carbohydrates (avoid fatty foods, alcohol and anything that may upset your stomach) and get a good night's sleep. In the morning, eat a light breakfast and, once again, hydrate and avoid fatty and stomach-bothersome foods. Drinking coffee or caffeinated tea is okay as long as it's in moderation.

You'll also want to prepare your muscles before the race begins. You can do this by performing dynamic stretches, which are different from static stretches in that they involve movements that replicate the motions of your workout — like side lunges, arm swings and lightly jogging in place.

"During the race," Dr. Mann says, "you should drink water or electrolyte drinks depending on your thirst. It's important to stay hydrated, but you don't need to drink at every station if you aren't thirsty."

2. Cool down after you cross the finish line

While everyone knows just how essential it is to warm up before the race, the cool down is just as important. Long-distance races, especially marathons, significantly stress the body no matter your level of experience. Almost everything — muscles, hormones, tendons and cells — gets pushed beyond limits.

"After running a marathon, your body will be in a state of inflammation," Dr. Mann explains. "You'll have muscle damage and breakdown, loss of water and electrolytes through sweating, and depleted glucose and carbohydrate stores."

How do you deal with this? Dr. Mann says that once you cross the finish line, continue to walk for about 30 minutes to maintain the blood circulation your body needs to deliver oxygen and nutrients to your muscles. Walk, stretch and massage your muscles to prevent cramps. And because your arms and upper body may be sore post-race too, try loosening up with a few shoulder shrugs and overhead arm stretches.

3. You might also need to warm up afterwards — literally

You'll quickly cool off, no matter how hot you feel after crossing the finish line. Because muscles tend to tighten up quickly in cooler weather and can even lead to increased soreness, Dr. Mann recommends having warm towels or blankets and a pair of dry clothes and shoes to change into following your big run.

4. Get some post-race replenishment

Immediately after the race, hydrate with water, electrolyte drinks or tea and stay away from alcohol. "Drink plenty of fluids for at least a week after a marathon so you can flush your body of toxins, metabolites and tissue breakdown," Dr. Mann says. "Your urine should be clear by the end of each day."

"Most races provide great food choices right at the finish line," he adds. Salty nuts, trail mix, granola, chocolate milk, yogurt, bananas, apples and bagels are ideal after a long race. "In addition, try to eat clean for at least one week during recovery." Clean foods include fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy fats like fish oil, tree nuts, avocado and olive oil.

In addition, try to eat healthy protein such as lean chicken, fish, pork loin, beans, legumes and tofu, avoiding red meat initially. Also, opt for healthy complex carbohydrates such as oats, brown rice and whole-wheat bread while avoiding processed carbs, sugars, white rice and white bread.

5. Temporarily change your routine — but keep moving

Rest is the key to recovery. After the race, give yourself ample time to recuperate.

Experts recommend not doing anything that requires running for at least one to two weeks after a long race, but you do need to keep moving. Think low impact: Walking, light jogging, stretching, yoga, cycling and swimming.

After this rest period, you should slowly and gradually increase your activity and running mileage as tolerated. A full recovery can take as long as two to four weeks.

It's important to know that everyone recovers differently.

Men and women recover differently, but everyone needs replenishment. Women rely more on fat and less on carbohydrates for fuel, men on carbohydrates and protein. During this time, make sure to "eat foods rich in sodium, potassium, protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats," Dr. Mann says.

Age matters as well. "Older adults are more prone to injury, since muscle mass declines with age, and it can take longer for muscles to recover," Dr. Mann explains. "However, you still need to keep moving, just make it low impact."

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