Tips to Live By

Post-Race Recovery: How Active or Inactive Should You Be Afterwards?

Oct. 30, 2023 - Kim Rivera Huston-Weber

A lot of focus is put on the training plans and prep for running half marathons or marathons. And rightly so: you want to feel confident and comfortable come race day. But what should you expect in the hours and days following a race? And when can you start being active again? Let's break down what you can expect for post-race recovery.

As counterintuitive as it seems, keep moving after finishing your race

Congratulations! You've just crossed the finish line of a half marathon or marathon. You should feel incredibly proud of yourself, whether it's your first or 50th race. Dr. Jonathan Zalamea, a sports medicine physician with Houston Methodist, says that most long-distance races have protocols in place to help runners recover appropriately after completing a race. That's because you can stop running after crossing the finish line, but you absolutely shouldn't stop moving.

"Whenever you run longer distances, you have two hearts," Dr. Zalamea says. "You have your real heart, and then you have your legs, which are another pump. The worst thing that an athlete can do is stop whenever they hit the finish line. If they stop, what happens is all the blood pulls into the legs, causing them to pass out."

The heart pumps a lot of the blood into the legs, and this blood needs muscle contractions in your legs to pump back into the system. When the legs abruptly stop contracting, blood pools within your legs leaving less blood for your brain. That's why you pass out.

"So for the first 10 or 15 minutes after completing a race, people should walk to allow your body to reset itself and realize that it doesn't need to exercise anymore," Dr. Zalamea says. "That's going to allow the blood to flow, and it's also going to allow the muscles to start calming down. The body self-regulates so you can increase the blood flow into your brain."

Acknowledge your body's hard work and adjust

Your body sustains a lot of muscle breakdown to complete a half marathon or marathon. According to Dr. Zalamea, many post-race recovery recommendations come from addressing this breakdown. But while it may seem like a good idea to have a long stretch or treat yourself to a massage after the race, it may be counterproductive to your recovery.

"Your muscles have run 13 or 26 miles," Dr. Zalamea says. "Imagine a torn muscle, and then you're tearing it further by stretching it out, right? So on that first day, it's probably not a good idea to have a sports or deep tissue massage while the muscles are already broken down. I would also avoid stretching excessively, especially static stretching."

Your body must process all this muscle breakdown product that's now in the bloodstream, so Dr. Zalamea says focusing on your nutrition and hydration is key to your immediate recovery.

"You exhaust a lot of nutrients, so I would recommend replacing the carbs that you've exhausted and incorporate some protein," Dr. Zalamea says. "It's easiest within the first hour to focus on the carbs, which are a lot easier to digest as your body starts to reset itself from the race, going from a sympathetic nervous system environment, which is where the body focuses on the muscles and then transitioning to a more balanced environment to where the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, which focuses on rest and digesting."

Then, in the days and weeks that follow in your recovery, eating a balanced diet with a focus on protein can help aid in your muscle repair.

If you're dehydrated, it's much harder for your body to process the muscle breakdown product. So making sure you continue to hydrate will help you flush your system.

"Usually, I ask my patients to look at the color of their urine," Dr. Zalamea says. "If the color of their urine is close to clear, then that means that they've got an adequate amount of hydration. If the color of their urine is dark red, they need to keep drinking until they notice it starting to become clearer and clearer. It can be normal for people to have darker urine just because of muscle breakdown products."

Celebrate your accomplishment, but go easy

If the beer tent calls out to you, that's OK. It's not dangerous to celebrate your run with a beer if your race has a tent. But toasting too much can lead to dehydration and slowing your recovery. Dr. Zalamea suggests limiting yourself to a single drink when heading to the tent or celebrating with friends and family after the race.

"Beer naturally makes it to where your body turns off the anti-diuretic hormone, and it makes it to where your urine is clear even if you're dehydrated, so it can actually confuse the system," Dr. Zalamea says. "It's better for you to avoid excessive alcohol or caffeine. If you have too much caffeine intake, it'll make you pee a lot more even if you're not necessarily needing to, and then it makes it to where you are dehydrated again, making it so that the muscles can't recover as effectively."

We've established intense massage or stretching should be avoided on race day. Still, there are other activities you can attempt to help with your recovery. Oliver Batinga, a senior health fitness coordinator with Houston Methodist, says that you should reward yourself but not overdo it.

"Relax and take it easy," Batinga says. "Some people like to soak in a hot bath or apply heat to certain sore areas. Some people like cold baths or ice baths, which will help, but typically, you just want to rest. But we don't want to be a couch potato in the days after. Getting up and moving and partaking in light, low-impact exercise should help with the recovery and the soreness. Determine your frequency and duration of activities based on how feel but, don't overdo it. You are still in recovery mode."

When can I start being active again?

This will largely depend on your current activity levels and how you're recovering post-race. For example, recovery for highly active people, such as ultra-marathoners, will be different than for those running their first race.

Dr. Zalamea suggests that, in general, it may take up to three weeks to fully recover after running a race. But when it comes to getting back to the gym or lacing up your shoes for a run, it'll primarily come down to how you feel.

"By day two or three, if you're feeling like the discomfort is not as severe, you can start doing some lighter aerobic exercises, lifting and stretching," Dr. Zalamea says. "But I definitely wouldn't jump to anything aggressive until your body is functioning with no negative effects from your race."

Batinga shares that if you feel up for movement in the days after the race, you'll want to ease back into your exercise program.

"You don't really know how sore you are until maybe two days after the race," Batinga says. "And so, if you do want to continue activity, I'd limit the amount of intensity, resistance, or load that you do per whatever exercise that you do or activity that you participate in. Listen to your body and then determine how to approach resuming your exercise regimen."

Dr. Zalamea says pain should be your guide when returning to activity in the days after. If you're feeling any discomfort, it's a sign that you need to give yourself more time to recover.

How to spot a potential injury

Runners should expect soreness after running a half or full marathon — but that soreness shouldn't prevent you from getting back to your daily routine.

"Now, even with that soreness, you should be able to continue to walk and do your activities of daily living with maybe some discomfort, but you shouldn't be limited at all," Dr. Zalamea says. "So, if a patient says that they can't walk or that they can't get upstairs to their bedroom or something like that because they're having debilitating pain, that might be a reason why they need to be seen for possible injury."

Dr. Zalamea's rule of thumb is that if the discomfort is not affecting your day-to-day life, give it 7 to 10 days of rest and recovery to see if you improve.

"And if you're still continuing to deal with any deficits, then at that point you should probably go see somebody for your possible injury."

Reflect on your race

Training for a long-distance race takes time, effort and tremendous focus. Giving the same amount of effort to your recovery as you do your training can help you continue training or being active at the level you want to be at.

"Whenever we talk about training, we don't talk about the recovery," Dr. Zalamea says. "And if you think about it, if you're trying to hit a certain level of performance, you really need to focus on your recovery components to make sure that you can build on what you've done before."

Reflecting on your race and assessing what went well and what didn't can be a powerful teacher. That way, when you lace up to train again, you're able to make improvements that will help you achieve the goals you set for yourself.

"Because ultimately, our goal in sports medicine is to make sure that people stay active," Dr. Zalamea says. "For me, the most impressive thing is whenever people can run or do their sport for much longer in life. People can do that by learning from their own mistakes and how they felt after their race and reflecting on their training program. I think it's really useful to take that information, learn from it and then incorporate it for your next try."

Stay up-to-date
By signing up, you will receive our newsletter with articles, videos, health tips and more.
Please Enter Email
Please Enter Valid Email
Categories: Tips to Live By