While your recovery plan of attack will be different if you’re coming back from a 10K versus a marathon, there are many similarities that hold true no matter what distance you just ran.
Whether you have an IRL fun-run 5K on the books or you’re still planning to virtually tackle the half-marathon mileage of a now-canceled event—after all, you put in the training gosh-darnit!—what you do after you cross the finish line (virtual or otherwise) is just as important as what you did leading up to “race day.” While recovery has become a bit of a buzzword, that doesn’t mean it’s a passing trend or something you should breeze through.
The rest you take post-run or -race and how you refuel and rebuild your body sets you up for your next big win, whether that’s back to clocking miles or choosing a different fitness goal. And how exactly you rest and refuel can differ depending on the mileage and intensity you put into your run. So, follow this step-by-step, expert-approved guide to get back on your feet and feeling great—no matter how far or fast you go.
Immediately Post-Race or -Run: Keep Moving
It’s probably tempting to immediately stop or sit down after you cross that literal or figurative finish line, but you want to try to keep moving, even if just for a little while. “If you instantly stop, you build up lactate acid and that will stay in the legs,” says Corinne Fitzgerald, NSCA personal trainer and head coach at Mile High Run Club in New York City. This will only leave you more sore and stiff later on and until the next day. So aim for a five-minute jog or, if that sounds impossible, a brisk walk around the block. If you just finished a half or full marathon, consider making this recovery distance a little longer. While that probably sounds like the last thing you’ll want to do, it’s your best defense against becoming insanely sore. Feel free to go as slow as you need to flush out all that lactic acid waste in your legs.
A Few Minutes After Your Finish: Stretch
After you shake those legs out, you should want to take some time to stretch. While stretching won’t necessarily help you sidestep injury or improve performance, it can help your nervous system calm down, putting your body in more of a resting state, says Blake Dircksen, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., physical therapist and run coach at Bespoke Treatments. Plus, let’s be honest, it just feels good. The general guideline for post-race stretching is that you want to keep it gentle, says Dircksen. Don’t force anything, and stop if the ache turns into real pain.
Try these post-race stretches from Fitzgerald if you have no clue where to start but can already feel your muscles tightening. Hold each for 20-30 seconds.
Reverse hurdler: From a seated position, extend both legs straight out in front of you. Bend right leg and place right foot on left inner thigh. (It’ll look like tree pose in yoga, but seated.) Bend forward at the waist and hold. Then, switch sides.
Butterfly stretch: From a seated position, bend both knees, place bottoms of feet together and bend forward at the waist.
Quad stretch: Either lying on your side, stomach, or standing, bend one knee behind you, hold the ankle or foot and engage the glute to release the quad.
30-Minutes to 2 Hours After: Refuel
“Nutrition is hands-down the most important thing to help you recover after a hard effort,” says Dircksen. So make sure you get a snack or meal after your finish (no matter how far you go!) and make it a carb-protein combo.
In general, runners should aim for about 15 to 30 grams of protein within 45 minutes to one hour after finishing a workout, says Pamela M. Nisevich Bede, R.D., author of Sweat. Eat. Repeat. To determine carbs, multiply that protein count by two to four. Besides a quick snack, like chocolate milk post-run, you’ll want to have a carb-protein combo in your meal later in the day, too. Your body can only convert glucose (from carbs) into glycogen (what your muscles use for energy) so fast, so it’s important to space out your fuel, says Bede.
No matter how far you go, hydration is also key since most runners finish a workout in a dehydrated state, says Bede. If you’re someone who sweats a lot during a run or if you run in super hot and humid weather, consider adding electrolytes to your beverages, like sodium or potassium, to your beverages, she says. This will help you replenish the minerals lost on a sweaty run, which may aid recovery.
While you want to refuel after any distance with carbs, protein, and hydration, it’s especially important if you’ve finished a half or a full marathon, says Bede. For those who crushed a 5K or 10K, refueling is still important so you can perform again in the coming days, but it’s less crucial to meet those higher carb and protein counts.
“After a marathon, some people don’t always want to eat, but your body is craving something to help it heal,” says Fitzgerald. Something is better than nothing, so even if it’s a protein bar and an apple, that’s a solid choice. You might also want to consider adding anti-inflammatory ingredients (think: turmeric, ginger, tart cherries, nuts) to your post-race meal or snack to promote healing.
“You need to help your body repair and fight the inflammation that follows the breakdown that occurs when you’re pushing your limit and progressing,” adds Bede. “To help repair and fight feelings of exercise-related soreness, anti-inflammatory foods and diet choices are essential.”
When You Get Home: Do Dynamic Movements
Take charge of your recovery when you get home with some dynamic stretching. Try standing hip circles, a moving hamstring stretch (ground one heel slightly in front of the other–foot flexed–and reach down with both hands, then stand back up, switch sides and continue alternating), or a quick standing quad stretch in which you alternate sides every few seconds. “When you’re done with the run, your muscles are warm, but if you wait until the end of the day, you’re cooled off, so you don’t want to jump right into static holds,” says Fitzgerald. That’s why dynamic stretches are a good choice later on in the day, plus the movement can also help fend off stiffness. (BTW, there is a difference between static stretching and dynamic stretching, and each has its place in your recovery routine.)
The Evening After a Race: Get a Massage
You want to start and continue the healing process immediately after a race, and that could include a professional massage or a form of compression therapy—think NormaTec recovery boots. “You want a healthy healing process to help flush that junk out of the legs,” says Fitzgerald.
Aim to book a session for later in the day, but if you can’t squeeze it in (after all, you have some celebrating to do), the following day(s) work too! Consider it a well-earned gift to yourself for crushing a goal!
The Next Day: Get Moving
Your sheets might seem like the perfect place to curl up and spend the day after a race or long run, but that won’t do your muscles any favors. Try jogging (or briskly walking) for just 15 minutes or up to 45 if you have the stamina. “The day after the race, a short shakeout is a great way to reduce some of that stiffness and get some blood flow back to those muscles,” says Dircksen. If you’re still feeling the aches of your stride, hop on an elliptical or another cross trainer, he suggests.
You can also head to the pool or hop on a bike for a more low-impact way to move, says Fitzgerald. “Use your time off from running as a way to do activities you didn’t do while training,” she adds. It’s totally OK to avoid lacing up your running shoes for another few weeks—especially if you completed a long-distance run or put in some very fast, shorter miles. Just aim to find another way to get some movement into your day.
The Next Several Days: Foam Roll
Grab your roller and spend five to 10, even 20, minutes on your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. Some research shows that myofascial release (or breaking up tension in the connective tissue known as fascia) from foam rolling can fight post-exercise muscle soreness. (Related: This Is What the Ultimate Recovery Day Should Look Like)
“If you’re battling some aches and pains in a particular area, focus a little more attention there as foam rolling can have a nice pain-modulation effect,” says Dircksen. Go for about 45 seconds per muscle group and keep it slow. (If you haven’t stocked up on a foam roller yet, try one of these best-sellers.)
A Week or Two Later: Strength Train
It’s super important to give your body the rest it needs without jumping back into a killer workout schedule, but doing moves that benefit the muscles you worked while running can help you bounce back and stay strong. Fitzgerald recommends clamshells, glute bridges, and planks as the first few bodyweight exercises to re-introduce to your routine when you’re feeling.
Up to Three Weeks Later: Check-In with Your Body
You might fully recover from a 5K in just a few days, but a marathon? That’s a different story. “You might still be recovering even three weeks later, so it’s important to notice that and give your body a little more time before you jump back into your workouts,” says Fitzgerald. “Just like you have to ease into longer distances before race day, you also have to ease back into them afterward.” Listen to your body and take as much time as you need to rest and recover.
In the days and weeks after a big race, the most important things to focus on are nutrition, sleep, socializing, and light exercise, says Dircksen. “Massage, foam rolling, and bodywork, are great ways to engage the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, [the rest and digest system], which is helpful for facilitating recovery and restoration, but shouldn’t take the place of sound nutrition, sleep, and mental health plans,” he says.