When we runners talk about running and racing, we often focus on the active part: training, racing, and so on. But one of the most important aspects of improving as a runner and staying injury-free is recovery, especially recovery after a long distance race.
Note that when I talk about recovering a half marathon in this post, I mean recovering from a half marathon that you raced at a hard effort. There’s a difference between racing 13.1 miles as hard as you can and running a half marathon as a long run or for fun. Racing takes more of a toll on the body, so it requires more recovery from a goal race than if you ran the half marathon at a comfortable effort. Even if you did run your half marathon easy, still take the basic steps to recover well after a long run!
Recovery after a 5K and 10K is simple, as you do a few days of easy running before resuming normal training. For a marathon, a full one to two weeks off from running will help your body repair from the physiological damage of running for 26.2 miles. But when you ask the question of how to recover after a half marathon, the answer is often vague and varied. In today’s post, I want to cover the factors that need to be considered when recovering from a half marathon.
How to Recover After a Half Marathon
Why Recovery Matters
Recovery is an essential part of running, especially for runners who train for full and half marathons. We put our bodies through months of higher mileage, speed work, strength training, foam rolling, and watching our nutrition, and then push ourselves right to the edge of our physical limit for 13.1, 26.2 miles, or beyond. I know many runners, including myself, starting thinking about their new goals and next race the moment they cross the finish line. However, in order to make the most of our training, reach our new goals, and continue our love of running, runners must emphasize recovery after races.
Running and racing are both physically and mentally demanding, and toomuch can lead to both physical and mental burnout. Recovery acts as a reset button as it allows your body to fully heal from the race. Your muscles endured several microtears, you put a lot of pounding on your feet, and you depleted your glycogen stores; these can only be healed by rest and should be fully repaired before you resume running. Knowing the right way of how to recover after a half marathon will heal your muscles, replenish your glycogen, and prepare you for your next cycle of training.
Pushing yourself before your muscles, joints, and energy stores have repaired will set you up for injury or burnout later. Additionally, it gives your mind a brief break from running. You’re sure to come back a few days break rested and excited to run again. Recovering from a half marathon or full marathon requires discipline to make yourself rest, but even the elites take a complete break from running to recover after their peak race of the season.
Immediately After the Race
As soon as you cross the finish line, you shift from racing mode to recovery mode. Take a moment to bask in your accomplishment and celebrate a PR if you earned one, but then be sure to get some food and water to jumpstart the recovery process. Your muscles worked hard, and now they need protein and carbohydrates to start repairing. Since your appetite may be a bit off from the hard effort and since you deserve a treat, don’t worry about your post-race meal or snack being “healthy” – just eat what you want and can within 60 minutes of finishing the race.
Later that day, foam roll and elevate your legs up against the wall for a few minutes each. The mild compression of foam rolling will release any adhesions that might have formed in the connective tissue of your muscles and the elevation will reduce swelling in your feet and working muscles and help return your circulation to normal.
How Long Should You Take Off After a Half Marathon?
When decided how long to take off after a half marathon, there are a few factors you must consider:
- Finish time: The body responds differently to running hard for 90 minutes and running hard for over two hours. Total time on your feet is a significant factor in how long you need to recover. If you finished your half marathon in approximately 90 minutes or less, you can quickly resume running after just 2-4 days off from your goal race. If your finish time was more than two hours, you may need up to a week off of running to recover.
- Experience level: Your body adapts, so you will need less and less time off after your fifth or tenth half marathon than you would for your first half marathon. First time half marathoners may not have covered the full distance of the race until race day, while experienced runners may have run 14-16 miles as their peak long run in half marathon training.
- How the race went: A race in which you felt strong from start to finish will require less time to recover than a race in which you struggled with muscle cramps, fatigue, low energy, etc. Part of the reason you want to take more time off after a bad race is for mental recovery – you likely will need a bit of a break from running to avoid mental burnout and to reignite your love of running. If you experienced any sharp pains or injuries during the race, you want to take at least a week off to ensure that there’s nothing wrong. It’s better to take one week of downtime than to be off for weeks due to an injury.
Ultimately, you have to listen to your body. If you feel like you need more time off, take it. If your first run back feels off or sluggish, considering taking another day or so off and try some cross-training instead.
Three to seven days may seem like a long time to take a break from running — you’re probably worried about losing hard-earned fitness. However, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can occur anywhere from 24-72 hours after a race. By waiting at least four or five days before you resume running, you avoid adding further stress and fatigue to your muscles. You will only lose a minor about of fitness, which you will easily gain back once you start running again. Consider a recovery week or two as an investment in injury-free training.
Yoga or Pilates are excellent activities during your recovery period, since they are low-impact, low intensity, and focus on stretching and realigning tight spots. Pick a practice that emphasizes simple poses that stretch and gently strengthen your muscles, loosen your joints, and increase your circulation.
Once you resume running, you want to stick to easy runs. Running fast places more strain on your body, which is not ideal when your goal is to recover. A general rule of thumb is to wait a day for each mile raced hard before you run hard again – so after a half marathon, that’s almost 2 weeks out from race day before you want to consider doing speed work. There’s no need to add any additional fatigue to your muscles!
What’s After the Recovery Period?
Recovery can expand beyond the one to two weeks after a race. If you race regularly in the spring, summer, and fall months, or just finished a big fall race, consider taking an “off season” from racing. Spend your off season months focusing on base building, so that you can begin your next training cycle with a strong aerobic base and no injuries.
If you plan on training for another race shortly after your half marathon, don’t jump right back into normal training. After a couple days off, follow the protocol for returning to fast running and do just easy runs at slightly lower mileage until 2 weeks after the race. You want to be ready to run fast again by your next race – not overtrained.
As a coach, I guide all of my athletes through the complete training process, including post-race recovery and base building. Learn more about my coaching services and contact me to start training today here!
How do you recover after a half marathon?