When you finish a race your first thought is, “Wow that was great, how can I get out there and do it again as soon as possible?” Right? Yeah, not for most runners. Most want to find a chair and get off their feet. Before you do that, you need to get some food into your body. Your body needs protein to begin rebuilding the micro tears in your muscles. Recovery is a huge part of training and racing.
Many runners don’t feel like eating after a race, you may be nauseous or just not hungry. However, it’s important for you to get something in within 20 minutes of finishing. Choose something with a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein. Chocolate milk happens to fit the bill perfectly, but there are other options too. Next, try to get in a full meal within the next couple of hours.
Stretching after you finish will help loosen tight muscles, which will only get tighter as the cool down. You should stretch before your muscles have cooled down or you risk ripping them. Preventing them from tightening up will reduce your stiffness later in the day and the following day. Try to stretch a few times or roll on a foam roller throughout the remainder of the day and the next few days.
How long you should take off from running after a marathon or even a half marathon depends upon your body. More experienced runners need a shorter time to recover than first time marathon runners. Some recommend taking one day off for every mile, 26 days. Some recommend taking off 1 day for every kilometer, which would be 42 days. The other extreme is the ultrarunners who don’t take any time off. Dean Karnazes, Ultramarathon Man, recommends running/hobbling along for two miles the day after a race to get the blood flowing through your muscles again helping them to heal. I think it is helpful to go for a walk if you are not in too much pain. A walk will produce the same effects of moving your blood around without the stress on your cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
What I tell runners is wait until the soreness is gone and then start back slow. Soreness can last anywhere from a few days to two weeks. Once the soreness is gone, go out for an easy two to three mile run. If your legs feel heavy, give it another two days. Heavy legs mean your body has not recovered from the effort. You can also check your resting heart rate. If it is elevated, your body has not fully recovered. Going out before your body has had a chance to recover puts you at risk of injury. It may be easier on your body to come back with your cross training before actually running.
After a hard race, I take three full days of rest then I start the active recovery process with cycling and swimming. I don’t go out with full effort just easy miles or laps. A week after the race, I go for a short easy run. The following week, I keep things light and easy. By the third week I can return to my pre-race mileage.