The Key Elements of Race Recovery

March 10, 2019

Race season is upon us, and with that comes detailed training plans dictating when to run, when to rest, how to stretch, what to eat and everything in between. The minutes, hours and days after your race are a lot less defined, and what you do to recover plays a significant role in how you will perform at the next one.

Here’s what is happening inside your body and mind following a race, and the steps you can take to come back strong.

0-24 Hours

Refuel with a high-carb drink containing a small amount of protein. Muscles are most permeable to energy uptake in the 30 minutes following a hard effort. For the next 23 hours, your priority is muscle repair, and that means protein.

Light foam rolling and compression clothing improve bloodflow to remove toxins from muscle. Otherwise, it’s generally best to relax, and let the body initiate its natural recovery processes.

Celebrate Many runners have type-a tendencies, always looking for the next challenge. Keim says pausing to reward yourself and reflect on your accomplishment is important. If you find yourself struggling to sit still, let alone sleep, worry not. According to Michael Joyner, M.D., a physiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, a number of factors—ranging from GI issues to elevated eurochemicals—can interfere with sleep. When you do finally feel drowsy, don’t cut yourself short. Sleep is vital to recovery, so don’t be afraid to hit the snooze button.

24-72 Hours

Now is the time to try light exercise. Active recovery expedites the body’s natural repair process by delivering more oxygen and nutrients to the muscles. Keep it easy and try going for a walk.

Continue to wear compression clothing, and if you get a massage, make sure your therapist keeps the pressure minimal. You want to let your muscles heal.

Taking ibuprofen might be tempting, but unless you sustained an acute injury, many experts advise against it. The inflammatory response signals recovery, and that is not something you want to mask.

The immediate post-race high is wearing off, but dopamine and serotonin levels are still elevated. “Simply moving past the race is tough,” Keim says. So don’t feel bad about the urge to write a race report and post pictures on social media. It’s not until we internalize what happened that we can objectively analyze what went wrong, make adjustments and truly move on.

3-7 Days

Although you may be getting anxious about not training, fatigue can likely pull you to the couch. This is especially true for runners who raced longer distances or trained hard for an extended period. While training, you are constantly suppressing fatigue or downright ignoring it, which can throw your hormonal profile off balance. When your body lets its guard down a few days after the event, all the built-up fatigue sets in. Stick to light active recovery, and remember that the priority is to rest so your body can bounce back.

For some, the post-race blues set in. Stimulating neurochemicals are declining, and at the same time you are reintegrating into everyday life. An ensuing rut can be compounded by the fact that most runners’ antidepressant of choice (a hard workout) isn’t an option. To maintain your identity as an athlete, analyze your race, think about goals for next year and perhaps most important, reframe rest as a key part of your training plan. By viewing rest as something you are actively choosing to do to improve, you are less likely to feel like you’ve lost the athletic part of yourself.

7-21 Days

Your muscular and hormonal systems are still returning to their baseline, so this is a good time to slowly introduce intensity into workouts. The main thing to remember is that you can’t train if you are injured. Focus on reading your body and backing off if soreness and fatigue don’t improve. Cross-training is a good low-risk approach. Add intensity into other sports (e.g., a hard hike or swim). By the end of this period, your central and muscular systems should be back in tune and you can ease back into running.

You probably will feel a healthy urge to start running again. Now is a great time to develop a new set of goals. This might mean running faster, running farther, taking running more seriously or perhaps taking running less seriously. But if you are feeling burned out and the thought of running evokes dread, that’s okay, too. There is no rush to get back into things, and if the thought of structured training refuses to catch on, you can still run casually for general health, stress relief and social fun.

There are a wide range of guidelines to follow when it comes to race recovery. If you have questions about this or would like to discuss other orthopaedic issues, contact Campbell Clinic.

This post was adapted from Runner’s World.


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