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. In this article, you will learn how to recover after a half marathon so you can return to training and reduce injury risk.
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. 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 at an easy pace, 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. Many runners start 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, runners must emphasize recovery after races.
Running and racing are both physically and mentally demanding. Too much 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. Remember that 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. Then be sure to get some food and water to jumpstart the recovery process. Your muscles worked hard; now they need protein and carbohydrates to start repairing. Since your appetite may be a bit off from the hard effort, don’t worry about your post-race meal or snack being “healthy.” Instead, 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. 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?
A few factors will impact your time needed to recover from a half marathon:
- 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 2.5 hours, you may need up to a week off of running to recover.
- Experience level: Your body adapts, so an experienced runner needs less time off than a novice. First-time half marathoners may not have covered the full distance of the race until race day. Experienced runners may have run 14-16 miles as their peak long run in half marathon training.
- How the race went: While a good race does not mean you can skip recovery, a bad race may need a longer recovery. 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. If you experienced any sharp pains or injuries during the race, you want to take at least a week off. 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.
What to Do As You Recover from a Half Marathon
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. After a half marathon, that’s almost two weeks out from race day before you want to re-introduce speed work. There’s no need to add any additional fatigue to your muscles!
What’s After the Recovery Period?
Recovery can expand beyond one to two weeks after a race. If you just finished a big goal 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.
How do you recover after a half marathon?