Post Race Recovery

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Recovering from a 24 hour race. Notice the hoodie and warm blanket, the comfortable slippers, the drink, and most importantly, someone to keep me upright.

What you do in the hours and days after a race will influence your comfort and future performance. These guidelines are focused on longer races, such as marathon and ultramarathons, but they apply to a lesser extent to slower half marathons. This advice applies to those simply recovering from a race, but also to those Racing 2 Marathons, doing Back to Back Marathons, and those Running Frequent Marathons.

1 Serious Problems

While rare, it is possible to have serious medical issues after a race. If you have any concerns or doubts, talk to the medical staff after the race or go to an emergency medical center. If you do seek medical help, let the medical staff know you've run an endurance race, and mention that they should check your blood electrolyte levels before giving you an IV of normal saline as you may have Hyponatremia. Also let them know if you've taken any NSAIDs.

2 The First hour

  • Try to keep moving by walking slowly as this Cooldown will help with recovery and help prevent a sudden drop in blood pressure that can cause light headedness.
  • Put on extra clothes or change before you become chilled. If you're tired after a race and become chilled, it can be hard to warm up again.
  • If you're feeling okay, drink a Protein/carbohydrate drink, aiming for 100 grams of Protein.
  • If you feel nauseous, then you could try some sipping some ginger ale, chewing on a bit of cucumber, sucking on a mint, nibbling on a plain cracker, or just wait for it to pass. If you need to vomit, then doing so may help, but often nausea is independent of the need to vomit.
  • If you're dehydrated, drink to thirst, but be careful if your hands are swollen or you've not urinated in a while, as you might have Hyponatremia. If you suspect Hyponatremia, it's probably best to avoid drinking and to seek medical advice.
  • If you have blisters, don't burst them unless you can't walk without them spreading.
  • In warm conditions cool off slowly, but don't become chilled. Your temperature may drop more quickly than you expect.

3 The First day

  • Once you've looked after the essentials, enjoy the post-race euphoria and celebration.
  • Enjoy a shower, but be mindful of some potential issues.
    • You may have chaffing that will make the shower painful. Covering the raw area with a waterproof bandage or tape will help with healing and prevent an unpleasant shock from the water hitting raw skin.
    • After a longer, tougher race you may have trouble moving or lifting your legs, making it difficult to get in or out of a shower, especially a shower over a bath. If possible, try to have someone nearby to help you. You may also be more prone to slipping, so be careful reaching for towels.
    • Because your energy reserves are depleted you are more likely to become chilled, especially when you're wet after a shower. Try to shower in a warm room, and have towels and fresh clothes close by.
    • It's possible to become light headed through low blood pressure or low blood sugar. If this happens in the shower, crouch down or sit so you are not injured if you fall.
  • Have comfortable footwear as your feet may be sore.
  • Take more Protein though the rest of the day, aiming for another 50-100g of Protein.
  • Drink to thirst and eat salty foods, but remember the advice above about Hyponatremia. (Once you've started urinating, you should be fine.)
  • If you're craving high fat foods, then enjoy something appealing.
  • If you feel like it, take a nap.
  • Be careful driving after a longer ultra where you may be sleep deprived. Going without sleep for 17-19 hours produces similar effects to alcohol intoxication, and that's for subjects that have not run an endurance race.
  • You may not sleep normally the night after the race depending on the difficulty. Typically you will be tired, but either find it difficult to fall asleep, or wake periodically through the night. Have a drink close by to rehydrate during the night, and this can be a Protein drink.
  • Wear compression clothes to improve your recovery. (I often sleep in compression clothes after a race.)
  • Avoid NSAIDs, but if you need to manage pain, then Acetaminophen (Paracetamol) is probably the least bad treatment.
  • Start making notes about what worked and what didn't work for this race. It's good to learn from each race, and I use these 'lessons learned' as the basis of my race reports and my Race Checklist.

4 The First week

  • While you have DOMS
    • Try to move regularly, taking short walks.
    • Keep your Protein intake high, though small, regular intakes.
    • Wearing compression clothing.
  • Once the DOMS soreness passes (or if you don't have DOMS)
    • Use massage to speed up your recovery and detect any problems.
    • It's fine to take a week off after a long, hard race, but it's also okay to start running again if this appeals and your legs feel strong.
  • While you may have burned a lot of calories during the race, it's important to keep that in perspective and avoid overeating. Focus on getting Protein and good quality fats, especially Omega-3, as well as whole foods that are high in fiber.
  • Depending on the length and difficulty of your race you may experience sleep disruption for several days or even a couple of weeks. Typically sleep becomes deeper but interrupted by periods of wakefulness. Try to allow more time to sleep and take naps when possible.

5 The First Month

It can take 3-4 weeks to recovery from serious DOMS, so your return to regular training will depend on how your legs feel. The soreness of DOMS can pass well before the associated weakness, so you may find lingering effects.