Your complete guide to running recovery

Craig McClelland



Exhaustion, painful calves and a hint of a stitch. It’s a common feeling after finishing a running event. Whether you ran a marathon, a relay, or you are just training, your running recovery needs to begin before you even lace up. These tips apply for any long run, but we will focus on preparing for and treatment after a running event/race so that you can get the best out of your body and mind on race day.

Pre-race recovery

Your first steps towards a great recovery after a run need to happen well before your race. Preparation is a key factor – it’s important to focus on:

  • Nutrition – eating well and loading up on carbs two or three days before your big event
  • Hydration – particularly crucial in the immediate lead up to your run
  • Gear – wearing comfortable gear that’s already broken-in will help your feet avoid blisters and prevent chafing
  • Tapering off a few weeks prior – so your body can get enough rest and recovery from training to take on the big day

Eat well the night before your race and hydrate plenty to help your muscles begin repairing themselves as soon as your event is done.

TIP: Don’t break in new gear during your race or you could compromise your recovery with blisters or chafing.

1. Focus on general strength and mobility (GSM)

Staying injury-free during and after your run is vital for achieving a relatively short recovery period. By focusing on building your General Strength and Mobility (GSM), you’ll create an insurance policy against injury.

Improve your base strength as well as hip and ankle mobility. You’ll likely see running and recovery improvements.

2. Organise your post-race gear

It can be easy to cool down in your race gear once you’ve finished. However, this can be detrimental to your recovery. Take some time before your running event to organise:

  • A change of clothing – so you’re not wearing damp, sweaty gear while cooling down
  • A pair of jandals or sandals – take your running shoes and socks off, to let your feet breathe
  • A warm jacket or vest
  • Water and electrolytes
  • Sunscreen and mosquito repellent

TIP: Organise your post-race gear a week before your run, rather than leaving it till the last minute.

Woman wearing Kathmandu running backpackWoman wearing Kathmandu running backpack
Man taking off a running jacketMan taking off a running jacket

Post-race recovery

After pushing your body to its running limits, your muscles will need to undergo a process of repair, which can take up to two weeks.

1. Know the effects of running on your body

You’re seriously challenging your body when you put it through a long-distance run. Some of the physical systems impacted include your:

  • Skeletal muscles – microscopic muscle tears cause inflammation and muscle fibre necrosis, impairing your muscle power and durability
  • Immune system – it gets severely compromised, increasing your risk of contracting the flu
  • Cells – they get damaged along with skeletal and myocardial tissue

Cellular damage from increased myoglobin levels in your blood can actually persist for more than a week after your run. You’ll also be depleted of blood glucose and carbohydrates, which can leave you dehydrated.

Just having an awareness that your body is in repair will put you in a better position to look after it.

2. Keep on moving

It can be difficult to remember – and even harder to do – but try to keep moving for 10-15 minutes after you finish your run. This will:

  • Gradually reduce your heart rate
  • Flush out toxins in your legs
  • Prevent your muscles from seizing up

Sitting down straight after you finish your event is probably the worst thing you can do – your muscles can stiffen and cramp. Likewise, it’s important not to get cold. Keep your body warm by putting on a couple of dry layers. You don’t want your temperature to drop rapidly.

Active rest, such as slow walking, will help your body adjust to the change in pace, allowing your heart rate to decrease slowly.

TIP: Your most immediate post-run focus should be to keep moving.

Man and woman walking in ChristchurchMan and woman walking in Christchurch

3. Keep taking in fluids

You’ll likely complete your run at least slightly dehydrated, so it’s vital you continue to get fluids into your system. Your aim should be to see the colour of lemonade rather than apple juice when you head to the bathroom.

TIP: Remember to sip rather than gulp down cold water and electrolyte drinks to avoid feeling nauseous.

4. Stretch if your body needs it

Stretching after a run is a debatable subject. It’s really up to you. If stretching feels good for your body post-race, work on your calves, quads and hammies. But don’t forget other areas that may be tight, like your neck and shoulders. A non-impactful form of exercise like swimming can help stretch out all these muscles at once.

5. Look after your feet

As soon as possible, slip off your running shoes and slide into a pair of jandals or sandals to let your feet breathe and begin to heal. They’ve worked hard and they need a good airing out.

TIP: Cover or lubricate any blisters if they haven’t broken to reduce friction.

6. Take a contrast shower

These days it’s generally thought that a hot bath too soon after your run may increase inflammation. While an ice bath may actually hinder your recovery.

Taking a contrast shower is all the rage. But what is a contrast shower?

It’s simply alternating cold and hot water on your legs. Follow these steps:

  • Spend a minute showering with hot water on your sore muscles – this causes vasodilation (when your blood vessels open and get bigger)
  • Then shower cold water for a minute – this causes vasoconstriction (when your blood vessels close and get smaller)
  • Repeat

Applying the contrast shower technique will help encourage oxygen-rich blood flow to your recovering legs.

TIP: Contrast soaking between a hot spring and a cold river or plunge pool, if accessible.

7. Eat a protein-rich meal

Your body will be lacking in nutrients and minerals following your herculean effort, so give it exactly what it craves. Nutrient-dense fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, nuts and seeds will give your body the fuel it needs to begin rebuilding those overworked muscles.

8. Don’t underestimate the important role of sleep

It’s been said by top athletes that sleep is the greatest medicinal hack that didn’t get any attention. When you sleep, hormones are released to aid the repairing of micro-tears in your muscles – it’s when your body is most efficient at repairing itself.

Consider an afternoon nap and aim for at least 90 minutes. This will let your body go through a full sleep cycle.

TIP: If Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is inhibiting your sleep efforts, place a pillow under your knees to lessen muscle tension.

9. Explore deep breathing

Deep breathing techniques are as old as time itself, and have scientific backing in regards to some of their benefits. One of the most popular forms at the moment is the Wim Hof method, which involves deep breathing and retention of breath to oxygenate the blood.

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Day after recovery and beyond

Let’s face it, you’ve put in some seriously hard yards to get to the start line, have given your all on race day and are now in the recovery phase of healing your body.

Overtraining and injuries can occur if you don’t take enough time to recover. Your body needs a break, and resting for a week or two will have little negative effect on your current fitness levels, so rather than hit the next training session for an upcoming event, follow the below advice.

1. Actively restore your health

It’s important to get moving the day after your running event. To help facilitate the healing process, you’ll want to ensure blood is moving around your legs.

Relaxed walking or jogging after your running event can help you gather crucial info about your body. Spend enough time to loosen up those muscles and establish where your body is still tight and sore.

If you suffered any standard annoyances like blisters, chafing or road rash, let these heal before getting back into your running shoes. In the meantime, keep fit by partaking in some low-impact cycling, aqua jogging or swimming.

The hydrostatic pressure of being in the water will also assist your lymph system by giving it a gentle massage and helping to flush out post-run toxins and waste products.

TIP: Any lingering issues should be discussed with your physio so you can minimise injuries in the future.

2. Recover mentally

Staying in the present rather than looking towards your next race is essential during recovery. You may feel some pressure to get back on the tarmac or trail and to restart training. Try to resist this and simply enjoy the moment, while your body and mind have a chance to refresh.

In the weeks after your run, take part in a few fun activities with friends to get over those ‘post-marathon blues’ and make sure you use the power of nature to reboot your mental and physical health by taking regular walks outdoors.

Woman running her hand over moss while hikingWoman running her hand over moss while hiking
Two people hiking on a mountain in New ZealandTwo people hiking on a mountain in New Zealand

3. Invest in some massage therapy

It’s best to wait at least 24 hours before getting a massage. Waiting will give your muscles some recovery time while your body replenishes its fluids and energy. Massaging too soon will just add to your sore legs.

You may be content with a quick trip to the physio or your masseuse to rub down those aching leg muscles, but also consider an Active Release Technique (ART) therapist.

Why an ART therapist? As you near the end of your running event, it’s inevitable that your biomechanics will break down as you’re probably asking one side of your body to do more work than the other.

An ART therapist, who could be a physio or masseuse with an ART certification, can help you bring back that balance.

4. Listen to your body

Give your body enough time to rebalance and heal from the stress of your run. Your ultimate aim should be to return to running injury-free and fully recovered in a timely manner.

Take your time and listen to your body – if you need another day off, simply take one.

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