Half Marathon Recovery: How To Come Back Faster and Stronger

Updated:

A half-marathon might not require the same effort or training as a full marathon, but it’s still important to make sure you recover properly. A good recovery means you’ll come back faster, stronger, and ready to start training for your next race.

The key is not to rush through your half-marathon recovery. Take the time your body needs to get back to full capacity.

Here’s what we suggest to come back faster and stronger after your next half marathon.

What Happens to Your Body After You Run a Half-Marathon?

Your body goes through a lot while training and during the race. Here’s a quick overview.

Immediate Effects

Here’s what to expect just after you cross the finish line.

Fatigue

Even if you’ve been fueling yourself properly throughout the run, by the time you reach the finish line, your body’s energy source—the glycogen stored in your muscles—has been depleted.

This leaves you burning through your body’s fat stores in order to get the energy you need. This leaves you feeling exhausted and depleted, which takes some time to recover, even with proper steps.

Nauseous

During your run, your body prioritizes sending blood to the muscles so they can push through. But to do so, it draws blood away from the digestive system, which means your stomach might start to turn at some point.

Nausea can also be caused by dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, depending on how you are fueled and hydrated during the race.

Dehydration

You sweat a lot during a half-marathon, even on a cool day. And by the time you cross the finish line, you’ll likely be dehydrated, even if you’ve been good about hydrating throughout the run.

If you’ve been drinking, you might only be slightly dehydrated, but it’s pretty much impossible to avoid it entirely.

Delayed Effects

You probably won’t feel these immediately. It can take a few days for these things to set in, but they will show up at some point after your half-marathon.

Muscle Inflammation

Your muscles don’t get a break during a half-marathon. So they’re exhausted and inflamed when you cross the finish line. This needs time to heal, and studies suggest that the biomarkers of fatigue can remain elevated for more than a week after a race!

It’s interesting to note that according to research, consuming 120 grams of carbohydrates every hour during a race leads to less muscle damage, as shown in various medical tests.

Most runners might be able to manage half of that, but it’s also important to know that if you do hit that number, you’re still incurring muscle damage—just a little less.

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)

Delayed-onset muscle soreness is something you may experience in the days following your run. While there’s still not enough research out there to nail down the exact reason for the prolonged pain and stiffness, it’s thought to be from the lingering inflammation and muscle damage as it heals.

Technically, it’s considered to be a strain injury. The pain peaks at 2 to 3 days after the event and usually subsides within 4 to 7 days.

Temporary Decrease in Your Immune System

The physical strain of the half-marathon has the potential to reduce the effectiveness of your immune system. Your elevated inflammation markers means your immune system is already fighting, so if you’re hit with a cold or flu virus… You might just get sick.

Sore Feet

The muscles in your feet have taken a bigger beating than any others! You’re likely to experience pain, aching, and cramps in your feet for a few days after your race. This might be worse if you’re on your feet a lot.

Why Should You Plan Your Recovery?

You can go out and run a half-marathon and come back with no recovery plans whatsoever. But that makes it much harder to figure out if you’re doing the right things and using the right timing.

Not planning your recovery means you’ll be going “on feel” to figure out when to get back to your regular levels of activity. While it might not feel like you need more rest, you may not realize that those inflammation and muscle damage biomarkers are still elevated.

Without planning, you’re likely to spend too little time on your recovery and go back into training with your body still trying to heal. With a half-marathon recovery plan, you’ll be able to accelerate your recovery and come back faster and stronger.

How Many Days Should You Rest After the Race?

You should be taking one to three days off after your race. That means no training—running or cross-training—but you don’t need to lie in bed during this time. Just do your normal daily activities and you’ll be fine, but avoid exercise.

Are You Going to Be Really Sore?

Maybe, it depends. If you’ve trained for the race, you’re likely to experience some soreness, but it shouldn’t be unbearable. However, the pain may increase if you:

  • Push yourself harder than usual during the race.
  • Didn’t train for long enough before the half-marathon.
  • Didn’t fuel properly throughout the run.
  • Don’t take steps to ease muscle pain during recovery.
  • Weren’t prepared for the course terrain.

It’s also important to note that just because the soreness disappears after a few days, it doesn’t mean your muscles are back to full capacity and ready to exercise.

The biomarkers of muscle damage in the human body remain elevated for a while even after you start to feel good again, so it’s essential not to take reduced soreness as a sign that you can leap back into hard training again.

How to Recover After a Half-Marathon

The moment you step over the finish line, recovery begins. Here’s how to make the most of it in each stage of the 14-day recovery process.

As Soon as You Cross the Finish Line

You’re going to be tired, aching, and probably mentally fatigued as well. But taking these steps in these few moments will prepare you for better recovery.

Walk for a Few Minutes

Remember, a cool down is essential when you’re training. It’s the same when you finish a race. As tempting as it may be to sit or lie down, walk for at least a few minutes to give your muscles a chance to cool down. You don’t need to walk fast—a slow one will do.

Stretch Your Muscles

After a few minutes of walking, do some stretching. It might be hard, as your muscles will be fatigued. But some simple stretching can help loosen them up if they’re tight, and get ahead of lactic acid build-up.

Rehydrate Your Body

Even if you’ve been good with fueling throughout your race, you’ll be dehydrated by the time you finish, walk, and stretch. It’s a good idea to rehydrate with an electrolyte solution at this point, to handle any potential electrolyte imbalances.

Eat a Snack

Your muscles are all out of glycogen by this point. Eat a small, nutrient-filled snack to replenish some of that energy so your body can begin to recover as soon as possible. An energy bar is a good choice.

Slip Into Comfortable Shoes

Recovery sandals like the Oofos or Hoka are a great idea at this point. Your feet will have some room to breathe, and the muscles can begin to relax after their activity.

When You Get Home

Once you arrive home, the next phase of your recovery begins. Doing these plus rest is key, so it’s a good idea not to plan anything for the remainder of the day.

Massage Your Legs

A massage will improve circulation, bringing oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the legs to kickstart healing. You can do it yourself or get someone else to help.

It’s also likely to help alleviate some potential achiness that might already be setting in. Foam rolling can also help.

Take a Warm Epsom Salt Bath

Epsom salt is a tool every runner should have at home. Run a normal bath and add 2 cups of Epsom salt while running the water. Soak in the bath for 10 to 15 minutes to get the full effects. The high magnesium content is excellent for reducing inflammation and easing up muscle soreness.

Put Your Legs Straight up Against the Wall

Lie on your back on the floor, with your legs in the air resting against the wall. This might seem strange, but it’s a very effective way to reduce leg swelling, which is common as fluid accumulates in the tissues.

Eat a Good Meal

Eating a healthy meal will provide your body with the nutrients it needs to fuel the healing process. Try to get a good combination of protein, carbs, and healthy fats, but don’t go all out and order something unhealthy and fatty as a “reward” for finishing the race. You’ll be doing your body a disservice! A wholewheat pasta dish with protein is a great option.

Sleep

Sleep is when the body heals. There’s no need to go home and head straight to bed. Try to stick to your regular sleep schedule, but take steps to make sure you’ll get a good night’s rest.

Get to sleep early, make sure the room is quiet and dark enough, and set the temperature to something comfortable.

The Day After the Half-Marathon

It’s a good idea to relax as much as you can on this day, eat healthy, and stick to your sleep schedule. Here’s what else you should be doing for recovery.

Stretch Your Muscles

You should be stretching every day during recovery. It’s a good thing to do first thing in the morning to release tight muscles. You can do it a few more times throughout the day, but make sure to be gentle.

Add Hot/Cold Contrast to Your Recovery

Alternating hot and cold therapy can help to improve circulation. In the warmth, the blood vessels dilate—increase in size—which helps blood to move into the area, bringing oxygen and nutrients.

As they’re exposed to cold, they constrict, accelerating blood flow. It also activates the lymphatic system, which helps flush waste products from the body faster.

A contrast bath is a good idea, which is where you immerse your limbs—in this case, the legs—in warm water, followed by cool or cold water. Alternate between the two several times for the best results. You can also do this by using ice packs and heat packs.

Wear Your Compression Tights

Compression gear can also improve circulation, as well as provide some relief against muscle pain. Tights will be the most useful piece of gear, but compression socks might also help.

Easy Movement With a Gentle Walk

We advise taking a slow, relaxed walk on this day. Around the garden, around the block, or to the store—wherever you go, this will get the blood pumping and the muscles moving without adding to your pain or risking injury.

For the Next 3 to 7 Days After Your Race

You can start returning to light exercise, but avoid beginning a full training plan. Opt for light, low-impact cross-training workouts, like swimming, cycling, rowing, or some bodyweight strength training.

Prioritize healthy eating and rest. Continue to massage or foam roll your muscles, wear your compression gear, and stretch.

Recovery Days 8 to 14 After Your Race

You can increase the intensity of your cross-training activities and begin to get back into running. However, we suggest taking it slow this week—do a few easy runs, but don’t get back into full training mode.

Continue to eat well, get enough rest, and don’t forget to pay attention to your body. If you don’t feel up to increasing your activity level yet, that’s also okay.

Tips for Your Half-Marathon Recovery

As hard as it may be, implement these tips when recovering from a half-marathon, and you’ll be in the best position after your recovery to get back into your training. Push through the impatience and wait it out—you’ll thank yourself later!

Allow Your Body Time to Recover

You can’t rush through recovery. The general recommendation is 14 days, so we highly recommend taking that time. Don’t cut it short, as tempting as it may be. You’ll only be cutting corners… And if you go back to training before your body is ready, you’ll risk overtraining and injuring yourself.

Avoid Alcohol and Caffeine

Both alcohol and caffeinated drinks can dehydrate you faster than normal water, which means your recovery may go slower because you’re not as hydrated as you should be.

It’s a good idea to avoid alcohol and caffeine as much as possible in the weeks following your half-marathon. We know it might be tempting to celebrate with a few drinks after the race, but this can affect your body’s ability to recover effectively, pushing your recovery out by a few days or even weeks.

Be Patient

It might be frustrating to go from a high level of activity to essentially stopping, but it’s definitely in your best interest. The tricky part comes in when you actually start to feel good enough to launch into running again because it’s hard to stay patient and wait for the required time to pass.

However, if you work through the 14 or so days that are recommended for recovery, you’ll be in the best position to gain strength and boost performance. Coming back to your training without allowing your body the full time to recover means you’ll be more likely to get injured, and your performance might also suffer.

Avoid Excessive Sitting or Inactivity

The light movement goes a long way toward effective recovery. Being inactive for long periods of time, like sitting behind a desk or in front of the TV, can cause your muscles to become stiff and cramped.

When you get up eventually, you’ll likely experience more pain and stiffness than you would if you stayed active. You don’t need to do hard activities to stay active—all you need is some light yoga, stretching, walking, and making sure to get up at least every 30 minutes to stretch out your muscles.

Listen to Your Body

This is one of the most important tips for recovery, and it’s not spoken about enough. Recovery is different for everyone, and it’s essential to note that no two recoveries are the same either.

You can follow the recovery steps you see online, advised by professionals or experienced runners. You can take exactly the same steps you took for your last half-marathon recovery. But listening to your body is the most important thing you can do.

Pay attention to how you feel during your recovery. If you feel like you need more time, take it. You can always get back to your running a week or two later. But it’ll take much longer to get back to it if you inadvertently injure yourself because you started again before your body was ready.

We advise spending some time every day during your recovery doing a “body scan”. Sit down for 5 minutes or so and, starting at your feet, work your way up the body, focusing on each part and feeling how it feels. This will help you start understanding your body and train you to feel these things in the future without thinking about it.

Photo of author

AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.