Whether you are approaching your first half marathon or your 50th, it’s focusing on recovery is just as important as finishing. Proper recovery lets you get back to running as soon as possible. Ideally, you’ll do this in a way that is going to be healthy and put you on the path for success.
In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about recovering from a half marathon, including tips on what exactly to do. As someone who has been in your position (or soon-to-be position), I know what it is like!
What a Half Marathon Does to Your Body
I have a magnet that says, “13.1: Only Half Crazy.” While you’re not putting your body under as much stress and strain as you do with a full marathon, a half it still is a lot for your body to handle.
First, you’re going to experience muscle inflammation and pain because you’ve put a lot of stress on your body. Taking time to ice your legs and feet can help with this ailment.
Additionally, you’ve spent a lot of time training, and this can lower your immunity and may increase your chances of getting sick, especially after your body knows that it completed its goal of running 13.1 miles. Make sure to get plenty of rest and stay hydrated.
Finally, you’ve put yourself through mental strain as well. Depending on race conditions, you may have had to push yourself through that last 5k, and that could really have tired you out mentally.
Your brain needs a break and time to relax, even if you want to get back out and hit the road hard. Otherwise, you could end up overtraining. That can lead to physical and mental stress, and even injuries—the last thing that you want.
Why You Need to Let Your Body Recover
Exercise breaks down muscles to build them back up again even stronger. There has to be time for that building back up, which comes through resting and recovery. You can’t expect to go, go, go all the time. Your body needs gas (fuel) and a car wash (refreshing) just like your vehicle.
Think of recovery as a reset button. It’s your opportunity to reflect on your training, and racing. What were the happy parts about the race? What things you want to do differently next time? And of course, what your next race will be?
You want to come back to running re-energized and ready to go. Taking a short break will help rekindle that fire.
How Long Does It Take to Recover?
This varies based on time, your experience, and general feelings about the race. If you ran a faster half marathon, you’ll only need a couple of days to recover—likely less than five. But if it took you over two hours, you’ll probably need 5-7 days.
Similarly, if you’re and experienced runner and have run farther than 13.1 miles many times, you know the drill and your body is used to longer distances. You won’t need as much time to recover.
But if it’s your first time running 13.1 miles, (which was the case for me, although I did get up to 12 miles during my training plan twice), you might want to take a little bit more time off.
Finally, only you are going to know exactly how you felt after the race. If you felt amazing like I did when I ran a 10k with a friend, then get back to running sooner. But if you ran harder, it was a tough race, etc., then take a little bit more time.
Half Marathon Recovery Plan
Now that we’ve covered some broad thoughts about recovery, let’s look at specifics.
Immediately After the Race
When you fly past the finish line, you’ll get your finisher’s medal, and then tons of volunteers will offer you every food and drink you can think of. Take it all. Even though you might not want it now, you probably will later.
Even if you aren’t feeling thirsty, you need to rehydrate so that your body has the fluid and electrolytes it needs. You might want to open both a bottle of water and a Gatorade and alternate between the two.
Also, you need to walk around! Don’t stop, and don’t sit down. I know I was exhausted after my race because the temperature had unexpectedly shot up, and it was insanely humid. I just wanted to sit down, but my mom wouldn’t let me.
She wandered around the finish line area with me just to make sure that I was walking around and to keep my legs from cramping. Although it wasn’t really what I wanted to do at the time, I was glad later that she made me walk around. If you have a friend, solicit their help on this if you think you’re going to be inclined to plop down on the ground.
1-2 Hours After the Race
Within two hours of the race, make sure that you eat some food. You can eat earlier, but don’t go longer than two hours. Ideally, you’ve thought about where you’d like to go after your race to celebrate.
Try to order a meal that is healthy and will nourish your body, one with some protein but one that isn’t too heavy. I opted for a robust salad from Panera with nuts and chicken along with several fruits and lettuce.
Make sure that you continue to rehydrate, and that doesn’t mean booze. You’ll want to replace the fluid that you lost in your body.
The Rest of the Race Day
The remainder of race day is your time to relax. Wear compression socks to aid in your recovery and help get the blood flowing. Elevate your legs, take an ice or cool bath (or ice your feet or legs), and continue to rehydrate.
You should be seeing a pattern. Rehydration is extremely important. Your body needs fluids in order to stay healthy and avoid injuries.
This is especially necessary to consider after a long race. Your immune system may have been compromised during your training, and proper hydration will help keep the bugs away.
1-3 Days Post-Race
Depending on your experience and how you felt about the race, you should take at least 1-3 days off. At the most, go for a single short, easy run. This is your opportunity to do some fun cross-training like swimming or another low-impact option. Don’t overdo it.
Make sure that you are getting enough carbohydrates and protein, continue to hydrate, and lightly massage or foam roll any sore muscles. I was amazed to discover when I got into running how well a foam roller works!
4-7 Days Post-Race
After a few days off, start to build up to longer runs. You don’t need to go hard during these runs; take them easy and let your body get warmed up again.
When a week has passed, you’re good to start to ease back into your regular running routine and within two-three weeks of your half marathon, you should be totally good to go.
How Much Recovery Before Your Next Race
After you cross that finish line, you’ll probably start thinking about when your next race will be. You might even already have one lined up. In any case, the amount of recovery you need before your next race depends on your experience.
If you’re an experienced runner, it could be 2-3 weeks. If you’re a newer runner, you likely will want to wait 4-6+ weeks. Give your body time to recover and adjust to your new routine of running.
My personal thought is that it’s better to overestimate the time that you need to recover before the next race rather than underestimate. You might have to wait a little longer, but at least you avoid injuries that could take you out even longer.
Another consideration is how hard you ran your race. Unsurprisingly, faster races require longer recovery times, and typically people who run longer races closer together have huge PR goals for one of the races, but are just doing the other one for fun.
I still will never forget crossing the finish line for my first half marathon. It was a hard race, given the unexpected change in weather, but it fired me up for running.
I had several friends who told me about how they didn’t recover well after half marathons, so I learned from their experiences and didn’t make the same mistakes.
When you’ve been training hard, the last thing you want to do is cut back. But just a few days off will reap major benefits later. Good luck!