Half Marathon Recovery: How To Come Back Faster and Stronger

Natalie Cecconi
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What a Half Marathon Does to Your Body

Let’s start with the obvious: Half marathons are brutal.

Not only do you cover a lot of ground in a very short amount of time, there are a lot of factors that can put a damper on your race.

In a short race, it’s normal to have a few moments when you slow down and just can’t seem to catch your breath. But in a half marathon, there are entire sections where you pace yourself because you know you can’t really go much faster.

That’s where all of the problems come from.

A lot of half marathon races take place in hot weather. And on top of the exhaustion that you feel from running for nearly a mile, there’s the exhaustion you feel from sweating in 100 degree weather.

By the end of the race, I was conserving energy in order to complete what I had started. I knew I had to keep moving if I wanted a sub-2 hour finish, but running at full sprint was out of the question. Add that to the fact that many half marathons are plagued with hills, and there’s a lot of pent-up frustration when the finish line comes into view.

Why You Need to Let Your Body Recover

You run the race for many reasons, to test your limits, to get some exercise or maybe as a way to destress. What ever the reasons, after the finish line, you’re probably going to feel great…and maybe a bit sore.

The soreness will fade and you’ll be eager to get started with another training cycle but that’s not a good idea.

You will lose a lot of fitness if you keep squeezing more workouts to your schedule without any time to recover.

You’re body needs some time to recover, and that’s a good thing.

Because post-marathon recovery is actually very important for long run performance and to avoid injuries. Unfortunately, most runners are in a hurry or they are not aware of what really happens with their body after the half marathon.

But there are a few things you need to do after the race in order to achieve your next personal best.

Today’s post is dedicated to long run recovery as well as your next training cycle before the next half marathon.

How Long Does It Take to Recover?

No matter how strong you believe you are, recovering from a long-distance run can be hard. This is especially true for novice runners.

So the question is: how long does it take to recover from a half marathon? This is a tricky question with a complex answer.

Scientifically speaking, there is no specific time limit for recovery after a race. Many factors play a role here.

Your body’s stress levels, for instance, are closely related to your half marathon recovery time. So the more intense the race was, the more difficult it will be to deal with its repercussions.

The more mileage your body has put in, the longer your recovery time will be.

Nutrition is another important factor, and this is closely related to your pre-run diet. Your food intake affects your performance in any race, and this is especially important to take into consideration in a long-distance event like the half marathon.

How much rest you got days, weeks or months before the race also greatly affects your recovery time.

The best way to recover after your first half marathon is to avoid further activity for the next 24-48 hours.

Half Marathon Recovery Plan

A Quick Guide

Congratulations! You’ve successfully accomplished one of your biggest running goals and you’re now thinking about what’s next.

You’re probably thinking about your next race and adding an extra lap around the block to your training plan.

Don’t rush your half marathon recovery. Prevention is better than cure.

Like most things, recovery from any race starts the day before.

Are you eating to fuel your body for the race? Are some nutrients missing from your diet? Are you hydrating and fueling your muscles and your mind, the night before the race?

A lot of runners make the mistake of over-training and under-recovering. They think that putting 20 miles on their legs every week will speed up their recovery, but in all probability, they are just putting fuel on their growing muscle fatigue.

To finish strong, you should follow a half marathon recovery plan. Just don’t push it too hard.

The first 48 hours are the most critical in terms of recovery. The muscles and the body systems must be revved back up as soon as the race ends. The whole recovery process will set your body up for the next 10 days.

Immediately After the Race

No matter how you did during the race, you’re undoubtedly going to feel a certain amount of soreness for the next few days. To maintain a healthy state of soreness, be sure to properly cool down after the race. When your muscles are fatigued, they begin to swell, and this causes soreness. Stretching after you cool down will prevent or delay the onset of soreness. You should also take in plenty of carbs and fluids immediately after the race; fluids are especially important if you completed the race in hot weather. Look for sports drinks with sodium and electrolytes; avoid sodas and juices, which will only add to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. Eat foods high in good carbs, like whole wheat bread and bagels, as well as healthy protein sources, like cheese and peanut butter.

1-2 Hours After the Race

As soon as you’re finished with your race, head over to the finish line bag and pick up your race packet.

You’ll be handed a foil blanket, your finisher’s shirt, your medal and a bottle of water to hydrate as you start to recover.

Bag your shirt, bag your medal… every foiled blanket and bag counts toward you carrying your gear back to the car or hotel.

Take off the chip, grab everything else, and start walking toward the food.

Walking is a great way to stretch out your legs after running because it’s gentle on the joints in your body.

Look for long lines of tables or tents with signs directing you to food after the Boston Marathon. There will be drinks and fruit all over the finish line.

Wade through the crowds toward the acres of tables with thousands of water bottles waiting to be drunk.

Toss everything that’s in your hand onto the table, grab a dozen bottles, and find a place to put them down so you can continue wading through the crowd.

Take a few moments and congratulate yourself on your success.

The Rest of the Race Day

Once you get done with the race (you made it!), there’s still some work to be done.

Continue drinking water, but you can also consume sports drinks.Sports drinks have electrolytes, which is something your body loses a lot of while you’re running.

If you’ve been using special nutrition on the course, you can also continue doing so.

If you didn’t get accustomed to eating during your training runs, waiting for your stomach to speak up and signal you to stop eating is a big mistake. It may let you know it’s time to slow down or stop when it’s too late, which can lead to an upset stomach.

Don’t overindulge.

Now’s not the time to try anything new, either.

Unless you’re medicating, don’t take any medication or over-the-counter pain medication. Most medications will have an effect on your racing, while some can slow you down dramatically.

Get into the shower, get some trail running shoes with waterproof, ventilated and comfortable footbeds, and run home for a post-race massage.

After the shower, grab proper recovery attire and a broom.

1-3 Days Post-Race

The first 24 hours after a race are crucial for your recovery. During this time, your body goes into a hormonal surge, and your high alert system (your stress system) is still firing on all cylinders. As if you’ve heard this enough, don’t overdo it in these first few days!

Over-recovery after a long race can be like overcooking and under-seasoning a perfectly good meal.

Proper and consistent recovery will help your muscles develop the repair and remodeling needed to make them stronger and less susceptible to injury.

Stay active. While the first 24 hours is spent mostly resting, walking and light activities can start the day after.

Walking around, stretching, and doing basic exercises after your race are important for your recovery. It helps with blood circulation, muscle motion and muscle memory.

Exercising will also help your body remove lactic acid, one of the reasons why your muscles feel sore.

Since the workout intensity is very low during the first few days, you will be recovering mostly by resting and doing light activities. During this time, your muscles rebuild glycogen stores while your heart and lungs recover from the race.

4-7 Days Post-Race

How Much Recovery Before Your Next Race

The popular “feel” method of recovery recommendation is to take two days of active recovery for each mile (or kilometer) you ran. Unfortunately, there is not much science to back that up although there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that people feel good about it.

For example if your goal was to run 16 miles, then according to this method, you should take two days of recovery.

There are some credible sources that do recommend active recovery. In a study done on Tour de France cyclists it was suggested that active recovery is ideal for endurance athletes. The cyclists in that study actually did 20-45% of their volume on the hardest stage of the race. That is kind of a high number for active recovery but we can only assume that their off day was also a recovery day of sorts.

There are three other common theories on recovery.

The first theory is cycle your training. For example, if you run every day, take one day off, then two days off, and then three days on. This allows your body to have more time to recover but in a cyclical type of training.

The second theory is have a consistent training load. That is, if you have a weekly 16-mile run, then have 3-4 weeks of a 16-mile weekly run. Then you can alter and reduce your mileage for a week or two before starting the cycle again.