Your long run is done and you are on cloud nine. Now what? What you do directly in the hours after your long run is an important part of your run training. Following a proper routine will maximize your recovery after putting your body through a hard effort.
After a long run, you need to focus on hydrating, getting proper nutrition, completing simple but effective recovery activities, and getting good sleep in order to allow your body to adapt and stay healthy so you can keep up with the demands of your training.
Here I’ll outline exactly what you need to do in the first 1-2 hours after a long run as well as the first 24 hours, so that your body can heal properly, reap the rewards of all those earned miles, and be ready for the next hard workout.
What You Do After a Long Run Matters
After a long run, it can be tempting to reward yourself by picking up your favorite meal and soft drink from a fast food drive through and go straight to the couch to veg for the rest of the day.
Or maybe you are someone who is always rushing from one thing to the next and you only make time for a quick shower – snacking on whatever processed food is easiest to eat in the car.
Unfortunately, neither of these scenarios is ideal. Scenario #1 is just a gut bomb waiting to happen and Scenario #2 won’t allow a runner any time to recover from all the hard work they just put their body through.
And neither of these two runners are getting hydrated properly or giving their overworked muscles and joints the ability to bounce back. At best these runners’ training will plateau, and at worst, they’ll be injured before they make it to the starting line.
Neither of which is what you want.
What you do in the hours after a long run is imperative to let your body start to repair itself so you can keep your body healthy and maximize your potential as a runner.
The Ideal Post Long Run Routine – the First 1-2 Hours
1.) Hydrate Right Away and Don’t Stop
You should have been sipping on water throughout your long run, but there is still a good chance that you didn’t take in enough while running. That’s pretty common, especially if you’re training during the warmest months. This means you should be drinking water as soon as you’re done with your run.
Now you don’t need to be drinking ginormous gulps of water necessarily, but it’s important to drink to thirst. Don’t feel that thirsty? Just keep your water bottle full and continue to sip on it in the next 1-2 hours while you complete the rest of your long run routine.
Keeping your body well-hydrated is a big component of speeding up recovery for sore muscles.
2.) Have a Small Snack
I don’t know about you, but I’m actually not very hungry when I finish up a long run. This is actually very common because as you’ve been running, your blood flow has been prioritizing your muscular system with your digestive system being more of an afterthought. But don’t worry, you’ll probably be ravenous within an hour after your run.
But even though you’re not hungry right after your run, forcing yourself to get in a small snack to start getting some important nutrients into your body is a good plan.
A simple 100-calorie type snack will do the trick. A couple ideas are that you could easily eat on a drive home or once you walk in the door include:
- granola bar
These are just a few options – when choosing something go for the carbs initially, something your body can quickly digest, and then you can be sure to get a good amount of protein in with your upcoming meal.
3.) Sip on an Electrolyte Drink
Electrolyte drinks are especially helpful for recovery after long runs in the heat or for anyone who typically sweats quite a bit. This will allow you to replace electrolytes that were lost during a run including sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium and calcium.
I personally prefer to stay away from drinks high in sugar such as the to “ade” brands, since that isn’t what your body needs. Instead, I love to take Nuun tablets which have a nutritional profile in line with replacing lost electrolytes while not giving your a major sugar spike. Liquid IV is another great option, it does have sugar, but much less than your typical sports drinks…and is pretty yummy!
Electrolyte drinks are a necessity if you’re making sure you get the right foods, but often runners don’t eat the right things after a run – or soon enough. Plus, an electrolyte drink also makes drinking your water more enjoyable, which helps you stay hydrated, as well.
4.) Use Heat or Ice on Sore Muscles and Joints
I have an entire post dedicated to this portion of the post run routine, because it’s something that so many endurance runners wonder about. You’ve probably been instructed to either put a heat compress on an injury or ice…chances are you’ve done both. So, it can be hard to know which is better. I suggest you read, “Is heat or ice better for long run recovery,” to have all the info, but here it is in a nutshell:
Both heat therapy and ice can help soothe sore muscles and joints after a long run. They both can be advantageous, and sometimes it’s good to alternate between the two, but there really isn’t scientific evidence proving that one is better than the other.
Whichever you choose, they can both speed up the recovery process. I’m not saying you have to go full-on ice bath mode, but some runners certainly swear by this. I prefer a nice, warm epsom salt bath and that has always worked for me. I use Dr. Teal’s.
Application of ice or heat with a compress to the sore part of your body is a great way to improve circulation in that part of the body as well as reduce inflammation.
5.) Foam Roll and Stretch
Foam rolling after a long run is an absolute must and so many runners skip this. It’s important to remember that it’s not just the running that makes you a better and healthier runner, but everything else you do outside of that, too. I write about how it’s one of the most important aspects of working through running fatigue – something that is inevitable when you’re training for an endurance race such as a half or full marathon.
Foam rolling your hips, calves, glutes and back will get deep into the tissue to get the fascia to “break up” and increase blood flow to those sore areas. I’ll warn you though: it hurts so good. Meaning – don’t expect this to be comfortable…but that just means you really need it.
As far as stretching, do what feels natural to you and feels good. Even just a relaxing “legs up a wall” pose is great to get blood circulating around the body after a hard run.
6.) Eat a Balanced Meal
Ideally you’d eat a healthy meal with the necessary macronutrients within the hour after you finish your long run. Sometimes this doesn’t happen, but the sooner the better – especially if you didn’t snack on anything or drink an electrolyte previously.
For your post run meal, you want to keep it balanced and healthy. Trying to get exact ratios of macronutrients can make you get pretty rigid about what you’re eating, so instead plan to have carbs on your plate as well as protein. Though whole grains sometimes don’t sit well pre-run and should be avoided by some runners (more on that here), eating whole grains post run is fine. Fat is also necessary for muscle repair – unsaturated fats from plant foods is what you have.
A post-run meal should include:
- carbohydrates – grains and/or fruit
- lean protein – chicken, fish, eggs, beans, etc.
- “Good” fats – avocado, olives, vegetable oils
- Vegetables – these are always good for you in training!
Aim to eat food that will make you feel good – fast food, greasy meat or an overload of dairy will probably just turn your stomach upside down (and not give you the nutrients you need to recover from your long run.)
What to Do in the 24 Hours After Your Long Run
Making good recovery choices in those first minutes and hours after a long run are essential to staying healthy and strong during training. But the recovery doesn’t stop there. Though you can mostly go about the rest of your day as planned – this is a day you want to take it easy if at all possible. Work and families can make this tough, but if you can prioritize rest, that’s ideal.
Here is what to do for proper recovery as you go about your day and moving into the following day, as well.
1.) Ideal, but Optional: Nap
I know, I know…most of your are saying wouldn’t that be nice. But in an ideal world, post-long run recovery includes a nap. But if you can’t, that’s fine. To be honest, I couldn’t probably take a nap even if I had the house to myself. But, if you can nap, do it…and you can tell everyone that it’s part of your training (because it is)!
2.) Foam Roll and Stretch Before Bed
Back to foam rolling and stretching. DO NOT skip the foam rolling before bed. Over the course of the day your muscles have become more fatigued and probably feel tight, and the foam roller will help. Way back before I knew I was supposed to use a foam roller I ended up with a calf injury that took me out of running for a week…and using a foam roller would have allowed me to avoid that.
3.) Get a Great Night’s Sleep
Maybe you can’t nap, but hopefully you can go to bed early. And if you can sleep in, do that, too. Sleep is the number one factor in injury prevention for distance runners. This is because this is when blood supply to the muscles increases, when the body’s energy is restored and when tissue growth and repair occurs.
Without good sleep, your body won’t be able to keep up with the hard demands you’re putting on it. Maybe for a week or two, but trust me, it’s going to catch up with you.
It is not unlikely to find yourself needing an extra 30 minute to an hour of sleep per night during training beyond your typical sleep needs. Listen to your body, and get the rest you need.
Want to know more? Read: How Sleep Can Give You the Edge You Need in Marathon Training
4.) Eat to Hunger with a Balanced Approach
Continue to use your nutrition over the next 24 hours as “recovery food.” Don’t overeat as a way to reward yourself for your hard work. I know it’s tempting, but this is why some marathon runners find themselves gaining weight even with running all those miles.
Continue to eat to hunger and fill your plate with healthy whole foods. If you want to have a treat or a celebratory beer or two in the evening after your long run, that’s totally fine…just don’t go overboard. Refined sugar and alcohol won’t do your training any favors.
5.) Get out for a Recovery Run/Walk
After you’ve had a healthy dinner, slept well, and ate a small breakfast of easy to digest carbs and protein the next morning, it’s time to get those legs moving. Recovery runs are another part of running that so many runners skip.
It may sound strange that your recovery period would include more running, but it’s actually really important. It’s what is able to get blood circulating properly in your legs, so that you’re not just letting them get tight from sitting around. It allows your muscles, joint, ligaments, and tendons time to adapt to the stress you’ve put on it.
If you don’t do a recovery run and keep going straight from hard workout to hard workout, you are most likely going to end up getting injured.
If you want more guidance on this invaluable type of running, check out my post: The Importance of Recovery Runs in Marathon Training.
After the Long Run – Where the Magic Happens
It’s not during the long runs and hard workouts that your body gets stronger and faster, but during the period following it when you do the right things to allow those adaptations to take hold. As The Science of Running, the hard work is simply the stimulus…paying attention to nutrition, hydration, replenishment, foam rolling and rest is what will allow you to gain the fullest in terms of workout adaptation.
If you’ve been ignoring these important steps post long run, it’s time to make a change.