Congratulations, you’ve finished your race! Just as staying fueled and hydrated during aerobic activity affects your health and performance, so too does replenishing your body of what it has lost after you have completed your event.
Whether you’re just starting out or you run 90 miles a week, what you put into your body directly following intense extended cardiovascular exercise will dictate how sore you are tomorrow as well as your long-term fitness improvements.
Similarly, in the days and weeks following a hard effort, how much you rest and how easy you take your easy days has a big impact on fitness and recovery.
Post-exercise nutrition: Why it’s important
When you exercise, your body loses water and electrolytes through sweat. Your muscles are also breaking down with every step you take, and your body is consuming available nutrients at a much quicker rate. During aerobic activity, your body also draws energy from glycogen stores in your muscles.
My body is using a lot of energy, so what should I use to refuel and when?
Post-exercise, 30-45 minutes is the ideal time to consume carbohydrates, fat and protein to refuel. During this small window of time, your metabolism is still in high gear, and your body knows to quickly deliver these nutrients to your muscles.
After about 45 minutes, nutrients are absorbed and delivered at a much slower rate, and your body begins attempting to repair itself whether or not the appropriate nutrients are available, potentially resulting in sore or tight muscles, lack of energy, and GI discomfort or distress.
If you don’t have a well-balance meal readily available within 45 minutes post-run, grab a bar or shake with 10-20 grams of protein (much more that is not going to be absorbed) along with some fat and carbohydrate. Make sure you consume this with at least 8 ounces of water or low-sugar electrolyte beverage to expedite delivery to muscles and organs. The first meal you eat after exercise is also important, as it will continue to help replenish vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.
Adequate rest and active recovery: Why it matters
Directly after your run, get in a relaxed cool-down. 15-20 minutes of easy jogging or alternating walking and jogging is recommended to keep blood flow steady and prevent leg cramps and heaviness. A few dynamic stretches and/or form drills are also great for keeping your range of motion in check (leg swings and high knees are some of examples). After you’ve refueled, take the rest of the day easy. Relax, go to the park, take a nap!
The week following your half-marathon, active recovery is key, especially if you are planning to train for another event in the near future. Don’t avoid activity altogether, but don’t do anything too long or strenuous. Increasing circulation through light cardiovascular activity helps deliver blood and oxygen to muscles in need of repair and helps get rid of metabolic waste.
Low-impact cardiovascular cross training is a good form of recovery, but keep your heart rate less than 140 bpm and your duration 20-30 minutes. Follow up your recovery session with some active and dynamic stretching. Rolling out with a foam roller can also help keep you nimble.
The next week, take it easy. You can continue cross training, but now is the time to take some time off if you need it. This may be a good time to introduce some very light strength training to build up the integrity of your muscles.
After a couple weeks, if you’re feeling good, you can start easy running and looking out for your next event!