You know how they say, "third time's a charm"? That proved to be unbelievably true when it came to my half marathon recovery. It went like this: first race, figuring it out; second race, totally blew it; third race, BINGO.
Very much like Goldilocks, it took a little trial and error, including totally destroying my body on round two. But I learned from my failures, and I'm here to help you not make my mistakes. Here's how you recover from a half marathon to prevent that crippling, I-got-hit-by-a-truck soreness for three days after running the 13.1 miles.
- Eat a banana: This is my go-to. After races one and three, I inhaled a banana (and a chocolate milk, but I don't know if I can recommend that). Race two? No banana. I obviously don't attribute the entirety of my recovery success to the banana (that's one glorified fruit), but I think it definitely helped with muscle cramping and blood sugar. Thanks, potassium!
- Drink lots of water and replace electrolytes: Hydration is key. If you've had some Gu or gels, you need to drink even more water to get your stomach recalibrated and prevent a postrace stomachache. Make sure you're drinking plenty of water throughout the next few days, too.
- Foam roll and stretch: Take a few minutes after your race and dedicate that time to rolling out and getting your muscles massaged. This is so important for circulation and recovery.
- Rest and eat a full meal: Don't go too hard postrace. Celebrating is totally encouraged, but give your body enough time to recuperate from the intensity of your workout. Replenish nutrients and refuel your body with a complete meal. Get enough sleep to ensure your muscles are repairing themselves. Be sure to incorporate food some anti-inflammatory foods, like sweet potatoes and berries, to help support your recovery.
- Skip the booze: This is certainly not a hard and fast rule, just something that worked for me. If you want to crush a beer after you crushed a PR, then by all means, celebrate! For me, the alcohol did not sit well on an already acidic stomach, and if you have a sensitive postrun stomach, you'll encounter similar malaise. Additionally, you're already pretty dehydrated, and alcohol will counteract your attempts to replenish fluids and electrolytes.
- Ice: If you're feeling pain or intense soreness anywhere, be sure to ice that area; 20 minutes on, 20 minutes off. This will help reduce swelling and can alleviate pain. You can also pop a few ibuprofen to mitigate inflammation and pain.
- BCAAs: You're going to want a recovery drink to replace branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). I drank one consistently starting the day before the race, actually, and then after the race and for the next couple days to make sure my body and muscles were hydrated and nourished. I've used Nutribolics Anabolic State ($30) — which is literally from bodybuildilng.com, so you know it's not messing around — and recently switched to Arbonne PhytoSport After Workout powder ($50). Both are excellent sources of BCAAs.
- Walk it out: Nearly everyone — coach, fitness writer, trainer — will tell you to go for a short, easy shakeout run the next day. For me, this is usually too much, so I opt for a walk. I just ran 13.1 miles; don't ask me to keep going! However, they're all correct. You don't want your muscles to stiffen up.
- Ice bath and hot bath: This one is tough, and you're not going to like it, but two athletes who crossed my half marathon training path encouraged an ice bath for either the day of or the day after a race. My anecdotal experience? It works. You'll feel like Jack from Titanic, you might cry, you might reenact scenes from the 1997 major motion picture, but your muscles will thank you. Submerge your legs for 10 to 15 minutes, and later that day you can hit up the jacuzzi or take a warm bath to make up for it and get the relaxation train in motion.
- Get a massage: If you're going to do anything, make sure you schedule a massage two days after your race. This is absolutely best thing I did in my recovery, and I believe it's imperative. Plus, it feels amazing! It's a massage!
All of that said, none of this will truly help if you don't train. The biggest mistake I made on race number two was not training and jumping straight into 13 unprepared miles (the 0.1 was manageable) — skipping your training runs is like getting in the express lane to torture town. Do yourself a favor and warm up your body with a solid half marathon training program. Postrace you will thank prerace you for the preparation.