Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 18 Dec 2005 08:55:48 -0500

Running Past the Finish Line


(rerun from December 2003 RW)

You have trained weeks or months for this moment. Now your big race is at its finish line... but not yet finished. Just as this race didn't start at the starting line but when you began training for it, it doesn't end at the finish line but when you're finished recovering from it.

Your recovery phase starts at the finish line and will take days or weeks to complete. You must approach this postrace repair as systematically as you did the prerace training. This begins with knowing that letdowns -- both physical and emotional -- occur as a normal after-effect of racing.

Realize that raceday is magic. The crowd of runners pulls you to a pace a minute or more per mile faster than you could run alone for this racing distance -- or carries you twice as far at a certain pace as you could go solo.

But realize also that this magical effort comes at a price. You start repaying it immediately after finishing and keep paying for a while afterward.

The hardest most of us ever run is in a marathon. A newly minted marathoner e-mailed me in the second week after his race, worrying about recovering too slowly.

"My aches and pains have left," he wrote, "but I don't seem to have my energy back in spite of staying well hydrated and carbo-reloading. What has surprised me the most is, I don't feel motivated to run like I did before the race."

This runner's post-marathon reactions were textbook-normal: the leg soreness, the low energy, the lost interest in running. This all will pass in time, but a longer time than you might think.

Recovery comes by stages, each longer lasting and more subtle than the one before. Here's what you can expect to feel at each stage, how to deal with it, and for how long:

1. Immediate recovery. Besides happy, you feel hot, tired and maybe woozy from fatigue. Resist the urge to sit; keep moving until the body calms down. After drinking and eating, take another walk later in the day to assure yourself that some energy has returned and your legs still work.

2. Muscle recovery. Soreness has settled in the next day, then you feel even more stiff the second day after racing. Rest or cross-train gently (walking, biking or swimming) on these days. Don't try to "run out" the soreness, which only delays healing and risks injury. Wait out the pain, which seldom lingers longer than a week even after the toughest races.

Now the soreness stage has passed, or you may have skipped it entirely. You're feeling "lazy" from the rest days and fear losing your fitness. You're tempted to resume full training right away.

Don't! You're not fully recovered at this point, with two stages to go.

3. Full-body recovery. Nothing hurts now, but you still don't feel quite right. Fatigue lingers, especially in legs that seem "dead" and "heavy." Give your body what it wants -- usually more food, fluid and sleep than usual. And don't force it to do what it doesn't want -- another hard run this soon. Keep the runs short and slow until the legs liven and lighten up again.

4. Psychological recovery. Even when the body is willing to run long and fast again, the mind may say, "No, not yet." Running doesn't excite you now. Don't fight these postrace blues, but accept them as normal -- and temporary. This low spell is the mind's way of protecting the body from doing too much, too soon.

You can't start training for another race until you forgot how hard the last one felt. How long this takes depends on the length of your race and the degree of your effort.

One simple guideline can give you a starting point for calculating your needs. This is the Jack Foster Rule, named for a New Zealander who held the world masters marathon record for 16 years.

Foster advised, and practiced, taking at least one easy day afterward for every mile of the race. That's about week after a 10K, two weeks after a half-marathon, a month after a marathon.

Foster didn't say not to run for that long. He said not to run HARD -- nothing very long or fast, and certainly not another race -- until the after-effects of the last one clear.

You earned a good race with your training beforehand and your effort on raceday. You also earn a break afterward -- a time to recover, yes, but more so to savor all you've just done before looking ahead to the next race.


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