Long run recovery is an art many distance runners develop through trial and error, but you can speed up this process if you learn what the main long run recovery focus areas are.
The long run is arguably the most important run in your training week. It gives us an incredible amount of benefits and prepares us to run farther and farther. That being said, pushing your body to the edge necessarily requires some dedicated recovery. These recovery tips are designed for your long training runs, but they can be used on race day as well.
What Happens to Your Body When You Complete a Long Run
When you run longer 90 minutes, you unlock a large range of benefits in your body. You push your body past its comfort zone, and it’s required to adapt. Particularly, you will see benefits in a stronger heart and muscular endurance. For the biology nerds out there (like me!), the mitochondria (which are the power plant of your cells) increase in size and number, improving endurance. Your capillaries that deliver blood to your muscles grow, and your ventilatory capacity (literally your ability to breathe) increases as your respiratory muscles strengthen.
Finally—and perhaps most important—you train your metabolic system and teach your body to burn fat more rather than glycogen as it’s primary fuel source.
Why Your Long Run Recovery is Important
When you complete a long run, your body is in a state of depletion. Your glycogen is depleted, and your fluids are definitely depleted. Rehydrating and refueling properly after your long run are key to helping your body start the recovery process.
This is important because of the large amount of stress a long run puts on your body. Training is a basic cycle of stress and recovery. If you don’t recover, you won’t get faster or be able to run longer. You’ll just wear your body down.
One of my favorite rules to remind myself of how important recovery is, is the DO-DO Rule.
Dr. David Martin is crediting for developing the Do-Do Rule, and it goes like this:
“It’s not how much training you DO, rather, it’s how well you recover from the training you DO DO. Because, if you get injured or sick from DOing too much, you are in deep DOO DOO.”
Once you recover from your long run, you can do more training. Until then, avoiding proper long run recovery is simply asking for an injury. Take your long run recovery seriously, so you can get back to your training.
What Might Happen if You Don’t Take Long Run Recovery Seriously
Can you relate to one of these?
- Needing to take a serious nap after a long run
- Not being able to function like a normal human being for the rest of the day
- Extreme hunger causing you to seemingly eat EVERYTHING in the house
If you have experienced any of these factors, then you might be guilty of skimping on proper long run recovery. The long run is an extreme stress on your body and should be treated as such.
Without focusing on the proper recovery, your body will lag for the rest of the day (maybe several days?), and if you don’t refuel properly, you may end up filling up on food that doesn’t support your running recovery, which leads to weight gain and feeling lousy.
How to Recover Properly from Your Long Runs
Now that you know WHY long run recovery is important, let’s talk about how to do it right.
Train at the Right Pace on Your Long Run
The faster your long run intensity, the harder it will be to recovery. Long runs by nature should be a relatively slow, easy pace.
DO NOT SKIP THIS PART!
Long run pacing is where most recreational runners go wrong. Running easy is actually hard to do, because it doesn’t feel ‘hard enough’ to be an effective workout. Instead, recreational runners intuitively push themselves to a ‘moderate’ pace, telling themselves that they are running ‘easy’.
By running easy and working strictly on your aerobic base 80% of the time you spend running, you are training a more efficient fat burning body AND allowing your body to recover faster.
Running easy is hard because you have to slow down a TON and it feels like you aren’t going anywhere.
After a while, you body will adapt, and you may be able to speed up a bit for the same effort level but use your heart rate as a guide. Don’t kid yourself into running too fast too early!
Even I fell straight into this trap. Once I got my VO2 max tested and found my true heart rate training zones, I realized I was guilty of training in the ‘moderate’ heart rate zone far too often, and not nearly enough in the ‘easy’ zone.
One more note here: Have grace with yourself after races.
During a race, you push yourself harder than in your training, for longer than in your training. It will take your body longer to recover from a race than it does to recover from a long run. Give yourself SEVERAL extra days of easy workouts. After a half marathon, go easy for a full week. After a full marathon, go easy for 2 weeks to allow adequate recovery.
Fuel Properly DURING Your Long Run for Better Recovery
“Not being able to function like a normal human being for the rest of the day.” That was me!
Learning to fuel properly DURING my long runs is how I stopped acting like a zombie for the rest of the day.
While there are some specific purposes to occasionally fueling “less” on these runs, I avoided fueling or tried to fuel “less than I should” for a long time in an effort to save calories and lose weight. Funny thing is…I got so hungry that I easily made up those calories later when my body didn’t actively need them.
I wasn’t “saving” calories at all, I was creating a zombie hunger-monster!
Read: Extreme hunger causing me to try and eat everything in the house.
It was a double whammy. Two negative side effects from my long runs because I wasn’t fueling enough. After I read The New Rules of Marathon and Half Marathon Nutrition by Matt Fitzgerald, it was a wake-up call. I was severely under-fueling my body, and I was suffering for it.
When I started fueling better during my long runs (read: actually taking in the appropriate amount of calories), I found it easier to lose weight. Sounds counterintuitive, right??
But it works. When I started taking in Matt Fitzgerald’s recommendation for 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour of long endurance running, I felt like a normal person after my run. My blood sugar levels didn’t tank, and I could control my hunger for the rest of the day. Even better, my stubborn weight started trending downward again.
If you feel “stuck,” PLEASE make sure you are fueling your runs with enough carbohydrates. Before, during, and after.
How to Fuel Your Long Runs
If you are running longer than 60-90 minutes, you need fuel. As a general guideline, you should take in 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour. Start your fueling about 45 minutes into your run, and spread your fuel out every 30-45 minutes for the rest of your run.
The type of fuel you use is up to you, depending on what works best for your stomach. You can use sports drinks, gels, chews, waffles, bars, or any combination.
If you aren’t sure where to start with running fuel, I wrote a full guide on each type of fuel and how to use them.
Immediately After Your Long Run, Take in Recovery Nutrition
Protein plus carbohydrates is the key here.
It doesn’t have to be a lot; it could just be a simple shake. Your body just burned through most of the material it had on board, so start the recovery process right away by giving it easily digestible protein and carbohydrates.
I’ve tried several different recovery drinks, and I keep coming back to Herbalife24 Rebuild Strength. It has the idea mix of protein and carbohydrates to recover, repair, and support your muscles immediately after your run. Plus, I love that it is NSF Certified for Sport, meaning that I can trust it will always be clean of any athletic-banned substances.
No Matter How Tired You Are, Take Some Time to Stretch After Your Run
This makes a huge difference!
You might feel like you just want to collapse on the floor when you finish your long run. But once you regain your senses, you really need to stretch. I usually make my recovery shake, hydrate, and stretch at the same time after my run and BEFORE I shower. Then I stretch some more in my shower.
After you shower and start functioning like a normal human being again, be sure to keep stretching throughout the day. You want to avoid your legs getting stiff, so keep moving. I like to plan my grocery shopping for the afternoon of my long run day, so I’m forced to get out and walk around to keep my legs moving and blood flowing for recovery.
Bonus methods: You can get a foam roller, massage stick, or even a massage gun to help you stretch and work the knots out of your tight post-long run muscles. One of my coworkers introduced me to the massage gun and….it’s incredible!
Plan to Refuel Your Body in the Hours Following Your Long Run
Getting a recovery shake in immediately following your run is just the start.
Plan ahead before you even leave on your run to make sure you have quality, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats for snacks and dinner in the hours after your long run. Refueling over several hours with quality nutrition is one of the best ways to help support your body’s recovery. By planning healthy meals ahead of time, you are less likely to reach for the junk food.
Take an Epsom Salt Bath for Additional Long Run Recovery
One of my favorite ways to relax and recover after later in the day after I finish a long run is to soak in an Epsom salt bath. While Epsom salt has not been scientifically proven to reduce muscle soreness, inflammation, and swelling, many athletes believe it does.
The key idea here is that an Epsom salt bath can help your body absorb magnesium through the skin, which is known to help reduce muscle soreness. Plus, relaxing in a warm bath will help you unwind and reduce cortisol after a tough workout.
Magnesium is an anti-inflammatory, so it’s a great option to help reduce swelling, joint pain, and other post-workout inflammation. It also helps reduce muscle cramping. If you find yourself suffering from muscle cramps, try increasing your magnesium intake.
Another way to increase your magnesium intake after a particularly tough workout is Nuun Rest, which I love drinking in hot water the afternoon or evening after a long run our particularly tough workout.
What is your favorite way to promote recovery after a long run?
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About Me: I’m Alexis, Founder of RunningMyBestLife! I am an avid recreational runner, half marathoner, wife, dog mom, busy professional, downhill skier in Northern Utah. My mission is to help new enthusiasts fall in love with the sport of running. I believe that running is a catalyst to taking control of your life and living your best life by design. Learn More –>