Here’s what running experts say about post-run recovery—and how to do it right.
Why is post-run recovery important?
After a tough run, your first inclination may be to collapse onto the couch and reward yourself with a carb-heavy dinner. However, your training isn’t over quite yet: Post-run recovery is essential for minimizing your risk of injury.
“Post-run recovery allows for the whole body to gradually return to normal,” says Ioona Felix, PT, a board-certified sports and orthopedic physical therapist who works with runners at Thrive Integrated Physical Therapy in New York City. “This process will minimize soreness and tightness, reducing the risk of injuries.”
Recovery also helps to decrease inflammation, improve your range of motion, and optimize your performance, adds Felix.
In fact, your greatest gains may come from what you do after you clock in miles.
“As with most forms of exercise, the majority of running benefits come about as a result of the recovery period,” says Ingrid Anderson, PT, an Atlanta-based physical therapist who works with runners. “At this time, a host of mechanisms in the body respond to the stresses and challenges of the exercise to prepare for similar activity in the future.”
In the hours and days after running, the body heals damaged tissues and builds up muscle fibers, tendons, ligaments, bone, and blood vessels, adds Anderson.
This is also the time when your cells adjust to the demands of exercise by enhancing their ability to use oxygen and manufacturing certain proteins to maintain and improve functioning under stress.
8 ways to recover after a run
1. Cool down properly
In recent years, there’s been debate around the need for a cool-down after workouts. A 2018 review in the journal Sports Medicine found that active cool-downs don’t seem to make a significant difference in performance or injury prevention. However, cooling down may have some small benefits in removing lactic acid (which is a byproduct of burning glucose for energy while exercising that causes muscle fatigue and soreness) from your blood faster and helping your immune, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems recover more quickly.
Although more research is needed, many experts and organizations still recommend cool-downs. The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests cooling down after a workout to help gradually slow down your heartbeat, adding that if you stop too quickly, you could feel sick or even pass out.
“Continuing at a slower pace by walking or jogging allows the body to adjust to the changing demands and return to normal operations faster,” says Anderson. “Sudden decreases in activity can cause blood pressure to drop because there is less muscular action pumping blood to the heart.”
Since this continued activity maintains a somewhat elevated level of blood flow to your muscles, they receive a steady flow of oxygen and nutrients (while excess metabolic waste products and CO2 are removed from circulation more quickly), adds Anderson. This helps your body’s overall chemical environment normalize faster after a run.
2. Replenish with the right nutrition
When you run, your body burns through calories from fat, carbohydrates, and proteins that circulate in the bloodstream and are stored in muscles, says Anderson. Usually, the primary measure of how much metabolic fuel is available for use is found in the amount of glucose in your bloodstream (also known as blood sugar).
As that glucose gets depleted, you end up low on fuel—which can cause fatigue, weakness, shaking, or even fainting. Plus, as your muscles and joints work during a run, they get pulled, compressed, and exposed to impact. The resulting damage needs proteins and minerals like calcium for repair.
“Having a post-workout snack or meal helps to replenish the supply of water, electrolytes, glucose, proteins, and minerals in the body,” says Anderson. “Food choices to refuel and replenish after a demanding workout may include fruit, nuts, a garden salad with leafy greens and dressing, or something as simple as cheese and crackers.”
Combining carbohydrates with proteins can help your body replenish glycogen and repair tissue, per a January review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Even though there are plenty of new sports formulations on the market, you don’t need these recovery products if you consume enough carbohydrates at multiple intervals throughout your post-exercise recovery.
To pinpoint the right amounts of macronutrients for your body and training schedule, speak to a registered dietitian nutritionist.
3. Hydrate with plenty of water
As part of your post-run recovery, make sure you’re replenishing your body’s water.
Your body uses water to regulate temperature and muscle performance since it’s the main component of both sweat and blood plasma.
“While we do not commonly think of blood as part of our body's cooling mechanism, dilating blood vessels move heat from within muscles and other organs closer to the surface of the skin, especially in the extremities,” adds Anderson. “This allows heat to dissipate as well and reduces heat-induced stresses on those tissues.”
During a run, your blood flow also increases to muscles that are actively being used for exercise. The amount of water needed to carry through all these tasks can be significant.
Plus, certain track and field events like endurance racing carry a high risk of dehydration—and if you lose more than two percent of your body weight from sweating, it could potentially hinder your performance, per a 2019 study in International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. Runners often train and compete in hot environments, where hydration and fluid balance become key.
“If you are a serious runner, it’s a best practice to work with a sports nutritionist or dietitian to develop a bespoke hydration and fueling plan for various running distances and weather conditions,” says Felix. “Optimizing your performance, as well as your recovery, depends highly on the right balance of fluids, electrolytes, and carbohydrates.”
4. Stretch gently
First, it’s important to note that more research is needed to determine if post-run stretching has benefits and what those may be. For instance, there was no evidence that static stretching helped to speed up recovery after a workout in a 2021 review published in Frontiers in Physiology.
However, many run coaches and other experts still recommend it. With each step taken during a run, the muscles of the lower body contract, shortening to perform the work of moving the body forward, says Anderson. As a result, muscles can become tighter and stiffer at rest.
Too much tension in your muscles reduces your range of motion. This increases the chances of a strain injury and can negatively impact proper posture and movement.
“To reduce the risk of tight muscles causing problems like this and to keep joints moving well, it is important to stretch after running,” says Anderson.
But remember: As a runner, your entire body needs love after a workout.
“It is not just our legs that are doing the work,” says Felix. “Our core, back, and arms are involved and you should be thorough when targeting these areas.”
An added note: Static stretching—the kind where you hold a certain position for some time—should only be used as part of cool-down routines to help prevent injury, per the Hospital for Special Surgery. Static stretching before a race or long run can hinder your body from reacting quickly and negatively affect your performance. Stick to dynamic stretching, the kind where you’re continuously moving as you stretch, before your run.
5. Massage sore muscles
Treat yourself to a DIY massage with a foam roller after your run: It may help in recovery after training by lowering muscle soreness and increasing pain tolerance, per a 2020 review in Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies.
“Rolling out your muscles with a foam roller will help with stimulating blood flow,” says Ceren Kalyon, a running coach certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association and National Academy of Sports Medicine, who leads Alo Moves’ running series, Ready, Set, Run.
In fact, foam rolling on the side of the thigh led to a 74-percent increase in blood flow improvement immediately and a 53-percent improvement after 30 minutes compared to not foam rolling in a small 2017 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
Blood flow is important for muscle recovery because it provides the muscle with fresh blood and oxygen and sends muscle waste back to the kidneys, which leads to a quicker recovery and less soreness, per the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Another small 2015 study in the Journal of Athletic Training found that men who did squats and used a foam roller afterward felt less thigh muscle tenderness—and also performed better in activities like sprinting.
If you have questions about how to foam roll or if it’s right for your routine, speak with a personal trainer or physical therapist.
6. Go ahead and relax
Try not to jump right into chores or work after your run. Instead, take a moment to jumpstart your recovery by centering yourself in relaxing breaths.
“After your run, simple breathing exercises help decompress both your body and mind, but also aid in your recovery by increasing blood flow and oxygen to your muscles,” says Felix. “During your cool-down stretching or yoga, take a few deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.”
Incorporating rest throughout your training routine is also critical.
“Your muscle tissue, joints, and bones all need time to recover from the intense stress running places on the body,” adds Felix. “The amount of rest depends on your age, frequency, duration, and experience level. As a rule of thumb, you should consider at least one to two days of rest after a long run—and potentially longer if you are an older runner.”
7. Get enough sleep
Your recovery also happens when you’re catching zzzs at night.
“The importance of solid sleep cannot be understated for runners,” says Felix. “The reality is that significant physiological activities occur during the sleep cycle. Hormones are excreted that aid muscle growth as well as repair cellular and tissue damage.”
When 20 athletes completed a 12-minute running exercise after a regular night’s sleep versus just four hours of sleep, they ran more slowly, less far, and had decreased cognitive functions like reaction time, mood, and concentration when they'd slept less, per a 2020 study in the journal Physiology & Behavior. Their body responses like core temperature and heart rate were also lower with less sleep.
“A good night's sleep is important for your body to perform to the best of its ability,” says Kalyon. How much sleep you need depends on several factors such as age, gender, and fitness level, FYI.
8. Consider cold therapy
If you haven’t already, consider taking the plunge to try cold therapy after a run.
“The best way to reduce inflammation and soothe sore muscles is to try a cold plunge or ice bath,” says Kalyon. “Professional athletes and marathon runners do this to help speed up their recoveries.”
Although more studies are needed, some research points toward the benefits of this long-standing practice. Cold water significantly decreased runners’ perceptions of muscle soreness and exercise effort level right after the workout—and lowered levels of lactate (a byproduct of exercise) after 24 and 48 hours, per a 2023 review in Frontiers in Physiology.
Don’t linger for too long, though: It’s best to start with a 5-minute cold plunge and to stay in it no longer than 10 minutes. Most of the benefits are found within the first few minutes, anyhow, and taper off after the three-minute mark, per the Cleveland Clinic.
Check with your doctor before you jump in, though, because cold baths can be potentially dangerous for those with underlying conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
- Van Hooren, B., & Peake, J.M. “Do We Need a Cool-Down After Exercise? A Narrative Review of the Psychophysiological Effects and the Effects on Performance, Injuries and the Long-Term Adaptive Response.” Sports Medicine, vol. 48, 2018, pp. 1575–1595. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-018-0916-2.
- Bonilla, Diego A et al. “The 4R’s Framework of Nutritional Strategies for Post-Exercise Recovery: A Review with Emphasis on New Generation of Carbohydrates.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 18,1 103. 25 Dec. 2020, doi:10.3390/ijerph18010103
- Casa, Douglas J et al. “Fluid Needs for Training, Competition, and Recovery in Track-and-Field Athletes.” International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism vol. 29,2 (2019): 175-180. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.2018-0374
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- Hendricks, Sharief, et al. “Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery: A Systematic Review of the Literature to Guide Practitioners on the Use of Foam Rolling.” Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, vol. 24, no. 2, April 2020, pp. 151-174. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbmt.2019.10.019.
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- Pearcey, Gregory E P et al. “Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures.” Journal of athletic training vol. 50,1 (2015): 5-13. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-50.1.01
- Lopes, Thiago Ribeiro et al. “How much does sleep deprivation impair endurance performance? A systematic review and meta-analysis.” European journal of sport science vol. 23,7 (2023): 1279-1292. doi:10.1080/17461391.2022.2155583
- Souissi, Wajdi et al. “Partial sleep deprivation affects endurance performance and psychophysiological responses during 12-minute self-paced running exercise.” Physiology & behavior vol. 227 (2020): 113165. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2020.113165
- Xiao, Feiyan et al. “Effects of cold water immersion after exercise on fatigue recovery and exercise performance–meta analysis.” Frontiers in physiology vol. 14 1006512. 20 Jan. 2023, doi:10.3389/fphys.2023.1006512
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