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Racing Recovery: The Reverse Taper

It’s fall! All that summer training and those miles that you sweated for during the long hot days of August are coming to fruition. Many people have decided to make the move from their usual diet of 5Ks and 10Ks and are planning to take advantage of the chill in the air by challenging themselves with their first half or full marathon. If that describes you, read on.

First, I hope your preparation has been going well. You’ve probably already found a great training group and coach who can share the journey with you. (If not, I suggest that you should try the Fleet Feet training groups! I’m not going to be giving you any advice today about training for those distances. Instead, I am going to give you some advice on your postgame. Here’s what you should do after your marathon or half marathon to ensure that you fully recover and emerge stronger for your next challenge.

It’s easy to overlook but a structured recovery program is probably just as important as your initial training program. You should think of your recovery from a half- or full-marathon as a “reverse taper.” Bottom line: proceed with patience.

Your self-care should start immediately after the race. Once you have crossed the finish line, keep standing and walking for a while. Hydrate and keep hydrating. Eat a mix of carbohydrates and protein to replenish your carbohydrate storage and start the process of muscle repair. Even if you are not chilled, take one of those ubiquitous finish-line Mylar blankets and use it. (On a cool fall day after high exertion, your body can be susceptible to hypothermia.) Try some easy stretching or go hit the massage tent. You’ve earned some pampering and your muscles will thank you for it in the days that follow.


                     This…                                                     Not this

Once you’re back home, you are ready to start your reverse taper. Creating the basic conditions for recovery might seem obvious, but even experienced runners forget to get plenty of sleep so their bodies can heal more quickly. Completing a long-distance race challenges the immune system, so it is a good idea to get plenty of rest and eat healthily. Otherwise, you might wind up getting a procession of minor illnesses and that’s no fun.

But what you really want to know (because you like to run): how long before I can run again? Conventional running wisdom dictates that you take one day of recovery for every mile you have raced. That doesn’t mean that you should spend the next twenty-six days on the couch, but it does mean that your workouts for the next month are going to be structured to provide maximum recovery.

There are some good reasons to take it a little easier. Excessive soreness and stiffness can lead to an altered running gait, which can result in injury. Yes, you might feel that your endurance is fantastic. (In fact, it probably is.) However, your muscle memory will continue to be compromised if you have a hitch in your step or a foot that you are favoring. These small motor realignments that your body uses to protect damaged parts potentially will throw your mechanics off for a long time to come. Moreover, actual muscle damage from your longer race efforts can take up to two weeks to heal. The few weeks after a race, therefore, offers high injury potential and little positive payoff. Use your common sense and slowly return to running.

Aside from 15-30 minutes of very light exercise the day after your marathon to combat delayed onset muscle soreness, you should not run during the first three days after your race. Studies have demonstrated that those who just walk during the first week of their marathon recovery will recover more quickly ( There’s no rush to get back to running.

After a week of light walking, you should be ready to resume cardio exercise. Start with some light aerobic cross training such as pool running, cycling, or light strength and flexibility exercises. Enjoy the change of pace.

On day ten or eleven post-race, feel free to take a short and easy “diagnostic run” to determine how your body feels. You might feel rusty, clunky, and uncoordinated –– it’s not the time off talking but the lingering fatigue of your recent race exertion. I recommend turning off the watch and tuning in to maintaining a low-intensity effort. Take the opportunity to really observe your surroundings and enjoy a 3Cs run: “comfortable, controlled, and conversational.”

If you can run without pain or altering your gait, then it is fine to start adding some time to your easy runs. The goal is merely to do some consistent running without attention to distance or pace. You are recovering and this is what your body needs.

By week three of your reverse taper, you can add some additional time and even step up the pace. Feel free to throw in some tempo runs at 15-30 seconds faster than your marathon pace. Be sure, however, to assess how you are feeling. If your running is smooth and relatively unlabored, you can increase both speed and distance during your fourth week of recovery. Remember, though, that the majority of your runs should still feel very easy. You’re still at a higher risk of injury and your body is still repairing, so do yourself a favor and don’t overdo it.

Week three of the reverse taper should still be easy

During the next several weeks of your reverse taper, you can add strides and distance. Always be sure to assess how you are feeling. If in doubt, step back from running for several days –– there is no need to rush the recovery process. By week six, you can start to plan for your next goal race and start to incorporate some speed and interval workouts into your routine. You are just about fully recovered and can enter into a new training program.

The reverse taper is all about giving your body enough time to recover from the muscular-skeletal and immunological stress of racing long distances. Be sure to keep track of what has and has not worked during your reverse taper so you can apply it next time. (Yet another reason to be keeping that training journal!)

You need to keep track of what works for you

If the reverse taper is so important and if there’s strong anecdotal and scientific research to support the practice, why do so many runners resist? Speaking only for myself, I am always tempted to take advantage of my training and keep “training through,” particularly if my goal race went well. (And if it goes poorly, I feel like I need to get back to the salt mines to work a little harder and improve.) Many runners, including me, have learned the hard way that it is better to back off and give our bodies some time to recover so that we can eventually run stronger longer.

Have you had success with the reverse taper? Any advice that you would like to convey? Please tell us all about it in the comments.

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