I wrote this thinking about the women in my life that I know. I’ve seen my friends cross the finish line, and before they’ve even caught their breath, they’re back into real life, making sure the kids have snacks and are ready to get home, all while still sweat-soaked. But post-race recovery and actual enjoyment of your racing accomplishment should start long before race day, especially for busy people with demanding jobs and families. Now, because I don’t have kids and I generally can work from anywhere, post-race has never been a major issue for me since I can post up on whatever couch is closest, open my laptop, and be back to work within an hour of finishing a race if I have to. But a) that’s not always a good thing, and b) that’s not the case for everyone, obviously. While that sounds great, it can be a problem since it means the lines between racing, recovering and getting back to real life get blurred, and often towards the end of races, I find my mind wandering to an article I’m working on, rather than focusing on the finish.
I also have a tendency that I think is common for women, especially Type A women: When I finish a big race, I have a feeling similar to that of a new school year, or New Years Eve. I have the urge to reorganize my entire life, clean out my desk and wardrobe, rearrange things, and generally make sweeping changes. Again, this is not overly helpful on the road to recovering from a race in a way that celebrates your effort and lets your body have a break. (Moving furniture is rarely the best thing to do the day after Ironman.)
What does a good post-race look like?
So, a good post-race starts with setting yourself up for post-race success by planning some R&R ahead of time. You may not be able to plan a vacation from family or work in addition to doing your race, but think about what you can do. A good friend of mine ran 100 kilometers on a local trail, and rather than finishing and heading home to her three young kids, she had made plans to stay at a friend’s house overnight to recover solo instead. This gave her a chance to savor the run, get some sleep without three kids demanding her attention, and wake up relaxed and rested in order to head back home into the everyday demands on her time. This 12-hour break—not long!—made a huge difference in her ability to recover faster. For me with my last race, I had 2 days of travel to cool my jets about an entire life overhaul, and it was definitely for the best.
Especially for parents, even a couple hours post-race can make a difference. While it’s adorable and exciting to have your young kids at the finish line, if you can avoid having to go right into mom or dad-mode the second you cross that line, you’ll be able to recover better. Talk to your partner or whoever is watching the kids while you race beforehand about your hope for post-race. It’s great to see and hug your kiddos, but if you can then have an hour or two to get cleaned up, have some food, and maybe put your feet up or have a nap before you’re back to primary parent mode, you’ll feel more rested and rejuvenated. It’s a small thing, and may even sound kind of obvious to many of you reading this, but I’ve seen a lot of parents cross the finish line and immediately have to dive back into dealing with fighting siblings, crying babies, or grumpy spouses who didn’t really understand how long your race was or how you’d be feeling afterward.
The same thing applies when it comes to work. Try to give yourself at least the rest of the day off of work if possible—whether you did a 5K or a 100-miler, if you pushed yourself to your limits, you really aren’t in a good position to be sending critical emails anyway. Racing takes a huge amount of physical, mental and emotional energy, so you really need some time to level off. No one wants to get a Slack message from an exhausted racer, trust me.
Now that we’ve talked about making some space for yourself after your race, what do you actually do with those couple of hours, or bonus evening/day off?
Get clean and comfortable
First, let’s start with the basics of hygiene before anything else. Get the heck out of your sweaty clothes. If you’re sticking around the race venue, do a quick wipe down with a towel, rinse your face, armpits and nether regions to get rid of some of the caked in sweat (and prevent yeast infections!). It goes without saying that you should change into dry, comfortable clothes. If you tend to have sensitive skin, I highly recommend something loose for your bottom layer—maxi dress or sweatpants or shorts rather than tights, which can be painful if you have any chafing, stubble, or ingrown hairs. I’m also a fan of a loose top where you can forgo a sports bra, or at minimum swap it out for a very forgiving bralette.
I’m also a fan of letting your feet breath. For a warm weather race, I love a very minimal sandal post-race, just to let my blistered, sweat-soaked, wrinkly feet dry out. For a cooler race day, I’m all about my North Face booties that offer plenty of space to wiggle my toes while staying cozy in a down blanket-y topper. Uggs will also do the trick! I’ve made the mistake of bringing extra sneakers to a race, and ouch.
Again, the longer your race, the more important prioritizing comfort post-race becomes, but I’ve been pretty cracked from short events too. And why spend time after your race not feeling comfortable? The comfier and more climate-controlled (whether it’s hot or cold out) you are, the more fun you can have hanging out with friends at the venue.
Once that’s done, whether you did a 5K or a 100-miler, it’s important to rehydrate and refuel as appropriate for the effort you put out. For a 5K, that might mean just sipping a protein shake or some kind of smaller snack plus some water or an electrolyte drink, with plans to eat a full meal soon. I’ve found that weirdly, the longer the race, the less hungry I am at the finish, likely thanks to a slightly upset stomach and gut from all the work I’ve just asked of my body, so I tend to not be great at eating when I need it the most. Because of this, I’m much more particular about having the right stuff on hand for post-long events.
Everyone has to figure out what works for them, but I try to have a blend of less-healthy ‘snacks I might want’ as well as healthy ‘easy to eat’ options. I learned this the hard way after my first Ironman 10 years ago, where I didn’t think through my post-race snack and ended up in a grocery store at 10PM wandering the aisles trying and failing to find something I thought my stomach could handle, probably because I was in such a hunger haze that everything seemed good but also, nothing seemed good. (The upshot was that I ended up literally crying in the shower as I drank veggie broth from a can when we finally made it back to our hotel room.)
So, with that lesson learned, my post-race for a 50K or something similar could be something like a chocolate milkshake from McDonalds along with a warm chicken or veggie broth with added collagen. But in my post-race bag, I’ll have a few options: collagen and whey protein, electrolyte tablets, a can of Coke, salt and vinegar chips, some kind of pastry or cookie, broth if that’s going to be possible to quickly warm up (or a thermos ahead of time if it’s a colder race situation) and maybe some savory veggie/hummus/pita kind of situation. Having a buffet of options sounds a little extra, but it does guarantee that calories get in quickly. (Psst… Feel free to hit the beer tent if you’re into it, but also make sure you get some kind of protein in there as well. It gets messy otherwise!)
Check the weather as well: ice water is the best thing you’ll ever taste if you’re racing in anything above 55 degrees, while warm broth or tea or hot chocolate will make you so, so happy on a cold day. We even keep a small camp stove in the car for these races! You can get a cheap setup for under $30 including propane and an inexpensive stove and pot, and in minutes, you can have a hot beverage ready to go.
It sounds a bit counterintuitive when you really don’t want to eat, but I’ve found that the sooner you can eat, the less stomach issues you’ll have later. Go too long without eating and you’ll end up in a vicious cycle of your tummy hurting too much to eat, but hurting because you’re not eating. (This happened to me at my second Ironman, and it was not pretty. It also took days to come back from, and I still think if I had just managed to sip a protein shake at the finish line, I would have bounced back much faster.)
So, bottom line, try to eat and drink post-race ASAP, and the longer/harder the race, the more important that becomes.
Rest and digest
Your body needs a break. Whether you can actually nap or not, try to have something relatively chill on the schedule for the hours post-race. I’ve done a few races where I’ve literally been reporting from the second I crossed the finish line, or trying to get out to see a bunch of people ASAP because we were all in town, and I’ve noticed that it crushes my energy for days afterwards. If I had just taken an hour or two to stay chill post-race, it likely would have made a massive difference. Your body needs time to down-regulate, regardless of event duration. I realize sometimes, I take better care of myself after hard workouts or long runs at home than I do at races, simply because when I get home from those, it’s easier to have my food/shower/couch right there.
No time? Just take 5 minutes in your car/washroom/wherever, hiding away from everyone to do some deep breathing with your eyes closed, trying to bring your heart rate down.
OK, now that we’ve taken care of the physical stuff…
It might be by yourself, it might be phoning a partner/friend/parent, it might just be doing a little dance or fist pump. But take a sec and acknowledge your achievement, regardless of how the race went.
Make your post-race notes
Record a note and send it to your future self, or jot down some thoughts. Of course, you’ll also want to record this for a coach if you have one. Take a few minutes as soon as you can post-race to just do a quick brain dump in your notes app or by recording video or audio with everything you can think of about the race. Fueling, weather, pacing, gear issues, whatever comes to mind—no detail is too small!
The more you can write down while it’s still fresh in your mind, the easier it is to look back ands start making positive or negative connections, i.e you start to notice that one flavor of gel always gives you heartburn, or there’s one pair of shorts that seems to help you avoid chafe regardless of the weather. Think through how the race went from training ahead of time to tapering to the night before/day of to gear to in-race pacing and nutrition. For some people, this tends to be a bit on the negative side and it quickly turns into a depressing exercise. If this is you, start by listing five things that went well or that you were happy with, even if it’s tough to think of in the moment. (Read mine from my most recent race)
Set a reminder
If you plan on doing this same race again, you’ll want to be able to access your notes from the race. And all too often, we do the diligent post-race notes but we don’t actually save them in a place where we’ll think to check next season. There are a few ways to send your future self a message about gear, tactics, race day, the organizers, the super long port-a-potty line or climb at the start, or what you ate during the race that was just right.
Personally, I love the idea of using Google Calendars to make an event a few days before next year’s race day with “RACE DAY INTEL” as the title. In the notes section of the event, copy whatever notes you wrote to yourself about the race. Set an email reminder so you won’t miss it. Bonus points if you record a video of yourself giving your future self those post race notes and a pep talk, put it in Drive, and add a link to that to your calendar for the week ahead of the race next year.
Your future racing self thanks you.
Before you go, check out our book, Becoming A Consummate Athlete, right here: