Because life doesn’t stop while you recover from your training.
Whether you cover 10K, 25, or more, your longest run of the week can take a lot out of you. But if you have other commitments beyond your training – and who doesn’t? – you probably can’t spend the rest of the day lounging around.
We asked runners and coaches who’ve trained for races marathon distance and longer how to ward off that dead-to-the-world feeling that hits after long runs.
1. Shift your scheduling.
Ideally, you’d do your long run at about the same time as your goal event, so you can practise your entire pre-race routine, says elite ultrarunner Stephanie Howe Violett. But for busy runners with kids, jobs, and other commitments, that isn’t possible every week – at least not without landing facedown in potato salad at your family reunion you have to attend the afternoon after your run.
Lisa Reichmann and Julie Sapper know this well – they are parents, marathoners, and coaches. They balance their mileage with things like kids’ football games, birthday parties and graduations.
Sometimes, “runners have to juggle their long run so they don’t end up tapped out – exhausted, and worse, injured – from running and attending all of these other commitments,” Reichmann says. She and Sapper often devise workarounds for themselves and their runners – say, moving long runs to Fridays or Mondays or even splitting the distance, logging 13 to 16 kilometres each in the morning and evening. “Not ideal but totally fine to do on occasion,” Reichmann says. “It counts, and leaves you not totally zonked for the obligation.”
Here’s one benefit of moving a long run to the afternoon: by the time you finish, you’ll have fewer hours left in the day when you’ll need to be alert.
2. Rest up, religiously.
Come into a long run sleep-deprived, and you’re much more likely to be moving like a zombie by the end. Sleep is when your body replenishes glycogen stores and repairs the damage you do while running.
Aim for at least seven to eight hours per night, and consider trying for more if you’re still dragging after a long run. Sean Meissner, an ultra runner and coach who’s completed more than 230 marathons and ultras, recalls the time he went on a road trip before a 160K race, camping out and sleeping 10 hours a night, free of alarm clocks and distractions from electronic devices. “I had the race of my life – I was so rested,” he says. “That was a real light-bulb moment for me.”
3. Slow your roll.
New to long distances? Don’t think you have to hit your goal pace throughout your long run. In most cases, your primary goal should be time on your feet – that’s how you prepare your muscles, bones and cardiovascular system to handle major mileage, says Ryan Krol, an ultra running coach.
Taking long runs at an easy, conversational pace – even sprinkling in walk breaks – serves that purpose without leaving you zonked at the end. And other active days during the week also count toward your total training load. Krol’s a fan of long backpacking hikes while he’s prepping for ultras.
Remember to keep your hard days hard and your easy days easy. “You should dread your tempo days and your intervals if you’re doing those right,” Krol says. “But your easy days and your long runs – they should be enjoyable, for the most part.”
4. Eat on the run…
Violett, who earned her Ph.D. in nutrition and exercise science at Oregon State University, won the first 160K race she ever entered, the prestigious Western States Endurance Run in 2014. “For me, the biggest confidence booster I can get is when I run on the trails all day and feel good,” she says. “Depending on terrain and how fast I’m moving, that might be 48 kilometres, that might be 80 kilometres”
To train that long, she takes care to pack plenty of fuel. She recommends about 1050 to 1250 kilojoules of carbohydrates per hour to power your muscles, keep your mind focused, and train your gut to use carbs on the move. Simple sugars from gels and blocks often work best, she says, because you can absorb the energy without digestion (a process that slows down as blood flows to your hard-working muscles).
“You can get through a long run without fuelling, though it’s not always pretty and it doesn’t always feel good,” she says. “Plus, it puts you further in the hole, so it’s just going to take that much longer to recover.”
5. …and after you’re done.
Once you’ve stopped moving, refuelling is key to warding off ensuing exhaustion, Violett says. Consuming a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein within about 30 minutes facilitates the recovery process by replenishing your muscles’ glycogen stores and helping repair muscle damage.
She recommends a sweet potato with avocado or cottage cheese or an apple with nut butter. Often, though, liquids go down more smoothly. Meissner swears by smoothies packed with ingredients like berries, spinach and protein powder. But if he’s feeling truly depleted, he’ll reach for a Coke. “I only drink it during ultras and once or twice a year after a really long, hot run, when that sugar is just magic,” he says.
Within a couple hours, sit down to a full, balanced meal with complex carbs, protein, and fats, Violett recommends. Krol says you can indulge a little after a long run. “Go for something higher-kilojoule than you might normally; order the fries instead of a side salad,” he says. Sure, there’s a delicate balance between refuelling and over-fuelling, but if there’s a time to tip it in the direction of more kilojoules, that’s after your longest effort.
6. Recovery techniques might make you more alert.
Reducing the strain on your muscles, joints, and tendons can lighten your post-run lethargy.
Start with supportive shoes: even if you prefer lighter kicks for track workouts or short races, go for a little more stability for longer efforts, Krol suggests. Bonus: Rotating shoes might reduce your risk of injury, according to a recent study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports.
Though research is still ongoing, there’s some evidence compression gear – think sleeves and boots – speeds recovery from hard efforts like long runs. Experts go back and forth on the value of an ice bath for recovery. But runners like Meissner don’t need peer-reviewed studies to know that immersing themselves in cold water makes them feel more awake and alert.
7. Then move your muscles – and mind.
Some runners swear by a catnap after a long effort; others feel it’s best to keep moving. After eating and showering, Violett does a brief stretch or yoga session to address any tight spots, then follows it with a walk to the produce stand or a bike ride to the store.
Specific yoga moves that elevate your legs above your heart keep blood flowing so it doesn’t pool in your legs, calves, or ankles, Meissner says. (One of our favorites: legs up the wall.) 32-year-old runner Ivana Savic, who’s completed four marathons and one ultra, likes to pair this with a brain-straining activity like reading The Economist or watching an astrophysics documentary. “I’m physically spent, but mentally, I’m pretty pumped and ready to solve world problems,” she says. “I love waking up the day after that long run feeling full both mentally and physically.”