Using Food to Aid Recovery After Endurance Events

With the NYC Marathon coming up shortly (less than a week now!), all you long distance runners and competitors out there have (hopefully) already been knee-deep in training, planning your meals, and all the other frantic preparation that leads up to a massive event like this. Have you thought about what do to after the race?

I'm not sure everyone pays as much attention to what they're going to do after they finish a marathon or endurance event. All the training workouts, pre-event nutrition, compression socks, running shorts, braces, perfect shoes.... they're definitely important. However, many athletes I have worked with the in the past didn't pay as much attention to their post-workout refueling. Some would gorge on empty calories and junk food, with the entitlement that they "earned it." It's hard to argue with someone who ran just over 26 miles, but when they called me to report stomach aches, nausea, muscle pain, fatigue and more, that was all the evidence they needed.

Other runners continue eating the way they were during training and on race day, which is usually too much food and the wrong types of food for recovery. Unless you're running another event and maintaing the rigorous training schedule you were before your marathon event (or any other endurance event), you likely do not need to keep eating the same meal plan after the event is over.

Let's take a minute to discuss recovery drinks, snacks and meals. We talked about recovery drinks in my blog post last week, so check that out now if you haven't already.

Recovery snacks are the things you'll typically eat immediately after finishing an event, once you have began rehydration and rest. These are things that provide carbohydrates, protein and additional electrolytes. Just like the sports drinks, there are plenty of packaged products on the market for this purpose. If you're invested in eating clean and saving money, here are some suggestions for recovery snacks:

  • Smoothie made from low-fat yogurt and frozen fruit of your choice (try cherries to help reduce inflammation and pain after the event). You can add a scoop of protein powder if you'd prefer, but stick with one that provides no more than 15g of protein per scoop.
  • With your favorite homemade sports drink, try a sports bar that contains both protein and carbs. This can be as simple as making cookies with protein powder, like these High Protein Oatmeal Cookies. If you already have a bar you trust, stick with that. 
  • My personal favorite: crackers with nut butter, a medium banana and low-fat chocolate milk. My clients prefer a variety of items like graham crackers with almond butter, rice crackers with cashew butter, etc. This combination leaves much room for personalization and special dietary concerns. It's also easy to find and transport.

So, you've rehydrated, cooled-down, and had your snack. Eventually, you will need a full meal. You may not have much of an appetite, but it's important to continue to replete what was lost during your race, and to refuel your muscle fuel, repair damaged muscle tissues and promote the growth of new muscle tissue. It's pretty awesome food can do all these things, isn't it? Again, we're focusing on carbohydrates and protein here, but in larger quantities. Equally as important are fruits and vegetables, which are full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, all of which your body requires to repair and grow cells and tissues, boost energy, and properly utilize your food intake.

Whether you're eating at home and crashing into a deep sleep, or going out to celebrate with friends and family, these examples of recovery meals should strike your fancy:

  • Whole wheat pita sandwich with low-fat turkey or flaked tuna, stuffed with vegetables (lettuce, tomatoes, onions, peppers, etc.) + pretzels + low-fat milk or milk substitute. 
    • If you pick a milk substitute, like rice milk or almond milk, add additional protein to your sandwich. Example: one extra slice of turkey.
  • Quinoa bowl with black beans, cheese, salsa (or roasted peppers), avocado + whole grain tortilla chips or tortilla
  • Asian stir-fry with lean, grass-fed beef + brown rice + bell peppers + broccoli + carrots, etc. 
    • If you're a vegetarian, try substituting tempeh or edamame. 


Try your best to refrain from alcohol after your event for at least a day or two. Seasoned competitors know when they can tolerate having a drink or two, but if you're a  new competitor and/or don't consume alcohol frequently, it's best to avoid it until you are mostly recovered. Alcohol can dehydrate, interrupt sleep patterns and digestion, and more. If you can't avoid the celebratory drinks, try a white wine spritzer or hard cider, both of which are low in alcohol content, thus higher in water content. Other fluids being consumed during this time should be mainly water, but homemade sports drinks and milk are OK in moderation, with calorie content being taken into consideration.

Finally, treat yourself! You have worked hard for months, maybe years to finish this event, and you definitely have earned a treat. Everyone's personal reward will be different. The mental benefits of rewarding yourself will improve your training and performance in the long-run. 

In the days following, make sure you've properly allowed your body to rest. Unless you're working with your coach to bounce right into another event, you should make sure you have at least one week of light workouts, stretching or yoga and plenty of sleep. Refer to my article on how much to eat based on the type of training you are doing to make sure you're on track with your nutritional goals.

Get more tips and information on sports nutrition here. Some of the information in this article was inspired by the "Eating For Recovery" handout provided by the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition dietetic practice group.

Best of luck to you all on your next upcoming big event. If you've got a favorite recovery drink, snack or meal, please share it below! 


Eat Well, Live Well.

-Rebekah Langford, RD, CDN





Rebekah is a Registered Dietitian/Culinary Nutritionist from the NYC area, who is currently accepting new clients. She earned two culinary degrees at Johnson & Wales University, followed by a dietetic internship and fellowship at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. She has worked in hotels, restaurants, top hospitals and private homes in Washington, Rhode Island, Tennessee  New York City and more. She specializes in eating disorders, sports nutrition, food allergies, vegan/vegetarian nutrition, baking and culinary nutrition. Her favorite past-times are gardening, trying new restaurants and bars, television  and playing with her Frenchie, Penelope Tuesday.