Marathons are tough on your body. Sorry, but that is a fact. Recovering from a marathon is a critical component of a perfect training plan but is something that is often neglected.
Unfortunately, if you don’t properly recover from a marathon, you will increase your risk of injury, limit your long term potential and increase the risk of overtraining symptoms.
Muscles, hormones, tendons, cells, and almost every physiological system is pushed to their limits during a marathon. Muscle soreness and fatigue are the most obvious signs of damage in the days following a marathon. One scientific study conducted on the calf muscles of marathon runners found that both the training for, and the marathon itself, induce inflammation and muscle fibre necrosis (premature death of cells) that significantly impaired muscle power and durability for up to 14 days after a marathon. It will take your muscles about 2 weeks post marathon to return to full strength.
Muscle memory and coordination are also compromised. This will make repetitive stress injuries more likely when running faster/harder in the weeks after the race.
A recent study confirms that the immune system is compromised for up to three days post marathon and is a major factor in overtraining syndrome. This also increases the risk of contracting colds, flu and other illnesses
Therefore, it is important that marathon runners have a 2-week marathon recovery plan that focuses on rest, recovery and a gradual return to running.
The First Hour
Congratulations! You’ve completed your marathon. As soon as you cross the finish line (in a race or virtually) your legs go from running to ‘incapable of movement’. However, don’t stop! Recovery starts now and the best thing you can do is to keep moving. Slow is fine but keep moving.
Get yourself into some clean, dry clothes and comfortable shoes as soon as you can (if you are travelling to your marathon, remember to take everything with you). Some people swear by recovery shoes, compression tights or other products to aid recovery. If they work for you then change in to them as soon as you can.
Walk for at least 10-15 minutes to cool down, instead of sitting down immediately. This will help two major issues:
- Low blood pressure often occurs immediately after a sudden stop. This will make you feel dizzy or possibly faint.
- Walking will promote blood flow to clear your muscles and blood stream of by-products caused by the marathon (lactate, cortisol, adrenaline, etc).
At most marathons, there will be fluids and food available at the finish line. Take advantage of these or have something either in your kit bag or with your supporters. Focus on the following:
- You are probably dehydrated. Start drinking fluids as soon as possible.
- Focus on carbohydrate-rich foods. I know that you have probably had enough of these with your carb-loading, but you have just run 26.2 miles and you have burnt a lot of energy.
- If possible, include something with protein in it to help to start to repair damaged muscles.
- While the perfect advice is to eat a large nutritious meal, realistically any high sugar or processed food will help to start the refuelling. Treat yourself.
Later That Day
As per my previous advice on keeping moving, a shower is often better for your recovery than a bath on marathon day. With a shower, you are staying on your feet and it is easier to continue to promote blood flow through your muscles. The best way to do this is a contrast shower.
A contrast shower is simple. Just alternate between hot and cold water. The hot water dilates your blood vessels and increases blood circulation. The cold water constricts your blood vessels and decreases blood flow. The contrast of the two creates a pump effect that further flushes your muscles and blood of the by-products of your marathon (lactate, cortisol, adrenaline, etc).
- Start with a hot shower (don’t let it burn) for 2 to 3 minutes
- Slowly turn down the water temperature from hot to cold
- Take a cold shower for 1 minute
- Repeat the hot and cold cycle for 10 minutes
- Place the water stream on any painful or sore areas for added relief.
The cold water may be a bit of a shock at first, but you soon get used to it.
After your shower it is time for more substantial food, especially if you were unable to east much straight after finishing. As with earlier, while best advice is to eat a big nutritious meal, just eating is best. The ideal is a mix of carbohydrates and proteins in a 3:1 mix. Being honest, often my go-to post-marathon meal has been a large burger and chips from a motorway service station on the way home (burger has protein, bap and chips are carbs)!
Depending on what time you finish your marathon, think about having an afternoon nap. Sleep is the best time for the body to repair muscle and generally recover.
Finally, go to sleep earlier and ideally try to get as much sleep as possible. Your body will thank you for it tomorrow.
The Next Day
After a (hopefully) good night’s sleep you will be ready to continue your recovery.
Aim for some form of active recovery today. No running though! If you have access, swimming or cycling on a static bike can be a good form of active recovery. You are not looking to build or improve fitness, but just to move your muscles.
If you do not have access to a pool or static bike, go for a gentle walk for 30 minutes. Once again, this is in no way a training session or power-hike. It is a gentle walk. If you have any niggles (not aches, these are normal) or really sore spots, stop the exercise.
Now is also a good time to get a massage. Keep it light. Deep tissue massage at this point can be detrimental to muscles that are trying to repair damage. You want the massage to promote blood-flow. Deep tissue massages are best kept for 1 to 2 weeks later.
Make sure you still keep sleep as a priority and keep eating, even if you have to get back to work. If your job involves sitting at a desk, try to take breaks where you can stand up and move around. Easy movement is good in the days after a marathon so that your joints do not stiffen and your muscles continue to have blood flowing through them.
The Next Few Days
Stick with prioritising sleep and food, but now try to start getting back to a more normal way of eating as the week goes on.
Keep cycling and swimming if you can and also include walks. and as the week goes on, increase your walks from 30 minutes up to 45 minutes if your legs are starting to recover. Listen to your body and if your legs say no, stop and go home.
When you can comfortably walk for 45 minutes, it may be the time to try a very easy run the following day (not before Thursday though). When you do feel ready to run, aim for a 20-30 minute run. The goal of the first run is to test how your legs feel. If your legs feel really heavy or if anything hurts, stop and walk home and give your recovery a few more days before trying again.
You are not proving anything to anyone by running earlier, further or faster than your legs want to. Park your ego as if you don’t respect your recovery, the injury, illness or overtraining symptoms mentioned earlier are likely to come back and get you in a few weeks. Now is not the time to test if you are invincible. Remember that muscle memory and coordination are compromised. This will make repetitive stress injuries more likely if you don’t allow recovery.
Week Two Onwards
When your running does feel comfortable and niggle free, you can employ a reverse taper (build up miles in the opposite way you tapered prior to your marathon). Do not try to do too much too soon and don’t try to run hard or race unless you feel 100% recovered.
I’ll reiterate it again, be sensible and you will be able to continue running with no extra risk of injury.
Make sure that you are recovered first. So, I wouldn’t advise booking any races in the first 2-3 weeks after your marathon.
Some people can suffer from post-marathon blues. You’ve invested so much time and energy in to your running that you may feel a bit of a void. When you feel like this, it is then good to have a focus to get you back running again so go and look at some races and see what you want to do next.
Some people will only do one marathon a year and then focus on shorter races. Others use a marathon as a stepping stone to an ultra. Some will just want to continue enjoying their running. Some people may want to better their finish time and look for accountability. A few of my clients came to me after marathons wanting to improve in future races.
Whatever will motivate you to keep running after you’ve recovered from the marathon, please keep going. Completing a marathon is a big achievement so don’t waste all of that fitness you’ve built over the last few months.
- Enjoy basking in the glory of completing your marathon
- Recovery sensibly or pay later
- Enjoy your future running
I hope that you can take something away from this blog. I would love to hear your thoughts and I’ve set up a very supportive Facebook Community where like-minded people can share their experiences of life and exercising. Please feel free to join and invite others you know who may be interested.
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