How to Recover after a Marathon
Recovering from a marathon is a critical component to a perfect training plan that runners often neglect. Unfortunately, if you don’t properly recover from your marathon, you’ll increase you injury risk and limit your long-term potential – making it harder to break your PR and stay healthy.
As a running coach, I’ve heard all the arguments from athletes wanting to jump back into training or racing immediately after their race. More often than not, runners who do not follow a proper post marathon recovery plan find their subsequent performances stagnating or they suffer from overtraining symptoms.
To help guide you to the proper marathon recovery plan, this article will outline the science behind post marathon fatigue, so you can feel comfortable knowing you’re preparing your body for optimal performance down the road. Then, I am going to provide you with the optimal post marathon recovery plan to help get you back on your feet as quickly as possible.
Marathon Recovery – The Science
Marathons are tough on the body – there’s no way to sugar coat this fact. Muscles, hormones, tendons, cells, and almost every physiological system is pushed to the max during a marathon race. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Boston qualifier or it’s your first marathon, 26.2 miles is 26.2 miles and your body has undergone tremendous physical duress. Here is a list of some of the scientifically measured physiological systems that are most effected after a marathon and how long each takes to fully repair.
Muscles soreness and fatigue are the most obvious case of damage caused by running the marathon distance. One scientific study conducted on the calf muscles of marathon runners concluded that both the intensive training for, and the marathon itself, induce inflammation and muscle fiber necrosis that significantly impaired muscle power and durability for up the 14 days post marathon. Accordingly, it will take your muscles about 2 weeks post marathon to return to full strength.
Cellular damage post marathon, which includes oxidative damage, increased production of creatinine kinase (CK) – a marker that indicates damage to skeletal and myocardial tissue, and increased myoglobin levels in the blood stream (which often results in blood being present in urine).
One study concluded that CK damage persisted more than 7 days post marathon while another study confirmed the presence of myoglobin in the bloodstream post marathon for 3-4 days post race. Both of these studies clearly indicate that the body needs at least 7-10 days of rest post marathon to fully recover from the cellular damage caused during the race. These markers, along with a suppressed immune system, which is discussed below, is the primary reason that the optimal marathon recovery schedule avoids cross training the first 2-3 days.
Post marathon, the immune system is severely compromised, which increases the risk of contracting colds and the flu. Furthermore, a suppressed immune system is one of the major causes of overtraining. A recent study confirms that the immune system is compromised up to three days post marathon and is a major factor in overtraining syndrome. Therefore, it is critical that you rest as much as possible in the three days following a marathon and focus on eating healthy and nutrient rich foods.
The research clearly indicates that the marathon induces significant muscle, cellular, and immune system damage for 3-14 days post race. Therefore, it is essential that all marathon runners have a 2-3 week marathon recovery protocol that focuses on rest and rejuvenation of these physiological systems.
Marathon Recovery – The plan of action
We’re going to outline a nutrition, rehab, cross training, and running plan for the 3 weeks after a marathon. This rehab plan is guaranteed to help you recover faster and return to training as quickly as possible.
Immediately post race
The immediate post race recovery protocol can be a little difficult to plan ahead of time, so I wouldn’t stress about it pre-race. Focus your energy on pre-race nutrition and race strategy. These notes are simply to give you some guidance after the race.
After you cross the finish line, try to get something warm and get to your clothes. You’ll probably get cold very quickly, and while it won’t help you recover, getting warm will sure make you feel a lot better.
Try to find something to eat. Bananas, energy bars, sports drinks, fruit, and bagels are all good options. Many marathoners can’t eat soon after finishing, so grab a handful of items and make your way to friends and family.
When you get back to the hotel room, you should consider an ice bath. Fill the tub with ice and cold water and submerge your lower body for 15 minutes. You don’t need the water too cold, 55 degrees is optimal, but anything colder than 65 degrees will do. After your ice bath, you can take a nap or walk around to try and loosen the legs. At this point, you’ve done about all you can do for the day. Relax and relish in your accomplishment.
Cross Training: none
Recovery Tips and tricks:
- Soak in a hot tub for 10-15 and stretch well afterwards.
- Each lots of fruits, carbohydrates, and protein. The Carbs and protein will help repair the muscle damage while the fruits will give you a boost of vitamin C and antioxidants to help combat free radical damage and boost your immune system.
- Light massage will help loosen your muscles. Don’t schedule a deep tissue massage yet, just a gentle effleurage massage or a light rolling with the stick.
Running: One day, 2-4 miles very easy
Cross Training: Optional – Two days, 30-40 minutes easy effort. The focus is on promoting blood flow to the legs, not building fitness.
Recovery Tips and Tricks:
- Continue eating a healthy diet
- Now is the time you can get a deep tissue massage if you have areas that are really bothering you or that are injured.
- Contrast bath your lower body. To contrast bath, take large trash cans and fill one with hot (hot bath temp) water and the other with ice water (cold enough so some ice still doesn’t melt) and put your whole lower body into the cold. Hold for 5 minutes and then switch to the hot for 5 mins. Repeat 2 or 3 times, ending with cold. This helps rush blood in and out of the area, which facilitates healing.
- Epsom Salt Bath. About an hour before bed, massage your legs out with the stick or self massage and then soak in a hot/warm bath with 3 cups epsom salt and 1 cup baking soda for 10-15 minutes. After the soak, stretch real well and relax. This always perks up my legs quite a bit and you’ll also sleep great.
Running: Three or four days of 4-6 miles very easy.
Cross Training: Optional – Three sessions total. One easy session and two medium effort sessions for 30-45 minutes.
Running: Begin to slowly build back into full training. My suggestion is four to five runs of 4-8 miles with 4 x 20 sec strides after each run.
Cross Training: 1 easy session, 1 medium session, and 1 hard session of 40-50 minutes.
Don’t worry about losing any running fitness during this recovery period. First, it’s much more important to ensure proper recovery so you can train even harder during your next training cycle. If you don’t let yourself recover now, you’ll simply have to back off your workouts when it matters. Likewise, you won’t lose much fitness at all. In my experience, it takes about 2-3 weeks of training to get back into good shape and ready to start attacking workouts and planning races.
Try not to schedule any races until 6 weeks after your marathon. I know you may want to avenge a disappointing performance or you’ll be coming off a running high and you’ll want to run every race under the sun. However, your results won’t be as good as they might be if you just wait a few weeks and let your body recover and train a little first. Patience is a virtue, but it will pay off in the end.
Our RunnersConnect memberships and our Personal Coaching plans will take care of all the guesswork in training and walk you through the entire marathon training process. Sign up now to get a jump on your Spring marathon.
What questions do you have about post marathon recovery? Post them in the comments and we’ll be sure to answer them.