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.

Skeletal Muscle

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

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.

Immune system

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.

Days 1-3

Running: None

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.

Days 4-7

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.

Days 7-14

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.

Days 14-21

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.

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References

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34 Responses on “How to Recover after a Marathon

    • Haha, the ice bath is definitely a shock to the system, but I love how you can almost feel the blood rushing back to the legs when you jump back in the hot tub. I always enjoyed that sensation.

      I hope you’re able to walk up and down stairs this weekend!

      • hi jeff, just did london marathon in 3.44 but left taper too late and got to start tired . Doing your plan and correct taper what do you think potential time would be? I am a 52 yr old club cross country runner.regards grant

        • Hard to say as there isn’t really a formula or “normal” to base that off and I don’t know what your training was like heading into the race. Hopefully, good lesson learned and plenty of opportunities left to nail the taper and reach your potential.

  1. Pingback: Marathon Recovery: Speeding it Up with Active Recovery | The Runners Muse

  2. Thanks for the sound advice- I just followed your 16 week plan to achieve my first marathon in 3:44:11. So I’ll definitely be taking this advice too.

  3. I dont know if there are many people that can relate to me as I always see times that people have run that I could never attain to…I have run 4 marathons now and I just mentally broke this past weekend–i finished under 6 hours and I was devastated. Now my best has only been 5:20, but I feel so defeated. I have never had any guidance; I am 53 years old and just run. Actually I did the Galloway for the first time and I thought that would improve my times; I always slow down the second half of the marathon. Any encouragement or words of wisdom? On the high note, this was my 30 year old daughter’s bucket list event and she finished in 5:16.

    • Bettilou….I am no expert so cannot answer your question from an experienced point of view but I felt so sad when I read your post….26.2 miles is 26.2 miles in anytime that is one hell of an achievement and at your age it is phenomenal!

      I am at 10k distances right now and cannot imagine being able to do what you do! But joining a running club seems to be the way to go…one that is specifically training for a marathon and includes speed work. My pace is about the same as yours and I have never been able to get any faster but am just about to join a club to do speedwork with them.

      Good luck….and please please, be proud of yourself, you deserve it.

      • My best marathon times occur when I run at least 5 times a week – mostly at a slowish pace. I usually follow this routine for 3 weeks followed by a recovery week where I reduce the number of Km but not number of training sessions.

        Monday – cross fit
        Tuesday – 10 to 15 Km tempo run
        Wednesday – 10 to 12 Km slow run (6-6:30 per km)
        Thursday – 10 to 15 Km slow pace with a 20 min interval training in the middle
        Friday – 10 to 12 Km slow run (6-6:30 per km)
        Saturday – no running
        Sunday – Long slow run of 15 to 36 Km

        I build up the millage from over a 16 week period and make sure I have at least 4 long runs that have been over 30km. I now run hilly trail marathons in around 3:45 and enjoy the whole run – even the last 5km – I ran my first marathon in a painful 6h 24m by the way so believe me you can definately get yourself under 4 hours.

  4. I finished my first marathon 9 days ago. I have tried running twice now, slow easy runs, and it is very painful in my joints and my big toe, which became blistered then swollen during the race. Should I keep resting, or do some cross training, or keep trying to run?

  5. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and research. I always love to read your blog. I just run my first marathon, did 4:18. Thought I can do better, but at this age, I take any time!
    A question – on Day 4, I feel pretty good. My chiro said I can do some cross-training (swim/bike). As I did not go all out at this marathon, would you agree that I can accelerate the recovery time? Or, this is a step towards serious injury?

    • Congrats on finishing your first marathon! If you didn’t go 100% effort, you can accelerate the build-up process slightly and add some cross training earlier. Just listen to your body!

  6. Hi! You mentioned don’t book any races 6 weeks after your marathon. Now I really want to do one full and then another one 7 weeks later. What do you think about that?

  7. Hi Bettielou,
    Reading your comment made me feel a little normal. I just ran my first marathon 3 days ago, finished in 5:46 and was so disappointed. My first half was splendid, in just over 2hours. The second half was tough because of cramps in the legs. If you get any useful advice on how to improve my second half, I’m more than happy to take it. I would like to run another marathon that’s 6 months away and hope to improve my time.i live in Cape town, we have some of the world’s most scenic marathons :) Feel welcome

  8. I am a regular runner (slower) and am used to running 10-12 miles each weekend. I just ran the Marine Corp Marathon 2 days ago (my second only) – amazing and tough route. I am healing well- and I did a walk run scenario after 14 miles. My question is recovery – I would like to do a half marathon 10 days from now – is that too soon if I’m feeling alright to do that? I do not push myself for time – I enjoy the run and at a very moderate pace. I’m a spinner and cross trained yesterday which did wonders for my healing – just wondering if its a possibility?

  9. I ran a half marathon a little over 2 weeks ago and I still can’t walk without a lot of pain up and down stairs, I have to walk sideways. And running isn’t even an option. Starting to worry if something is broken somewhere in my lower inner leg/ankle area. I was fine during the race, and was able to walk after until I layed down. Then I had to he carried for 2 days bc I couldn’t put pressure. Any ideas of what this could be would be great!! Getting very antsy to get back to running! Thanks :)

    • Mandy, I ran a half marathon with a stress fracture(not from running) that I was unaware of. It worsened, of course, but I was in your position. I couldn’t walk up or down stairs. I went to a foot and ankle doctor, wore a boot for 4 weeks, cross trained in the pool and SLOWLY running again after 8 weeks total. Go see a doctor!

  10. Hello Coach Jeff
    I have just run my second marathon in Istanbul last sunday. First one was in Rome 17 th march. In Rome i did 4.23 hours and in Istanbul 4.10 hours. I am 51 and have been running for 5 years.
    In this morathon i started little faster than my peace as i do on my training.. Everything was very good till 35 km. Than my quadriceps muscless became very hard and getting like a stone. It did not me to move. I need it to stretch and to loosen..So that running became very hard for me last 5 km..
    What cause this things..Not enough trainig? ( WHich i did quite good training) or wrong nutritional side?
    Tnx and regards

  11. Just finished Barcelona marathon 2014…my training time said i should have done 3h55, but I actually ran it in 4:35…i just couldnt understand what happened. I got ill during training taper time, ended up in bed for 4 days…no running for first taper week, second taper week had soleus issue, which never happened b4. My training up to that time was going well…75-77km a week, with no issues, physical or mental. Then, at 30k during the race, everything felt like it was closing down. I had to run/walk, which drove me crazy….and 4 days later I am still fatigued and mentally drained from the experience…this is my second marathon…Im 58…thanks for the post-marathon advise.

  12. I ran my first race yesterday the brighton marathon…I’ve slowly been building the miles up over the past year and really try and kill my self with speed work on treadmills. I completed it in 3:35 but was well on for a 3:15 untill about mile 21-24 I just had nothing left to give and my average mile dropped from 7:45 to 8:11…if I sign up again what could help me keep the pace in those final painful miles??

  13. I ran my 4th marathon a week ago. My postmarathon recovery existed of: not running at all last week, some long relaxed walks, hydrating with tea, water etc, the ocassional glass of wine. Eating fruit, eggs, chicken, vegetables,fish, smoothies
    Coming week I’ll be building up my runs slowly again and will run another marathon in July. My legs were only stiff and a bit painful first day after the marathon

  14. Hi,
    I ran my first marathon yesterday finish 3:40 my goal was 3:30pm. I started feeling the tightness in my legs IT band, quads at mile 21 my shoes were also tight had to loosen up the laces and I was really bloated during the race. My fingers were really swollen. I’m wondering if I was dehydrated and that what caused my legs to stiffen up ad caused the swelling. It was a hilly marathon so I should expect to be sore but I’m not sure it was a water issue or if this happens in marathon. I was never sore when I did my long 20 mile runs.

  15. I have ran 6 marathons. I just completed a marathon in Canton, Ohio last Sunday at 63 years old. Although it was not my best, I ran respectable for not having a long run of over 14 miles and being injured for a month prior to Sunday. I just went out and did it. It was a 5:05 marathon but at least I completed it. I know everything I read says to take 3 – 4 weeks off but I want to go again. My soreness is about gone so we will see. Everyone who has ran a marathon should be proud. 26.2 is a long way to run, your a hero.

  16. Thank you so much for the informative and helpful advice. I ran my first marathon almost three weeks ago. The three runs I took have been difficult and extremely tireing. Even a little strength training a week ago proved to be too soon for me personally. My immune system appears to be a mess and I am afraid that I have caught a virus or something. Time to rest and ease back into my running when my strength returns. I plan to cross train a lot this summer with swimming. Tough lesson learned for future races.

  17. The training required to complete your marathon is demanding. Take a well earned rest and come back fresh.

  18. I have ran 3 marathons. 2 were flat and I recovered quick. I hit a wall with the Hilly Marathon. Still Pr at 3:22. Calves ached for weeks. I just ran an extremely hilly half in 1:38. All the feelings were surfacing again and I could have easily bonked if I had to run a full that day. I qualified for Boston and I am so scared that’s going to Happen to me there! How can I prevent my calves cramping when running hills? It’s almost debilitating! I do a lot of strength and cross training with my running….not sure what the problem is!

    • Stella, here is a link to another blog post about leg cramps that RC has put out. You might have already seen it or you might not have. Just wanted you to get it…
      http://runnersconnect.net/running-injury-prevention/can-hydration-electrolytes-help-treat-avoid-leg-cramps/
      From my marathon experience the “hangover” effect, whether it be physical or mental, is dependent on how deep you go into the well during that marathon. Some are harder than others, for instance, hilly ones are tougher than flat marathons. Your calve cramps most likely aren’t due to strength or lack there of but hydration issues. Also, depends on how far apart your marathons are. If you ran your hilly marathon and turned around and ran that half marathon within 3-4 weeks after you most likely weren’t fully recovered yet and not ready to run at full potential and reason for feeling flat.

  19. Great write up. To the point, time frame, issue, reason, recommendation. Succinct and informative. Well, my two weeks are up, time to hit the trails!!!!!!

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