The 3 Stages of Proper Marathon Recovery

Marathon recovery cannot be taken lightly. Photo: DFAagaard / Shutterstock.com

The marathon is one of running’s ultimate goals. Because of its distance at 26.2 miles, it takes dedication and a considerably lengthier training period to complete. And just as the training must be more serious, so must the marathon recovery. Racing a marathon results in a lot more “damage” than simply sore muscles:

  • Immune function is suppressed—making it more likely that you’ll get sick after the race
  • Strength is reduced (and inflammation and cell damage persists for up to two weeks after the marathon)
  • Even the heart may be damaged (while more common in beginner runners, remember that the heart is a muscle and will heal just fine!)
  • Muscle memory and coordination is compromised, making it more likely to get injured while running fast in the 2-3 weeks after the race

Most of these issues are far less serious or non-existent for shorter races, making adequate marathon recovery paramount to your future training.

So no matter if you’re at the back of the pack or trying to run fast at the Boston Marathon, prioritizing recovery after the race is critical.

Proper marathon recovery can be divided into three general timeframes: the day of the race, the day after the race, and the week after the race. Let’s dive into the first stage.

Stage 1: The Day of the Race

Marathon recovery starts as soon as you cross the finish line. Walk for at least 10-15 minutes to cool down, rather than sitting or lying down immediately after the race.

At most marathons, there will be fluids and food available—take advantage of them! As soon as possible, start getting in water, electrolytes, and calories to jumpstart the recovery process.

Refueling for recovery is different than eating for health. While it’s important to eat nutritious foods, at this point it’s most critical to begin the rebuilding process. Focus on foods high in carbohydrate (you’re in a carb-depleted state at the end of a marathon) and electrolytes that have some protein as well.

As soon as your stomach can handle more substantial food, aim for a well-balanced meal. But since you did just finish a 26.2 mile race, it’s OK to treat yourself!

Remember that recovery isn’t just about what you do, but what you don’t do. Avoid celebrating with more than 1-2 alcoholic drinks that will just further dehydrate you and negatively affect the absorption of nutrients. Also avoid any massage on the day of the race, which will further exacerbate muscle damage.

Later in the day, after you’ve had a chance to shower and eat, it’s still a good idea to avoid any form of self-massage or other exercise. Your body is in “fight or flight” mode and needs rest.

An ice bath is a helpful tool to help curb the inflammation that is at peak levels throughout your body. If possible, use a bag of ice in a tub of cold water and immerse your lower body for 10-15 minutes. While this form of cryotherapy has been shown to limit the adaptation process, after a marathon the goal is recovery (not adaptation).

Continue to hydrate and consume electrolytes to help flush exercise byproducts from your bloodstream and muscles. After a much-deserved “cheat meal,” focus on nutritious foods like vegetables, healthy meat, fruit, nuts and seeds, and whole grains.

If possible, take a nap. Sleep is when the body is most efficient at muscle repair and removing exercise byproducts like free radicals, so aim for a 90-minute nap that will allow you to get through a full sleep cycle.

Stage 2: The Day After the Marathon

After a (hopefully!) good night’s rest, you can continue the marathon recovery process with some light activity. It’s not recommended to run the day after a marathon because of the repetitive impact, but a short, easy walk will promote healing blood flow. You can also choose a non-impact form of cross-training like cycling, pool running, or swimming.

It’s preferable to choose cross-training in the pool as the effects of the water will help the healing process. Due to the water pressure, there will be extra blood flow to your extremities that will aid recovery.

Now is also a good time to get a massage if you can. Keep it light and therapeutic—now is not the time to get a deep tissue or sports massage. Alert your masseuse that you’ve just run a marathon and they will keep the pressure light to enhance blood flow rather than remove myofascial adhesions or scar tissue. That’s best reserved for 1-2 weeks after the race.

Continue to hydrate well and eat nutritious food. Recovery takes 2-4 weeks to complete and it’s ideal to give your body the best fuel possible.

Stage 3: The Week After the Marathon

Most runners rush back into running because they’re either excited because of a big PR they just ran or they want vengeance after a bad performance. Stay patient! It’s best to take at least 5-7 days off from running entirely to let muscles and connective tissues heal.

After 3-4 days, begin some easy, short cross-training sessions like swimming, pool running, or cycling. The goal is movement, not performance, so keep the effort very easy.

You can also start some light strength exercises or mobility work that will help you transition back to running soon. Just avoid heavy weightlifting in the gym—the body is not ready for that yet!

Prioritize sleep the week after the marathon to ensure you’re mentally and physically ready to run after about a week off. Once the time comes, you can start with a very easy 20-30-minute “test run” to see how your legs feel. The goal with a test run is to diagnose any aches or pains and to also see how recovered you feel.

If your legs still feel incredibly heavy or anything hurts, you know you need several more days to rest.

The marathon is a rewarding and challenging event. But the hard work continues long after you cross the finish line to maximize your marathon recovery, return to running, and hopefully another personal best at your next race!

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About the Author:

Jason Fitzgerald is the head coach at Strength Running, one of the web’s largest coaching sites for runners. He is a 2:39 marathoner, USATF-certified coach and his passion is helping runners set monster personal bests. Follow him on Twitter @JasonFitz1 and Facebook.

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