Similar to training, recovery from the marathon is as much an art form as it is science. Our unique physiologies determine how we each will recover post marathon. Different race day scenarios also play a part.
The three primary physiological components to recovery are muscular regeneration, glycogen replenishment and electrolyte replacement. Some of us suffer more muscular damage due to the course profile, while others become significantly electrolyte deficient caused by tough conditions. Quite simply, the marathon is unlike any other race (even ultra-distance races, with consistent fueling and slower paces) when it comes to recovery. Consider the three scenarios below and best practices for recovery for each.
A moderate-level training effort marathon
Many athletes like to use the marathon as a more moderate effort and a glorified long run. For others, a moderate effort is all that is desired or attainable. In this instance, consider taking two to three days off . The next seven days should include only easy recovery running every other day. A few days of cross-training that first week post-marathon is a good idea as well to ensure the legs are not taking too much extra pounding. The second week can include one light uptempo session and a long run that is half the distance of your max long run. By the third week you should be able to return to 75 percent of your normal training volume.
A hard race day effort marathon
This type of marathon effort requires the most recovery. You are pushing your body to the next level of exhaustion. It takes time for the body to rebuild the damaged muscle tissue, replenish the depleted glycogen stores and replace lost electrolytes. The soreness and stiff ness will subside quickly over the first week, but the underlying glycogen and electrolyte depletion take longer. This cannot be rushed or you will suffer substandard training and racing in the future and risk overtraining syndrome.
Begin with two weeks off from running. You can include some very light, non-impact cross-training. After two weeks, run every other day for one week, followed by 30 percent of your peak volume the fourth week. This should all be easy running until roughly five weeks post marathon, where you can start to include some controlled moderate effort workouts. The mileage buildup can increase by 20–30 percent each week thereafter.
A significant marathon effort with another target race soon
For some athletes, the marathon is not their sole focus. I have worked with many athletes who work toward a marathon goal while at the same time have another race four to six weeks after the marathon they are interested in doing well in. This scenario is the trickiest and requires a blended approach of some time off , some cross-training and some running. You can only rush the recovery process so much, but you can accomplish both goals if approached correctly.
In this instance, where a harder marathon was completed but not necessarily one that left you completely wiped out, the recovery should still begin with one week off from running. This week should include very good meal planning, a massage and some easy cross-training. Try easy spinning for two of those days for 30–45 minutes, with low resistance and a good cadence. The second week can include running easy every other day and cross-training on the opposing days. All effort should be comfortable, and total mileage should be 30 percent of max volume. The third week can include one half marathon type effort, and running 55–65 percent of max volume. The goal is to allow the body to replenish while at the same time conditioning your aerobic system just enough to keep your cardiovascular system engaged. Two or three harder workouts are all that’s required to maintain the same aerobic fitness level, and max volume is not necessary. Remember: The legs still have to recover, so having them feel good is the goal—even if that requires running less than you would traditionally in the buildup to a race.
Two-time U.S. Olympian Alan Culpepper won national titles from the 5K to the marathon. His first book, Run Like a Champion, is available at velopress.com.