Marathon Recovery - The Essential Guide

So you've just finished your biggest race of the year. How you recover from it is the first and crucial step to ensuring you perform even better in the next.

We’ve compiled a thorough guide to ensure that you get the best out of your post-race recovery. Read on!

A marathon is tough. There’s no denying it.

Even if you walked the full 42.195km, the sheer amount of motion and impact places an incredible amount of stress on the body.

This is only amplified the harder you run, especially for your ‘A’ Race.

If you plan to run marathons and other run events regularly–and plan to be executing them at the best of your abilities – then you will need to allow for an appropriate amount of time to recover.

This is where a smart post marathon recovery plan can make all the difference in this crucial period.

The Big Mistake

Runners who’ve focused a large amount of their time and energy into their training are often keen to get right back into things after a big race.

It's not difficult to understand why; you want to keep all the fitness you've developed, considering the intense regimen you've put yourself through. Plus, it's a good to keep the momentum, isn't it?

Not in reality. Your enthusiasm might in fact be highly detrimental to your overall performance and development as an athlete.

From my experience as a coach and an athlete, those who don’t follow a post marathon recovery plan and rush back to training often find their subsequent performances deteriorate or they suffer from symptoms of overtraining.

To help you maximise your recovery post race, and to help you ensure that future performance is not compromised, I’ve outlined a post-marathon recovery plan that you can implement after your race.

But before that…

What happens when you run a marathon?

Because the marathon is so demanding, there are a number of things that happen to the body over the course of the event.

Two of the more common and severe ones are listed below.  

Your Muscles Get Damaged

Besides superficial disturbances (like blisters and chafing), you will experience muscle soreness and fatigue, due to the stress caused by running such a long distance. When you run, your body breaks down muscle fibers, creating micro-tears in your muscles. The resultant muscle inflammation can take up to 2 weeks to resolve, before it returns to pre-race conditions.

Your Immune System Takes a Beating

During racing your immune system takes a beating and as a result, it is not uncommon to be more susceptible to infections (colds or flu) in the days following. To mitigate this, eat high quality, whole foods, which can help limit the effects of a suppressed immune system.

If you notice that you are persistently and frequently sick after races, you may want to consider placing more focus on aerobic development during your preparation.

Getting back to your training too soon after your race will result in a deteriorated state, impacting long-term performance.

Getting back to your training too soon after your race will result in a deteriorated state, impacting long-term performance.

So...

How to Recover After Running a Marathon

Now that you understand some of the effects that running a marathon has on your body, let's turn our attention to a plan for maximising your post race recovery.

The First 24 Hours

Eat and Drink. Immediately upon finishing your race, start to refuel. The body has a small window for optimal nutrient absorption, so you want to make sure you capitalise on that by getting in a mix of carbohydrates and proteins.

Care for Damage. Muscle strain, blisters, chafing, black toenails, and grazed knees are common complaints at the finish line. Severe dehydration is also common, especially in hot climates like we have in Singapore. Assess your condition directly after the race, and seek help for serious conditions.

Dry Clothes. As soon as you can, I recommend getting out of your racing shoes and clothes and into something comfy and dry. This will help you to avoid any post race chills and help get you more comfortable.

Sleep. When we sleep, our body releases growth hormone that stimulates muscle growth and repair, as well as bone building and fat burning. Sleep also helps protein synthesis, cell growth and division, as well as tissue repair and growth - in short, it’s extremely crucial in kick starting your recovery.

Movement. After a good night's sleep, you should be feeling a little recharged. Your legs are likely to be sore, and some light movement (walking) will help promote blood flow and provide an active form of recovery. Note that I said walking - and with walking I mean very easy walking. You shouldn’t run at all. I tell our athletes that they are strictly off running for the following 7 days after the marathon.

Light and easy movement gently eases you back into training. 

Light and easy movement gently eases you back into training. 

Day 2 - 7

Cross Training. Continue to move around regularly. Movement promotes blood flow and will help with recovery. From day 4 onwards, you can also introduce some light forms of cross training. Easy cycling or a light swim are good options (probably the triathlete in me with this bias) and help to supply oxygen-rich blood to damaged muscle tissue.

Massage. Day 3 or 4 is the time to consider a massage. Make sure you communicate with your therapist and let them know you are in the early stages of recovery from a marathon. Massages at this stage should be firm but not painful, with careful treatment of injured areas, if any.

High Quality Fuel. When your body is in a state of fatigue and your immune system is down, it’s important to focus on eating good quality, nutrient rich foods. Up your intake of vegetables (Mmmm salad) and fruit and make sure you’re drinking plenty of water

How about Alcohol? Celebratory reasons aside, there are nearly no good reasons to consume that alcoholic beverage during your recovery. Alcohol results in slow muscular recovery, dehydration, and reduced ability to absorb the vitamins and minerals necessary for coming back to form. We’ll talk about this more thoroughly in a future piece, but for now know that the negative effects heavily outweigh any positives.

Moving Forward

Training. Light run training can begin after 7 days. Start with 20 - 30 minutes of easy running, and alternate running days with off days for the next 7 days. Gradually increase your duration as you begin to feel better throughout the week but do not rush your progress. Also, do not exceed 60 minutes of running before day 14.

Training after Day 14. Slowly begin to build back into your usual training routine if you are feeling good. Err on the side of caution; if you feel you need more time to recover, take a few more days to progressively return to your regime.

Don’t worry about losing fitness during the recovery period. Any loss in fitness will be minimal and will do a lot less harm than rushing back into training and compromising your recovery.

Train Smart, Not Hard!

You now know how to recover from a marathon. Join our Coached Sessions and learn how to train effectively for one.