The marathon requires months of training and planning and hours of hard effort to complete – but once you cross the finish line, it’s not quite over. You may be done run and ready to celebrate a BQ, your first marathon, or a PR – or ready to mourn a bad race. No matter what the outcome or how you feel, recovering after a marathon is a priority.
Post-marathon recovery is not solely about muscle repair, although it certainly does focus on that aspect. When you run a marathon, your immune system is suppressed and your glycogen stores are often depleted. This is why so many runners will catch a post-marathon cold – your body simply beat. By taking the steps to recover, you can reduce the risk of the post-marathon cold and reduce soreness in the days to come. These tips will guide you through how to recover after a marathon.
Once you cross the finish line, fluids and calories are a top priority. Fluids – water, sports drink, chocolate milk, whatever sounds appetizing – will aid in rehydrating. Protein will jumpstart muscle recovery, so try to include some of that in your post-race meal. Most importantly, eat what sounds good to you at the moment – food that is appetizing is unlikely to upset your stomach. If that means a giant burger, go for it – that provides the salt, protein, and calories your body needs.
If you are experiencing post-race nausea or GI distress, try to get down whatever fluids you can and a small amount of bland food. An empty stomach and dehydration will only make things worse.
Beer tents are a popular staple at most races; the Boston Marathon even has its own special brew courtesy of Sam Adams. Some races even offer non-alcoholic beer as a recovery beverage. Beer is relatively low in alcohol, especially if you opt for an ale or lager with a 4-5% ABV. And, to be honest, a drink tastes good after running 26.2 miles.
However, too much alcohol can negatively affect post-marathon recovery. A couple beers or glasses of wine are no problem, but perhaps save hard liquor and for the next day and stick to a moderate number of drinks. No matter how much you drink, match each alcoholic beverage with a glass of water to stay well-hydrated.
I made several mistakes in my first marathon, one of which was assuming the paper-thin finisher’s jacket would keep me warm. After all, it was a clear and warm fall day in Portland. By the time I managed to find Ryan, eat, and get back to our car, I was shivering and feeling even worse than when I finished the race.
Gear check exists for a reason. No matter what the weather is on race day, your body temperature is going to suddenly drop in the minutes after you stop running. This can lead to shivers, hypothermia, or a general feeling of malaise. Put on your warm-up layers or change clothes as soon as you can.
If you ran your marathon in rainy, windy conditions like the 2018 Boston Marathon, changing into dry clothes is a priority. As your body temperature drops, wet clothing will increase your risk of hypothermia. If there is any chance at all of a cold or rainy race, pack an entire change of clothes in your gear-check bag along with a towel to dry off. (Check out these tips to stay as warm and dry as possible during a rainy race.)
Walking may sound like the least appealing thing in the hours after a marathon; I personally will want to sit down right there, which in the past two years was the first patch of grass I saw at the capitol building in Sacramento. Sitting is good, especially to rest your legs. However, a short walk of 5-10 minutes will loosen up tight muscles and boost circulation, hopefully relieving some of the post-marathon tightness.
A good night’s sleep is a priority the night after the marathon. Your body repairs during sleep, so aim for 7-9 hours (or more!) to optimize your recovery. Chances are, you will be so tired that an early bedtime is not an issue.
Take a Break
Don’t run the day after the marathon. Or two days after. In fact, don’t run for at least five days. That might seem like a long time, especially if you had a bad race and want to redeem yourself, but just don’t run. Your muscles and bones went through a significant amount of damage, whether you finished in 3 hours or 6 hours. The impact of running will delay the recovery process and increase your risk of overuse injuries. Take the week off or, if you desperately want to exercise, opt for walking, pool running or light cycling. Don’t go be too aggressive in strength training the week after the marathon either, as the microtrauma of strength training may hinder the repair of your muscles.
Every runner recovers at different rates and your individual recovery rate will differ from race to race. You may choose to take even two weeks off after your marathon! A minor loss in fitness (which will be easily regained) is well worth preventing mental burnout and physical injury.
If you are flying home the day of your marathon, take precautions to promote recovery and avoid the risk of deep vein thrombosis and blood clots. Your blood volume will be temporarily thickened after a marathon, and the combination of that with air travel or long hours in the car can be dangerous. Wear compression socks or leggings and take frequent standing breaks.
You can read my tips for how to recover from a half marathon in this article.
How do you recover after a marathon or other long race?
What foods do you crave after a marathon?