Congratulations! You just finished a marathon. You trained for months, focused closely on your nutrition, sleep, and recovery, and then ran for 26.2 miles as fast as you could. Now, before you sign up for another race, it’s time to recover.
Whether you ran your first or your fifteenth, whether you finished in three hours or six hours, and whether it was smooth sailing for the entire race or you encountered GI issues or muscle cramps, 26.2 miles takes a huge toll on your muscles, hormones, immune system, and entire body. Once you cross that finish line, your goal shifts from training from a marathon to recovering for a marathon.
Here’s the thing many of us don’t want to hear: recovery requires several days, even up to two weeks, off of running. Recovery certainly is easier than training, but it requires just as much discipline as training. By emphasizing your recovery after a marathon, you will reduce future risk of injury, prevent overtraining, and boost your immune system.
Immediately after the Race
As soon as you finish the race, you should focus on getting water, electrolytes, and food. Many runners, myself included, struggle to take in food immediately after a race, so wait a few minutes, drink some water, let your heart rate return to normal and your adrenaline levels stabilize, and then eat whatever appeals to you. Calories, not overall nutrition, are what matter after a marathon. Fruit, bagels, granola bars, and many other common finish line foods are good options for a quick source of carbohydrates.
A short walk after the race may seem like the last thing you want to do, but it will aid in promoting good blood circulation, easing post-race nausea, reducing soreness, and returning your body to homeostasis. This doesn’t have to be a long or strenuous walk by any means; many big city races include long chutes at the finishing line that runners must walk through for several hundred meters, you may walk a few blocks to where you parked, or walk around the city to find food after the race.
Once you’ve eaten and showered, spend some time focusing on releasing muscular tension and starting the recovery process. You could take an ice bath or epsom salt bath, elevate your legs against the wall, or foam roll. These may not feel comfortable at the moment, but your body will thank you later.
The Week After the Race
Don’t run. Even elite athletes like Shalane Flanagan and Desi Davila take a full one to two weeks off after their marathons. You may think that continuing to train after your marathon will capitalize on your peak fitness and help you progress even further, but at this point, you are putting yourself at risk of overtraining or injury.
This article from Runner’s Connect will walk you through exactly how running a marathon affects your muscles, your cells, and your immunity. Essentially, running a marathon causes inflammation in your muscles and cellular damage in some of your muscle fibers. While this damage is not severe enough to prevent you from running marathons, you will experience a loss of muscle power and durability in the weeks after a marathon. This damage and inflammation is why you feel overwhelmingly sore and stiff after your race. The best way to recover from this? Rest.
In the three to four days immediately after a marathon, you want to rest as much as possible. Walks will continue to help promote circulation and flush out your legs and hatha and yin yoga will stretch fatigued muscles, but any cross-training beyond that is not advised. Why? The physiological stress of the marathon caused damage to your muscles and left waste product from the sustained effort in your blood, and these effects can linger for up to 72 hours after you cross the finish line. However, you do not experience any soreness from these, so you may feel great in the days after the marathon but still be experiencing cellular damage that you want to let recover before you begin running again.
You may have heard of or experienced first-hand the post-marathon cold. After you a run a marathon, your immune system is suppressed as your body focuses its resources on repairing your muscles. When your immune system is down, your risk of overtraining increases if you continue to exercises; by waiting until your immune system has returned to normal, you reduce your chances of overtraining and overuse injury. Overtraining and injuries can take a long time to recover from. Needless to say, a few self-imposed rest days are much preferable to being sidelined for weeks because of overtraining or injury.
Of course, runners with a higher mileage base and more experience in racing the marathon may return to easy running within a few days after a marathon.
After one to two weeks off from running, you can slowly ease back into running with short, easy runs of 3-8 miles. No speedwork just yet, though! You trained your body and your mind hard for several weeks; give yourself a break and just run for the sake of running. I usually like to run for time and keep my Garmin on the watch screen. These weeks would also be the ideal time to leave your GPS watch at home and just run by feel.
Finally, don’t worry about any weight gain during these weeks. Racing weight is not a natural weight for our bodies to sustain, and your body may actually need to gain a small amount of weight in order to recover. I love this post from elite runner Tina Muir on why you should indulge after a marathon. You don’t want to gorge yourself, but now is the time to relax a bit and treat yourself—you worked hard!
Recovery Week 1
I barely worked out this week, in part because my body needed to recover from the Portland Marathon, in part because I was a bit under the weather during the week. Thankfully, I’m feeling better now, but I’m still going to take a couple more days off! My goal is to take 10-14 days off from running and then keep all my runs easy throughout the month of October. I usually take 5 days off after a half marathon and that has kept me injury-free so far, so I know it’ll be worth two weeks off in the long run.
Monday: Short 20 minutes walk with Charlie.
Tuesday: 30 minutes of yoga in the evening.
Wednesday: Sick – complete rest.
Thursday: Sick – complete rest.
Friday: I wanted to move but I also wanted to follow my recovery plain, so I did an easy and covered 3 miles and 1050 vertical feet in 50 minutes, followed by an easy 15 minutes of bodyweight strength training and the MYRTL mobility routine. I definitely felt a bit of lingering marathon soreness after this!
Saturday: Off – RRCA Seminar in Portland. This was a long day!
Sunday: Off – RRCA Seminar.
I am quite ready to return to running this week! My focus for the next several weeks will be building a healthy mileage base before cranking up training for a spring half.
Questions of the Day:
How long do you take off after a marathon or half marathon?
What’s your favorite cross-training activity? —>Hiking, yoga, and Pilates.
Did you race this weekend? How did it go? (Congrats to all the Chicago, Hartford, and other runners this weekend!)