Recovery Strategies Post Marathon

*This blog is for the average marathon runner who runs 1-2 marathons a year, not the athletes who can run a marathon each month. Some things will still apply like the hydration and nutrition examples, however the return to running will not be the same. So just a heads up on that.*

We’re a few months into marathon season, and I get a lot of questions on proper recovery post race. Personally I just had two runners run their spring marathons (Boston and Toronto) and both are headed to Boston next year. Woot woot! So, these two, plus yourself or your athletes need to make sure they are taking the steps to ensure proper recovery, so they can resume training once again.

It might or might not come as a shock, but a lot of runners negate recovery and go back to training too quickly . They may feel good, and the fear is that they will lose fitness. While it’s true you will lose some fitness in the short-term, in the long-term fitness will be gained. Our bodies create new muscle, mitochondria and recover during rest. So let’s get that worry right out-of-the-way. And likewise, if you start running too soon, you are likely to set yourself up for being over trained. I’ve seen this happen quite a few times (not from athlete’s I’m coaching) and I want to help prevent over training in general. It will wreak havoc on your body, metabolic systems and hormones. My goal is prevention. Let’s talk physiology.

Running a marathon (26.2 miles for those not aware) is quite a feat, and also quite a challenge on our body. The typical runner will feel fatigue and muscle soreness in the few days post race, but it’s the intracellular damage  to your muscles, tendons and ligaments that you often don’t feel, that causes the most trouble. Since the damage is submicroscopic, you can’t see it, feel it and you think you’re ready to run again. If you start again too soon, you will delay the cellular healing, in addition to the healing of other structures like our connective tissues. Our bodies are often in immune compromised states post marathon, so to add a return to training,  can lead to prolonged cellular inflammation and the development of a cold or other virus.

So what should you do?

Immediately Post Marathon (in the few hours after)

  • Consume a re-hydration beverage that provides carbohydrates, electrolytes and protein. If your beverage does not contain protein, you can consume protein in a solid form. This might look like 24oz of an electrolyte sports drink, and a 20g protein bar. It’s often hard to eat a lot post race, so quick and easy go to foods like drinks and bars are great. Shoot for 1g/kg bodyweight of carbohydrate and at least 20g of protein in the 30-60min post race. In the few hours post race, try to focus on a full meal that includes carbohydrate, fat and protein.
  • Continue drinking water or a diluted sports drink throughout the day and next day if you feel dehydrated or your urine has not returned to a pale yellow.
  • Consume vit. C in the form of fruit like an orange or take a vit. C supplement. While the evidence does not show consuming vit. C will prevent you from getting a cold, there is some reliable research that shows consuming it post marathon (the research was using marathoners) helped prevent the development of an upper respiratory infection.
  • Put on compression tights, or use inflatable compression boots like Normatec. If the $1000-$5000 inflatable boots are out of budget, a less expensive pair of compression tights will assist with blood flow and minimize soreness. Similar to vit. C, the evidence showing the benefit to compression before or during a race is limited, there is more substantial research showing benefit post exercise.
  • Walk around, don’t just sit down. Make your muscles keep moving.

The Next Day:

  • Make sure you have refueled your glycogen stores. This means consuming an adequate amount of carbohydrates to refuel your body. Up your carbohydrate intake just a bit to make sure you are refueling well.
  • Continue to focus on eating food containing higher amount of vitamin C. Citrus fruits and bell peppers are my favorites.
  • You can continue with the compression tights for a few hours at a time. No need to wear them  continuously.
  • Move around, walk, don’t sit down for extended periods of time. The key to helping you recover is active recovery. Active recovery should be done at less than 60% of your heart rate max. In other words, it’s usually slower than warm up or feels like a warm up pace. In addition to walking, swimming is my favorite active recovery. The water helps to support your muscles.
  • Write a journal entry, or create a log of your race. Write down what went well, what didn’t, how much you ate and how much your drank during the race. If your nutrition or hydration wasn’t on spot during the race, this will be key to knowing what to do next race. If you can do this within a day, you will have a better chance of remembering.
  • Enjoy your accomplishment. Whether you raced well, or had an off day, you had the ability to go out and run a marathon. Be proud and excited that your body allowed you to do that. If your race didn’t go well, the log of your race will help to determine why.
  • Sleep is important, go to bed early and make sure you get a good night’s sleep.

The Few Days Post Marathon:

  • Continue with active recovery like walking. Yoga, swimming and easy cycling are also good ways to keep moving.
  • Stretch, foam roll or get a light massage. As stated before, you have intracellular damage, too tough of a massage can prolong healing.
  • Continue with high quality healthy nutrition. You can focus on foods rich in omega 3’s like walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds and salmon. This will help with inflammation.
  • Try to continue getting a bit extra sleep.

The Week after the Marathon:

  • Return to easy running if desired. There is no need to push yourself to run, take more time off if your body wants and needs it.
  • You can start return to running with 20-30min runs, but only easy paced. No intervals, hills, tempo, etc.
  • If you’ve been checking your heart rate daily pre-race, this week you can continue to check to make sure it isn’t elevated. One of the reasons for an elevated heart rate is that it means your body is under stress. If your heart rate is 5-10 beats higher than pre-marathon, more rest is needed.

Two Weeks Post Marathon:

  • Here is where your training will return to looking like a runner. Your runs can be 3-6 miles for short runs, and 7-8 miles for longer (this will depend on your speed).
  • I urge you to train to your body and not try to get back to intense training. Two weeks post marathon you can be running 4-5 days a week, but try to focus on easy, aerobic running.

2-4 weeks is my rule for post marathon return to running. If an athlete is in good shape pre marathon, their return to running will be shorter. If someone is newer to the marathon world, they should take a bit longer recovery. There is no right or wrong with return to running. Everyone is different, and each coach is different in how much they want their athletes to recover. I am a more conservative coach when it comes to recovery. I’d rather my athletes rest, refuel and mentally prepare for the next race ahead. If they jump into organized/structured training too soon, their body may not be ready, we might prolong the muscle damage and mentally, they haven’t had the break they need. It is an art and science, as is most things with coaching. Some marathoners could look at this and say no way, I’m running again the next day. That will work for some, but the newer marathoners, the more masters an athlete (older), the degree of injury prone or a history of over training will dictate a longer recovery. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad if you want to take more recovery, listen to your body first.

Here’s a mock sample of what a 2 week recovery might look like. Some call it a reverse taper.

  • Week 1-walking, cross training
  • Week 2-return to running, continue cross training if desired
  1. Race Day-walk easy, no additional exercise
  2. Day 2-off, just easy walking around-don’t sit around, your body needs to move, stretching/yoga
  3. Day 3-off, just easy walking around, stretching/yoga-do something, no sitting
  4. Day 4-20-30min of walking, swimming, cycling or yoga
  5. Day 5-off
  6. Day 6-30-40min of walking, swimming, cycling or yoga
  7. Day 7-30-40min of walking, swimming, cycling/more advanced runners could start running here-if you’re a newer marathoner, even if a fast runner, you are not “advanced” as your body isn’t prepared for what it went though. Advanced means multiple marathons a year for several years.
  8. Day 8-off
  9. Day 9-20-30min of aerobic running
  10. Day 10-off
  11. Day 11-30-45min of aerobic running
  12. Day 12-45-60min of aerobic running
  13. Day 13-off
  14. Day 14-60-70min of aerobic running

Let your coach and your body be your guide (check your heart rate, are you breathing more heavy then usual, are you exhausted post exercise). Give yourself at least 1 full week of no running. Then, the second week can be easy running, or stick with more gentle aerobic exercising like walking or swimming. Week 3 and 4 should be continual builds back to about 75% of where you were pre-race. So it might look like:

Week 1-cross training

Week 2-15-25 miles-25-40% of mileage pre-marathon

Week 3- 20-35 miles-50% of pre-marathon mileage

Week4- 30-50miles-75% of where you were pre-marathon

Week 5-80-90% pre-marathon distance

Week 6-Pre-marathon distance

In the month post marathon I generally don’t stick with the 10% weekly increase rule. Because you are just re-building back to where your body was pre-marathon, I don’t think it’s necessary. When building in the second month and after the marathon, I do stick with no more than a 10% increase each week as your body isn’t used to the increased mileage.

Remember, everyone is different in how much they need to recover. Some need 1 week, some need 2, and some need a month away from running. Listen to your body, your coach and ignore others if they tell you you’re doing something wrong. Unless of course if you’re training for your next marathon in the week post marathon. Then, stop and read this again.

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