How to Recover From Running a Marathon
If you're thinking of running a marathon, you should be prepared for your body's reaction. It goes without saying that running 26.2 miles in a short period of time is not a normal experience. The natural reaction is to lie down after, but you might want to read this article before.
Whatever you do, you should have a post-marathon recovery plan in place before you think about running one. It is estimated that most marathon runners take between 30,000-45,000 steps during a marathon — and those steps have a major impact on your body's muscle and joints. That's why you should prioritize recovery plan after your race. The more effectively and efficiently you can recover, the sooner you will be able to get back to running pain free.
Not sure where to start? Here is a simple video on some basic tips for runner's recovery. Read on for additional details.
Why Your Recovery Is Important
We recently published an article titled Recovery What to Do and What NOT to Do on recovery tips for athletes and post exercise in 2019. This provides some general recovery tips for those post workout or athletic competition. However, for marathon runners, your recovery plan is going to be different.
Your recovery plan should be initiated as soon as you cross the finish line. Just as you plan for race day, you should absolutely plan your post-marathon recovery. As you cross the finish line, you may not be able to think as clearly as you'd like, and having a plan in place will help reduce the risk of injury.
Not having a plan is a common mistake for runners, and the consequences can include a wide range of injuries. First time marathon runners tend to be the segment that are most at risk for not having a plan since they have not experienced the stress that their bodies are about to experience.
Throughout the recovery phase, diet is very important. What you consume immediately after the race can have a major impact on your recovery. Try to consume some juice to replace the lost sugars from sweating. A fruit smoothie can be a very good option for recovery. Also, try to get some protein in your system to help restore damaged muscle tissue.
Directly after your race, you most likely will experience more immediate changes like weight loss due to fluid losses (which can be higher depending on the temperature during your race) and muscle soreness. But because a lot of the effects can continue over time don't come with blatant indicators of stress on the body — including a compromised immune system — recovery should begin immediately after you cross the finish line and continue up to two weeks after the race.
Some components of recovery can not be seen. There have been studies indicating that running a marathon can damage the body all the way down to the cellular level. Unlike muscle soreness, cellular damage isn't always noticeable, meaning you won't feel sore. This is why allowing for proper downtime after a marathon is really important.
Knowing all these risks and potential dangers, why do people keep running marathons? For some people it is the status symbol. For others, it is the joy of running. Despite all of these challenges for your muscles and joints, one positive side effect of the marathon is the release of brain chemicals like norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin, which regulates positive mood and increases alertness. These chemicals can be released in various forms of exercise but a marathon tends to put the most stress on a body, therefore releasing more of these chemicals. Thanks to those chemicals — and the proper recovery plan — you can have a positive experience (and the least amount of discomfort possible).
Proper race training helps the recovery process go more smoothly. It is worth noting that some discomfort is inevitable, but it will be worse if you’ve been inconsistent during your training period. Incorporating dynamic warm-ups, active cooldowns, strength work, foam rolling and stretching into your training will better set you up for success on race day and in your recovery efforts.
The Basics of Recovery
Runners often gravitate toward two extremes post-marathon. Some take an extended rest period, but then have trouble getting back into a normal running routine again. Others don't take any time off post-race and immediately throw themselves back into a challenging training routine, which can cause injury and burnout. It is recommended to find some middle ground between the two.
The basics of recovery that start post-race and continue in the days and weeks after include rehydrating and refueling, stretching, foam rolling, rest and finally, a return to light activity. Active recovery is an important part of any holistic fitness routine. Check out this article for 3 ways to speed up muscle recovery.
Your Post-Marathon Recovery Schedule
As soon as you cross the finish line, you'll be tempted to stop moving, but keep walking for roughly 10 to 15 minutes after the race, Spencer says. With larger marathons, you can often accomplish this by walking through the finisher's chute, collecting your medal and grabbing any post-race provisions (including cooling blankets and food).
Head over to the post-race food area to grab some food and something to drink. Consuming a combination of carbohydrates, protein and fluid 30 minutes after the marathon will give your body the tools it needs to begin repairing muscles and rehydrating. If you can't stomach solid food right away, try to at least consume a recovery drink in that 30-minute window.
Focus on getting electrolytes back in your body as well. After you've had something to eat and drink and walked through the finisher's area, change out of your clothes if they're wet. This will help regulate your body temperature, which can rise a few degrees over the course of the marathon, making your body work harder to pump blood and reducing the amount of oxygen that is able to reach vital organs efficiently.
Celebrate a Little!
It is important to celebrate big events in life. Accomplishing a marathon is certainly worth celebrating. Go for it. Its important to live a little once they finish the marathon. You deserve a reward for training hard for four to five months, so treat yourself.
The Next Day
First things first? Make sure you don't skimp out on sleep! As we wrote in Muscle Recovery | What to do and What NOT to Do,
Sleep is fundamental to short-term and long-term recovery success. Good sleep allows for proper hormonal regulation and both physical and psychological repair and restoration. Chronic sleep deprivation undercuts recovery and performance capacity. It also can lead to potentially serious health and wellness consequences. A common sleep pattern is to go to bed at 9 pm and wake at 6 am. Everyone is different so you should find what works best for you. Don't skimp out on a proper mattress either, you'll spend nearly 1/3 of your life in it!
This is also your time to start foam rolling. Here is a video on how to foam roll your lower body properly.
Foam rolling tips:
- Roll at a rate of about one inch per second.
- Never roll over bone! Just over muscles.
- Roll muscles both vertically and horizontally (imagine your muscles being like pizza dough)
- For maximum blood flow, roll towards the heart.
- Start small. Find the minimum effective dosage required to make you feel good!
We are firm believers in active recovery to boost blood flow to damaged muscles. Walking two to three miles over the course of the day combines with foam rolling and a stretching routine is great for reducing soreness more quickly.
After you've walked, Rodgers says that you can do some light stretching, though cautiously, as your muscles are damaged and just beginning the healing process. You should continue to hydrate and refuel to replace what was lost during the race.
The Next 7-14 Days
Much of what you do in the weeks after a marathon is a continuation of what you started the day after: getting adequate sleep, eating properly, foam rolling, stretching and possibly going for a massage.
Don't rush to get a massage. You should wait a couple of days post-race before getting a massage, which can further enhance muscle damage if done too early. Prioritize sleep, which is your first line of defense in recovery. Aim for 9 to 10 hours of sleep for several days/weeks after the marathon. Naps are another great way to enhance recovery, if you can fit them in your schedule.
As for your nutrition, you should have replaced any lost fluids, carbohydrates and proteins by this point. Eat nutrient-dense meals in the weeks after a marathon. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and lean cuts of meat are good ideas.
You can expect your muscles to feel better by a week later, so returning to running isn't out of the question. But be mindful and don't feel the need to rush back in to a regular routine right away. Swimming, light biking and yoga are solid low-impact alternatives to running during this time.
As a general rule of thumb, we recommend taking two full weeks off from running after finishing a marathon training cycle. Think of recovery as a 'spa treatment' for your body. Booking a massage, investing some time foam rolling, and going to bed early will help your body repair and regenerate faster. Lastly, and probably most importantly, these things will give you the head space to mentally reset, too.
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