You’ve done it! You’ve crossed the finish line, got that massive shiny medal round your neck and posted your photos on Facebook. All those months of training in the rain and skipped social engagements were worth it. Now you probably want to head to the pub, right? But hold that thought.
If you’ve just completed 26.2 miles no one’s going to begrudge you a celebratory pint – or three – but post-marathon recovery is one aspect of marathon running that too many of us overlook.
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If you spend a bit of time and energy helping your body repair and recover, you’ll feel much better for it and be back out there running again sooner rather than later – if those last three miles of the marathon didn’t put you off altogether that is.
What happens when you run a marathon?
Running a marathon is a big undertaking and can leave your body feeling pretty battered. You’ll likely be suffering from aches and soreness caused by microscopic tears in the muscles, and may be a bit woozy from mild dehydration and the depletion of your body’s glycogen stores.
Your immune system will also be low after the race, making you more susceptible to colds and minor bugs. Sounds great eh?
But don’t worry, there’s plenty of ways to help your body get back to normal as soon as possible. Here’s what you should be doing in the hours, days and weeks after you cross that finish line, including when to attempt running again.
And remember, don’t rush anything. Be nice to yourself, listen to your body and if it wants cake, give it cake, you’ve just run a marathon after all.
What to do straight after the marathon
Don’t wait until the day after the marathon, your recovery plan starts as soon as you cross the finish line.
Keep on walking
As soon as that marathon medal is round your neck, you’ll probably want to fall to the floor and stay there until someone carries you home. This is not ideal.
Not only will you be in the way of all the other finishers but now is the time to help your body cool down and gradually transition from engine-revving marathon mode.
Unless you feel unwell or sense the sharp pain of an injury, keep moving. You don’t need to do a cool-down jog or anything too crazy but try to keep walking – or hobbling – through the finishers funnel and back to your car/bus/supporters. A 10-to-15 minute walk will help your heart rate gradually drop without causing dizziness and allow the circulation to return to its resting state.
This goes for the afternoon too. While walking might be a struggle, the more you keep moving – slowly – today, the better those legs will feel the day after.
Change those clothes
Once you’ve finished the race your body will start to cool down fast as your core temperature plummets, and those wet sweaty clothes will make you feel even colder.
Your aim here is to help your system move from the fight-or-flight stress mode you needed to get round the 26.2 miles, into a parasympathetic state, where recovery can begin to happen. And that means being comfortable.
Have a change of outfit in your kit bag and include something warm and cosy like a hoodie and jogging bottoms, and consider popping a pair of compression tights in too.
It’s amazing how much better dry, clean clothing can make you feel. If you wear one, remember to pack a clean bra, sports bras tend to hold onto moisture and get very uncomfortable as you cool down.
And don’t forget your feet – taking your shoes off after a marathon feels blissful. They will probably be a bit swollen and tender so instead of forcing them into another pair of restrictive shoes, pack some flip flops or recovery sandals such as OOFOS – designed to absorb impact and cradle your arches – and let them breathe.
Elevate your legs
You can get away with some strange behaviour when you’re wearing a marathon medal, one being raising your legs in the air like you just don’t care. Find a tree or wall and lie down with your legs against it for around five-to-10 minutes. Elevation can help flush out the lactic acid from the legs and reduce swelling. If you’re feeling faint or dizzy, it will also get blood flow back to the brain.
Refuel with electrolytes, carbs and protein
Let’s be honest, after a marathon eating is often the last thing you feel like doing, at least for the first hour or so. But your body’s carbohydrate stores have been depleted and most runners will be slightly dehydrated so try and get something down you within 30 minutes of finishing.
A snack containing carbohydrates to replenish energy and protein to aid muscle recovery is ideal. Look for a 3:1 carb to protein ratio as found in the Veloforte Forza bar, which also contains fennel for its anti-inflammatory properties.
Hydrate with sips of water or a sports drink containing electrolytes. Electrolytes are lost through sweat, which you’ve probably done a lot of over the past few hours, and if they’re not replenished you can suffer muscle cramps, fatigue and nausea.
Take a cold shower
Many athletes swear by ice baths to constrict the blood vessels, easing pain and reducing inflammation. If you can bear it, once you’re home or in your hotel room, take a cold shower or bath. You don’t need to stay in there long, up to 10 minutes should do it.
If you really can’t face cold water then an ice pack or bag of peas on tender areas will have a similar effect on your post-marathon recovery, just ensure you wrap them in a towel or t-shirt first to prevent ice burn.
Try compression clothing
While the jury’s out on whether compression clothing, designed to increase blood flow and reduce swelling and post-exercise soreness, is an effective tool or not, many marathon runners swear by it. If you favour compression gear, manufacturers recommend wearing it for periods of two-to-four hours after exercise.
Get some sleep
Ah, here’s one we can get on board with. A study from Australia suggested that following a tough race athletes need around nine-to-10 hours sleep to help the body’s cells grow and repair. The Virgin London Marathon even advises taking 20-to-40-minute naps during the days following. Though your boss might not approve of that one though.
If you can’t nod off the night after your marathon however, don’t worry, twitching legs, muscle pain and reliving those moments of glory can all keep you awake. You’ll definitely be able to catch up in the following days, in fact you’ll probably struggle to stay awake.
The week after the marathon
In the week following the marathon, you should start to feel a bit better as the dreaded DOMS abate and you catch up on your sleep. There are still plenty of recovery tactics to employ though.
Book a massage and foam roll
Your muscles are still recovering so lay off the deep tissue massage for now, instead opt for a light rub down to boost circulation, relax muscles and reduce inflammation. You can also try some gentle massaging at home with a light foam rolling session, tennis ball or other self-massage tool.
Try cross training
If you want to start adding a bit of gentle exercise to your routine, low-impact cross training such as swimming, cycling, walking or yoga can aid your marathon recovery by boosting circulation and warming muscles.
Should you run?
How long it takes until you’re ready to run again depends on a number of variables including how used you are to marathon running, how prepared you were beforehand and how tough the race was.
Some runners take a few days off running while others take a few weeks. If you regularly monitor your heart rate, a higher resting heart rate than normal is an indicator that you need to rest a bit longer.
If you’re feeling up to it, though, you could try a gentle jog towards the end of the week. If it feels like hard work at any point, stop or you risk prolonging your recovery time.
You’ll probably find you’re hungrier than usual in the days following a big race. While no one’s going to begrudge you the odd slice of pizza (yeah right, a slice) and portion of chips, make sure you eat plenty of healthy nutritious foods to fuel recovery too.
Include protein to help muscles repair and recover, carbohydrates for energy and plenty of fruit and vegetables to give you an antioxidant boost and support your immune system.
Have warm baths
Ice and cold water therapy is best straight after the marathon to reduce inflammation but after 48 hours it won’t have much effect. Instead opt for warm baths and showers to help your muscles relax.
Many mineral bath soaks, such as Epsom salts, claim to reduce muscle soreness when added to bath water and, while there’s little scientific evidence to support this, you may well find it helps.
Beat the marathon blues
After all that time training and building up to the big event, it’s normal to feel a bit tired and empty in the days after. Schedule in time to catch up with friends, visit a spa or even research new races to keep your mind occupied.
Two weeks after the marathon
You should find your muscle soreness has died down by now and you may be starting to think about introducing some more regular running into your routine.
Try a gentle jog but if it hurts stop
As long as you’re feeling good keep on going with the cross training and maybe try adding in a run or two. Keep it short and easy paced, you don’t want to be going for longer than an hour.
Remember, if your body’s finding it tough that’s a sign you’re doing too much too soon and you could be at risk of injury or overtraining – don’t worry about missing runs, your body will benefit much more from the rest and recovery.
Three weeks after the marathon
Gradually up the volume
If you’ve already introduced a few gentle runs and it’s going well, try gradually increasing distance or intensity. Some runners like to follow a ‘reverse taper’ – doing the last three weeks of their marathon plan in reverse to gradually build back up. Remember though, what works for some won’t work for others, if you still need rest, take it.
Mentally you may also find you just don’t want to run yet so use this as an opportunity to try new sports, activities and group exercise classes, all those things you didn’t have time for during marathon training.
Four weeks after the marathon
If everything’s feeling fine and dandy you should be ok to return to your regular weekly running schedule but, and we can’t say this enough, if you need extra time, take it. You want to ease back into training feeling refreshed and injury-free, so you’re ready to ace a marathon again next year.