Legend has it that after running back to Athens from the town of Marathon to announce the results of a key battle, the ancient Greek soldier and original marathoner, Pheidippides, collapsed – and never recovered.
Thanks to modern advances such as protein bars and sports drinks, to say nothing of modern medicine, you can expect your recovery to go a lot more smoothly than his.
If you’ve never completed a marathon before, you may be wondering what else to expect. And if you’ve found from experience that the recovery process can be tricky, you might also want to know where you might have made a misstep.
Either way, your exact recovery timetable and schedule will be unique to your own body, and could even change over time. One thing that’s definitely true: you should take post-marathon recovery just as seriously as pre-marathon training. That means avoiding shortcuts.
There are, at least, a few general guidelines to follow.
We’ve broken down tips into the following stages:
Immediate Post-Marathon Aftermath
First of all, congratulations. You just ran 42 kilometers. Whether this is your first finish or your hundredth, you’ve accomplished something remarkable.
And while you may be tempted to crumple in a heap and be romantically hailed as a hero like Pheidippides…
The first one to three hours after you finish are absolutely crucial to the recovery process.
You might be totally jelly-legged. You may be dealing with joint or ligament aches, blisters, or some pretty serious muscle soreness. You might even feel weirdly fine.
Regardless, you’ll absolutely still want to:
The contrast in exertion between pushing yourself to finish the last km of a race and coming to an instant stop is more than most human bodies would prefer to manage.
Stay on your feet and keep walking a little while longer to ease the transition between the race and your resting state. You may not feel great about it, but a prolonged cool down period is much better than a sudden crash.
You might not feel hungry after crossing the finish line, but your body absolutely needs fuel right now.
Try to get 200-300 calories down within 180 minutes of finishing. How you get there doesn’t matter much. Half a turkey sandwich, a banana, granola, or a bagel are all fine options. You can even slurp down another gel or two if you can still stomach it.
And if solid food seems like too big a challenge, start replenishing carbohydrates with a sports drink or chocolate milk. Just make sure you hit your caloric goal.
No matter how hard you’ve worked to hydrate over the course of the race, you’ve been losing water and salt through your sweat. It’s time to put it back.
Sports drinks with electrolytes are a good start, but you should keep going with some salty options (tomato juice or soup is good) and water until your urine is clear and you’re back to the same weight you were before the race started.
A lot of people like to enjoy a post-race beer. Beware: this can further dehydrate you. We’ll look the other way if that’s how you want to celebrate, just make sure to compensate with extra water.
Regardless of your particular recovery needs and process, the three immediate post-race activities listed above should be regarded as absolutely essential to a speedy recovery in the days and weeks to follow.
About three hours after you’ve finished, your body will be less responsive to immediate input and the recovery becomes a longer-term process.
Leg Care Before Bed
After seeing to your body’s immediate post-race recovery needs, it’s time to tend to your legs.
As mentioned before, you could have finished feeling weak-kneed, achy, sore, or strangely fine. If your legs feel good, it can generally means one of two things:
You executed your months-long training regimen to absolute perfection for the rigors of the marathon you just ran at the pace you just ran it. The soreness is waiting on you, and will rear its head in earnest within the next 48 hours.
Option two is far more likely, but even if not, a 42km run is a sufficient workout to warrant some recovery protocol for your legs.
Try the following before you hit the sack:
A 42km run is long enough to put significant wear on anybody’s leg muscles. Swelling the body’s natural response to this, which can prolong your recovery process if you don’t address it.
Take a long, cool or even cold shower with the water running down your legs, or try soaking in a cold tub. Some people even add ice. You don’t have to submerge your torso, though. The goal is to cool your legs down and prevent swelling, not to reduce your body temperature. You’ll want to avoid hot water or a hot soak in this phase.
An over the counter anti-inflammatory wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
Your leg (and core and shoulder and arm) muscles are going to need nutrients to repair the strain you’ve just put on them.
For your post-race dinner, shoot for a nice balance of carbs, good fat, protein, and high-vitamin foods. Think fish, rice, vegetables, avocado, and sweet potato. The goal is to avoid anything heavy, but to take in a good amount.
Now’s a good time to stretch, including laying on your back with your legs up against the wall – which will reverse the blood flow in your legs.
Continue drinking fluids to help flush your muscles. Avoid heat but do your best to pay attention to each muscle group in your legs. Consider some light work on a foam roll bar.
Before settling in for bed, you may want to take a last dose of anti-inflammatory, and/or hop in the shower for another cold water cycle.
Sleep well. You’ve earned it.
The Day and Week After Running a Marathon
You’re likely to be a little tender for a while. Wear your soreness like a badge of honor. After all, you just finished a marathon.
As you continue your recovery and ease back into regular, non-marathon life, keep the following in mind:
There’s a good chance your feet are also sore. 42km is long enough for blisters to appear on even the toughest of soles.
To help you navigate your way back to regular life without groaning your way around the house, you might want to invest in a pair of cushy recovery shoes or sandals.
As wild as it sounds, the impulse to get back into the swing of training can be so strong, many people are tempted to run on the day after a marathon.
Some activity on the day after is a good idea, just to get circulation going. Think anything from a slow amble to an extremely light jog at a short distance. But a full-tilt run is not advisable – you’ll essentially be starting out from a point of fatigue, which aside from the usual risks can also introduce new inefficiencies into your running form.
After all the rewarding hard work you’ve put yourself through to get to the finish line, a schedule that’s all of a sudden not dominated by training can feel like a major adjustment.
Many competitive distance runners will do close to nothing for an entire month – and if they can handle it, you can too. A good rule of thumb is to adjust your rest period based on how sore you feel.
You don’t have to be a total couch potato in this stage, but you should also rest (as in not running or training at all other than to get the blood flowing to your legs) for at least a day if not more after your race. It may help to plan a slightly more sedentary activity – now’s a good time to binge that show your coworkers have been talking about.
In the first week after your marathon, treat yourself to a spa trip, massage, aromatherapy, acupuncture, or other soothing therapeutic treatment. Just make sure to wait 48 hours for any heat-related treatment to make sure the risk of swelling-related issues has passed.
You might also want to engage with a more active form of therapy, such as physical rehab, pool running, or a chiropractic visit.
Either way, it’s best to treat your body as if it’s in recovery, and lavish it with plenty of stretching, rolling, rubbing, hydrating and relaxing.
If sitting still is really getting to you, 48 hours post-marathon is a fine time to ease back into the swing of exercise – just maybe not running. Try swimming, cycling, or another sport. Just keep it light at first.
In this rest phase, you’ll want to concentrate on a nutrient rich diet for prolonged muscle recovery, and make sure to enjoy yourself.
How and When to Get Back to Running
As you probably already know, training for a marathon can feel as much like a lifestyle as an activity. Perhaps that’s why many runners are eager to get back out on the road as soon as possible after crossing the finish line – even though doing so can result in poor form and other setbacks.
So be advised that 42kms takes a pretty serious toll on even the healthiest body. And know that despite your best efforts to restrict yourself, you may be tempted to get back to your pre-race running regimen before your body is actually ready.
To make sure that doesn’t happen, stick to the following guidelines:
If falling out of your training routine is really bugging you, you can start back after a good 48 hour rest with cross training options other than running. A low exercise cycle or elliptical machine are good cardio options. And some weights and core work can get you those exertion enzymes too.
Just wait until you’re no longer sore before doing leg day, and remember your body is still repairing itself. Now is not the time to shoot for any personal bests.
Remember the taper process leading up to the big race, where you reduced your distance and pacing? Once you’re ready to resume running – you should probably wait at least a week for your legs to recover, but longer is fine too – the key will be to build your distance and pace back up slowly.
Start with brisk walks or interval walk/runs no longer than 5k. Listen to your body. If you’re still sore, don’t push yourself. If you’re tiring faster than usual for a given distance, slow down and try a shorter run next time.
This is also a good time to concentrate on your form. If you notice you’re struggling to maintain your regular posture or gait, it might be a sign that you’d be better served going back to cross-training until you recover more fully.
When can you start to push back into a more regular running regimen?
After a solid week of easy runs at shorter distances where you’ve felt good, kept your breath, and maintained your form – and by all means, limit yourself to non-running activity and shorter easy runs until that is the case.
A good guideline to follow in this early phase of growing your running regimen back to where it was before is to push distance or pace, but not both. Alternate, and increase in manageable increments in much the same way you did to start your training regimen many months ago.
With the same abundance of caution you used to move from non-running training to diagnostic runs to longer rebuild runs, make sure you’re totally free of soreness and running in great form before you get back to your usual fast paced double-digit mile running routine.
You’ll also want to settle into at least a week to a month-long groove in this stage before you start looking at speed training or time-dropping methods.
No matter how badly you want to get back to mean machine status, stay patient with yourself. If it helps, break out your finisher’s medal and give yourself a mental pat on the back for not ending up like poor Pheidippides.
After all, you’re officially a marathoner now.
Good luck, and congrats again. Mahalo.