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How to recover after a marathon?

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Most marathon training programs take you up to race day and then leave you to fend for yourselves during one of the most vital training phases. Optimum recovery from the marathon is important because what you do can have long-term consequences for both your health and future performance. During a marathon you push your body beyond your limits causing massive muscle and connective tissue destruction. If left untreated the physiological effects can lead to injury, illness and even depression.

This can affect your normal life activities as well as your running ability. On the upside, improvements in fitness come from overloading your body and then recovering properly. There are not too many things you can do more challenging then a marathon. Because of this the marathon represents a great opportunity to improve your fitness. The key to achieving this improvement is recovery. What you do after the marathon will help you gain the fitness benefits from having completed such a hard long run.

How soon?

The main difficulty during recovery is knowing how soon you can run again. This is complicated by the varied amount of damage that is inflicted for different runners and different races and conditions. It takes less time to recover from a fast marathon where you finished strong then a slow marathon where you hit the wall and had to stagger into the finish. Hot weather conditions or hills will increase recovery time. What you do just after you finish can decrease your recovery time. Your recovery should be flexible and managed based on how you respond both physically and mentally.

How hard should I run?

An easy way to understand training theory is to examine it based on three major components of Intensity, Quantity and Frequency. Regardless of what phase you are in, or what theories you believe, all training is founded upon these three components. It is how the intensity, quantity and frequency vary during each phase that describes what you are doing to try to achieve progression, periodisation and success. During recovery training intensity and quantity will initially be very low and gradually increase as your body gets stronger. If you try to run hard or long too soon you can delay full recovery. Because you only improve while recovering from hard efforts you will also lose any benefits you could have gained from running the marathon if you start hard training too soon.

How often?

Frequency is the only thing that should be maintained during the recovery phase. Normal intense training and racing damages some muscle fibres. The scope of destruction after a marathon includes the macrostructure of the muscles and connective tissue. If you run at least every second day you will break the muscles down a little bit each time. This will allow the macrostructure of the muscle to be rebuilt in the right way. The cellular microstructure will not recover any quicker if you do no running in the first week or if you run every second day. But the advantage of easy running is that the muscles will have less scar tissue that can lead to injury further down the track.

How long till a long run?

An old theory for recovery used to recommend that you give yourself one day of recovery for every mile of the race. For a marathon of 26.2 miles this would be about four weeks of recovery before you try to train properly again or run another race. However it is dangerous to lump everyone and every experience into one simple calculation. How long it takes to recover depends on the difficulty of your race experience and what you have done to try to recover.

Rather than think of an arbitrary number to calculate how long it takes to recover you should listen to your body. Train easy and avoid building up mileage until you get that zip back in your stride. It can be easy to tell that you are not recovered because even easy runs are a struggle. You may be sore after running and can’t maintain any speed for very long. I usually recommend to wait one until I feel fully recovered and can push the pace along. I then feel it is safe to commence the build up of long runs back.

How to help recovery?

What you do after you finish a race can have a drastic effect on your recovery time. In fact recovery training starts before you even finish your marathon. The most important factor of this immediate recovery involves re-hydration and nutrition. While you might think that drinking in the last few kilometres is not necessary to improve your performance in that particular race, it will have an affect on your recovery. During a marathon you can sweat out nearly ten percent of your body weight. This is significant for your performance but also affects the amount of damage that occurs. Fluid helps to transport resources used to rebuild damaged muscle to where it is needed.

It is also important to remove heat from the location of the damage to release it from the skin. Muscles and the liver are completely depleted of glycogen at the end of a marathon. This source of energy is more effective at rebuilding muscles so you must replace glycogen as soon as possible after you finish. The best way to do this is by drinking a sports drink or soft drink within the first few minutes of finishing. This helps to re-hydrate at the same time as replacing some glycogen. In fact if you drink just water it will not stay in your system as well as if you drink something with some sugar and salt in it. Within the first ten minutes you should begin to eat some carbohydrate rich solid foods. Fruit is easy to get down and has high levels of fluid as well as important vitamins to help you recover. After the first half-hour you have missed your opportunity to replace water and glycogen optimally.

Massage is often available at the end of races. Because of the major cellular destruction that has occurred mechanical manipulation of this damaged tissue will just cause greater damage. You should avoid any massage until the initial inflammation has subsided. This can take a few days. After the inflammation has gone down then massage can be very beneficial to proper recovery.

How to race again?

You know you are recovered from a marathon when you are able to race well again. But what do you do if you want to run two marathons within a few weeks or months of each other? The key to frequent marathons is to train sensibly between them. Do not think that you have to get in some good quality training in between. It is more important that you recover properly from the first marathon and are rested for the second one. There is no better training for a marathon then running another marathon. A marathon race exactly simulates what will be required for running a marathon. As long as you recover properly you will gain the benefits from the first marathon and will be able to run even better at the next one.

No matter how well you have planned your recovery program things may not work out the way you wanted. You might be taking longer to get over the pain of the marathon or picked up a niggling injury from the race. This will force you to rethink what you should do. Blindly sticking to your plan will lead to poor recovery, overtraining and probable injury or illness. A responsive recovery program will have the capability of changing based on how you are coping with the recovery. It will have contingencies built in so you can change sessions around and increase your recovery time if needed. Intensity is not fixed at a certain level but responds to how you are feeling without any major failure of the program. By responding to how the recovery is going you can optimise the benefits you have gained from running a marathon and take your performances to another level in the future.


Article written by podiatrist, level 4 athletics coach and 2hr30 marathon runner, Steve Manning.

If you need help with recovery training, an injury or post-race niggle contact intraining Running Centre at 3367 3088 or book an appointment online.