Article last updated on April 6, 2021
Runners are predictable. Most of us don’t spend as much time celebrating and recovering from our accomplishments as we probably should. Marathon recovery takes time but is often low on the list of priorities for most runners.
In the aftermath of a race, we get hung up on the details that could be improved. By improving our pacing, or fine-tuning our nutrition strategy, surely we could shave seconds or minutes off our finishing time.
The result is that many runners find themselves returning to training after a marathon far quicker than what is optimal. In turn, rushing back leads to having to learn how to handle a running injury.
But what is the optimal way to structure your recovery after a big race such as a marathon? Unfortunately, as with most things related to running, there is no cookie-cutter recipe, no one size fits all.
We can educate ourselves, however. We can learn from what the best runners do and what the best coaches recommend. Combined with scientific research, we can devise the principles upon which we build the ultimate post-marathon recovery plan for ourselves.
Marathon Recovery is Repairing a Broken Body
It should come as no surprise that running 42.2 kilometres as fast as you possibly can is an arduous undertaking for your body. It is not just your legs that take a beating. A marathon puts your entire body under severe strain for several hours, and the outcome is brutal.
Body Temperature Rises
Your body temperature rises significantly throughout the race. Speaking to Gizmodo, Yale professor of medicine Mark Perazella says that many runners have core temperatures similar to a high-grade fever when they cross the finish line. All that hard work generates a lot of heat. As a result, your heart must work harder to pump blood to the skin to cool it down.
As you progress through the race, you also tax your kidneys to the limit. A study published in the American Journal of Kidney Diseases found that a vast majority of marathon runners showed signs of kidney function impairment directly after the race. What does that mean? In the case of more than 80% of the studied runners, kidneys stopped filtering toxins from the blood.
Of course, when running, it is your legs that take the brunt of the damage. The outcome is numerous micro-tears in your muscles, from the soles of your feet and up to your core. Your body will release free radicals to repair the tissue damage, an inflammatory response. You will know this has happened as your muscles get sore and stiff. That old familiar feeling has a name, delayed onset muscle soreness. Or just DOMS for short.
Depleted Energy Stores
Running for hours requires energy. The amounts required are more than what your body has readily available to draw from, which is why race nutrition is essential. But your energy stores will be depleted as you cross the finish line, regardless of what you consume underway.
Studies have shown that depleted energy stores correlate with a reduced capacity of the immune system. By not allowing the body to recover in such a state, we risk picking up a virus or a bug that further derails us on the way back to full training.
How to Approach Post Marathon Recovery
Now that we understand how much our bodies suffer during a marathon, the importance of caution in the weeks following a marathon should be apparent. We must resist the temptation to get back on our feet too soon. Doing too much in the first few weeks post-race is a sure-fire way to pick up an injury.
Recovery Time After a Marathon Is Individual
Exactly how much time a runner should dedicate to recovery after a marathon varies from person to person. Factors such as how long you have been running and whether it is your first or fifth marathon matters.
Novice runners who have just completed their first marathon should be exceedingly cautious in the following weeks. After completing my first marathon, it took well over a month before my body felt normal again. It took five to six weeks before I could train at a similar level to before the race. And through conversations with many other runners, I have discovered that this is not uncommon.
As you gain experience as a runner, and your body becomes familiar with all that a marathon entails, recovery can speed up. Don’t fool yourself, though — jumping back to workouts in the first couple of weeks is still a high-risk move.
Ways to Speed up Recovery After a Marathon
While running might not be advisable, sitting on the couch is not the best way to recover from a marathon. Staying active and using your muscles increases blood flow and circulation, which in turns speeds up recovery. You should, therefore, aim to remain active in the weeks following a marathon — just put running in the back seat.
Eliud Kipchoge, the greatest marathoner of all time, famously includes aerobics and steps exercises in his post-marathon recovery. But only after three full weeks of rest, that is.
While congregating to the aerobics classes at your local gym might not appeal to you, there are plenty of other good options. Biking is a tried and tested method of cross-training. Unlike running, it is low impact. It, therefore, allows you to stay active for long periods without inducing or aggravating tissue damage. Leisurely bike rides with my family is an enjoyable change of pace in the weeks following a marathon for me, while facilitating recovery.
Other low-impact activities such as swimming, cross-country skiing, and even roller skiing or blading are great options as well. Use the time away from full training as an opportunity to explore other activities. Knowing what you like and not might come in handy if you ever get injured. And, let’s face it, most runners do.
Example Marathon Recovery Plan
The most important form of exercise while recovering from a marathon is caution. I believe there is little to gain from running the first week after the race, compared to the risks involved. Instead, full rest and recovery should take priority over structured physical activity.
Your ordinary training volume is a critical factor to consider when planning your return to full training. However, the suggested plan below can serve as an outline for most active runners who train more than three times per week.
- Prioritise full rest the first couple of days.
- Add in leisurely activities such as walks or bike rides the second half of the week.
- Run one or two recovery runs between 30 to 45 minutes — do not push the pace or intensity!
- Supplement with one or two structured low-impact cross-training sessions.
- Run three times, or even four if you usually run at least five times per week. Allow yourself to run to feel towards the last half of the week, but don’t push beyond the aerobic threshold.
- Complement with low-impact cross-training sessions on the days you would ordinarily run.
- Run as many days as you usually do. If you double in an ordinary training week, stick to running once per day.
- If your body feels decent, do a half workout.
- Add low-impact cross-training sessions to reach your regular number of training sessions.
- Return to a regular running schedule.
- Stick to half workouts.
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