Running a marathon is a huge accomplishment. The distance itself – 42 kilometers or 26.2 miles – is impressive in and of itself, but the miles runners log in the weeks and months of training leading up to the big day is incredible too. The thing is, all that mileage really takes a toll on the body. That’s why we’re going to talk about marathon recovery.
While there’s a lot of information available online about how to train for a marathon – there are tons of different training methodologies for learning how to cover the distance – there’s not so much written about how to actually recover from a marathon.
Yes, wearing proper marathon gear helps. But it’s not miraculous. Even though wearing quality compression running socks or compression calf sleeves during the race help your legs recover faster, what you do after the race is also important.
Many people think that once they cross the finish line of the marathon, they’re done and that the work is behind them. Of course, that’s partially true – you likely won’t be running another marathon in the next few days or weeks – but there’s still “work” to do, albeit work of a different kind.
The tips and tricks detailed in this article apply to everyone, from beginners to the pros, and if followed will jump-start your recovery as soon as you cross the finish line.
Marathon Recovery: A Primer
Right when you cross the finish line
Keep moving. After running 26.2 miles for several hours, it’s totally normal to want to curl up into a fetal position and take a nap. But whatever else you do, don’t do that! As tempting as it is to sit down, unless you feel like you’re having some sort of medical emergency, keep moving forward. This bit of advice is especially important if you’re running a large, urban marathon where there are tons of other marathoners finishing after you. Stopping in the finishers’ chute area can become a security risk and create tons of pedestrian traffic. Plus, stopping right after you finish can make your body begin to cramp up, making it hard to move.
Drink and/or eat something in the finishers’ chute. Most marathons pass out food and beverages at the finish line for a specific reason: to help you recover. You may not want to even think about drinking another cup of water or Gatorade for the rest of your life, but doing so is especially important post-race (and in particular, immediately after you finish). If you can stomach food, something is better than nothing, so try to keep it down. You’ve just torched through thousands of calories, and sweated out fluids and electrolytes by the bucketful. Your body needs to replenish its energy stores.
Get into dry clothing. If you had the luxury of checking a bag pre-race, take time to put on dry clothes to help you recover. Chances are high that you’ll be pretty soaked from sweat (if not also the elements and the aid stations), and standing around in your own sweat can make you feel really cold and uncomfortable really fast. Even just swapping sweaty shorts for some dry warm-ups or taking off a sweaty sports bra can make you feel “new” again.
Within a couple of hours of crossing the finish line
Eat a balanced meal and/or whatever sounds good. You may not have felt like eating much right after you finished your marathon, but a few hours later, you may. Do what you can to eat a balanced meal – something rife with carbohydrates, fat, and protein – but also eat or drink whatever sounds appealing to you. (Many runners love their post-race “shower beer” that they drink while getting cleaned up post-race!). If you want to think about this first meal as your “celebratory meal” for achieving this awesome accomplishment, go for it. Revel in this awesome thing that you just did.
Do some sort of cool-down, even just really leisurely walking. The last thing you may want to do is move around more, but it can really make your body feel pretty good. Consider leisurely walking around somewhere – even a local store, mall, or grocer – to get your blood flowing. If you are traveling to and from your race, consider stopping periodically so you can walk around some. It will help you to feel less “stiff” later on.
Keep hydrating (with water!). Post-race hydration is important. If you’re having a celebratory beer or wine (or three), that’s awesome – and you shouldn’t feel bad about it! – but don’t forget to keep drinking water. Your body needs it post-race more than ever. And alcohol, remember, can dehydrate you if you’re not careful.
Do some very light stretching or foam rolling. Hours after your marathon, after you’ve done some easy walking and have gotten at least one good meal in your system, you may want to do some very light stretching or foam rolling on anywhere tender. Even a few simple passes of a sun salutation (in yoga) can make you feel better. Don’t expect that you’ll necessarily feel super flexible or limber, and definitely don’t push anything. Again, your goal is to aid in getting your blood moving and in increasing your circulation.
Sleep as well as you can. You may find that even though you’re SO TIRED from running a marathon, you can’t sleep well that night; it makes sense that you’re probably still riding on a huge adrenaline high from the day’s event. Get into bed at your normal time, and trust that even if you can’t get to bed right away, your body will make up for it in the subsequent days.
Within the first few weeks post-marathon
Ready to run? Not so fast. Once you’re beginning to feel “normal” again, you may be itching to run and endure hard workouts. Not so fast, partner! Give yourself at least a week of little or no running – and nothing more than 15 or 20 minutes, initially, at very easy paces – before jumping back into things. Your body incurs a ton of damage when you run marathons, even down to the cellular level, and it takes time to recover. Hastening the recovery process can result in injury later. Overuse injuries are real. Give yourself at least a week of almost no running before you begin anything in earnest again.
Keep using the recovery tools in your arsenal, such as foam rollers. Every day post-marathon, devote at least a few minutes to some sort of recovery tool at your disposal: a foam roller, an Addaday, a lacrosse ball, whatever you have. Take a little time each day to roll out or rub tight spots in an effort to keep things moving. Remember, too, to take things easy when you’re working on your muscles because you’ll probably feel sore for at least a few days.
Treat yourself to a massage. Post-marathon, consider treating yourself to a post-race massage to help you get your full range of motion back and to help you begin to feel like yourself again. Getting massaged periodically can be a huge stress reliever, too, which can be a nice way to unwind after marathon training for several months.
Prioritize sleep. Finally, in the weeks post-marathon, as you’re recovering from your awesome effort, prioritize your sleep. We know that getting enough sleep keeps us healthy and injury-free, so failing to give ourselves enough time for this critical process each night is doing a huge disservice to our own selves.
Training for and running a marathon is a huge deal, but don’t forget the important RECOVERY part of the puzzle. That’s just as important, particularly if you want to keep your body healthy enough to do it again.
And there you have it: everything you need to know about marathon recovery.
Questions? Concerns? Be sure to let us know in the comments below.