To start with, marathon recovery should be viewed as being just as important as the training leading up to the event itself, and so we’ve compiled for you some of the best marathon recovery insights to make post-the-event as great as the run itself. Follow the steps below.
What happens to your body after a marathon
Your muscles are damaged, food-stores depleted – yet, likely, you won’t be able to listen to all the signals your body is giving you due to all you’ve just been through. It's estimated most runners competing in a marathon will physically shrink by as much as 1.25cm average due to compression of the spine from impact, and will likely lose significant body mass through dehydration – up to around 10% depending on your pace and the conditions. Running for such a long time and distance is something the average body simply isn’t used to. You’ve pushed yourself past your limit and to get there, taken out a cheque your body will cash back after you’ve finished the race. Of course recovery, like all factors of the race, depends on how fit and well trained you are. Adhering to the guidance below at the different stages of your marathon journey – before, during and after - can severely lower the (potential) weeks of marathon recovery needed to get you back on track.
There is a lot of training needed for the average runner to be marathon ready. Experts recommend beginning your training an absolute minimum of six weeks beforehand with around 65km (40 miles) covered each week. Many training plans start three or four months out from the race. Even from these early training days, your recovery should be top of mind and you should start testing out how best your body reacts to different stretches and getting-back-out-there techniques. The earlier you start the better, so forming a habit after longer training runs in these key areas below could be the thing that gets you to the line healthy and lets you appreciate the achievement more after the big day is done.
1. Changing into warm clothing. As you clock up more and more long runs, your body begins to lower its immunity through the stress you’re putting it under. To combat this (and fight off getting sick which many first-time marathon runners find they are leading up the event) is changing out of wet and damp clothes after longer runs. Cooling down too quickly can shock your body and pave the way in for colds and illness.
2. Drinking fluids. It goes without saying but everything you leave out on the training track, you need to put back in. It’s not about putting it all back in at once though – slow and steady not only wins the race, but is the way to rebuild your fluid levels at a rate your body can handle. Generally, around 500ml per hour after training is the recommended amount – think a can and a half of soft drink, but opt for water, not the sweet stuff.
3. Stretching and rolling out muscles.By the time the marathon day arrives, stretching should be second nature to you so you’ll be able to do it on autopilot. The most common injuries during a marathon (aside from blisters, cramps and dehydration) are ankle sprains and hamstring issues. Prepare for these early by stretching them after your training sessions. Ankle stretches that promote multi-directional function (such as rotating your ankle off the ground clockwise then anti-clockwise) are great to help prevent ankle rolling as you get tired on the long run. Use the Recovapro Percussion Massager up and down the backs of the legs and on the quads (the front of the thigh) are likewise among the easiest ways to stretch hamstrings and reduce recovery time both in training and after the marathon.
Of course, if you have other injuries or soreness in training that flares up (sore shoulders, knee issues and so on) focus on stretching and taping these, or seek out professional advice before the race. Better to do it immediately and know how to deal with any issues than on the day, surrounded by the chaos of a major marathon event!
4. Eating the right foods. Hand in hand with drinking post-training-fluids comes refueling with the right foods. Depending on your level of training, you will need to increase your food and calorie intake leading up to the race. On the day, you can expect to burn around 2600 calories while running (around 5 average meals’ worth of energy), and as your training increases, so too should your food intake. An important thing to remember is just because you’re training and running more than you may have ever done before, eating poorly can slow-down your training and in some cases, work against you. Don’t use this as your excuse to eat out every night at your local fast food joint, but rather to really enjoy simple, nutritious meals made for protein-rich recovery. The day (or morning) before a marathon, carb loading should be the thing on your mind. This energy will be stored and called upon during the later stages of the race so it’s important to get this right. Pasta, potatoes, rice and other high-carb foods will give you the slow-release energy you need to last the distance.
With those pillars mastered in the weeks leading up to the marathon you’re already on the right path for a strong race and recovery. Of course, running should also be all about fun, so with your eyes set on the big day, use the lead up as your chance to try those “things only runners do” for yourself, to see if they’re right for you and if they can aid in your training and recovery. Things like ice-baths, Recovapro Massager, even foam rollers may seem for many like they’re meant for “the pros” but you’ve signed up to run a marathon, you’re doing one of the toughest events runners can do, now is your chance to try them all and maybe find the one will be just what you’re looking for when it comes to fast-tracking your marathon recovery.
One last (hugely important) insider tip to best prepare yourself for the marathon – and marathon recovery – is sunscreen.
As anyone who has who has run a marathon on a hot day will tell you, sunscreen can be a lifesaver for you both during and after the run. During your 42km you’ll completely forget you’re spending hours out in the elements, sun beating down. A strong 40 or 50+ waterproof sunscreen gives you one less thing to worry about when it comes to marathon recovery after the race. There will be a lot of red faces after the run – make sure yours doesn’t stay that way longer than it needs to.
The pistol has sounded and you’re off! The first few kilometers of the race always go by in a blur. Screaming bystanders, your own nerves, the mass of other runners all spur you on and have you running on autopilot before you get back in your head and think about all that lies ahead.
Around half way through the race, your body’s glucose reduces and the carbohydrate stores you have stocked up on will begin to wane (thus the need for plenty of fuel before the race even begins). The same happens with your water levels too, so all of these things need to be replaced by you at the aid stations, especially through the latter parts of the race. The key is to start early and get water and food in to you a little at a time, not slamming it all down in one go. Depending on your needs, after around 10km, at every aid station you should have a drink and something to eat so you’re fueled for later in the day. Gels, sports drinks, fruit, chocolate – each of these items serves a purpose and should be considered by you during the run to also help your marathon recovery after the race. Potassium (found in bananas especially) is a key element that helps with transporting fluid efficiently around the body, helping fend off cramps and staying hydrated. Look out for these at the station if your legs are starting to tighten to help get them back feeling better (hopefully) sooner.
Aside from all those elements you need to take on board to make it through the marathon, there are a few things you should also carry on your person that will help you in the long run (see what we did there). Plasters and bandages are needed to be on hand as blisters and chafing are hugely common on the day. Medics and staff are scattered around the course, but they’re never quite where you need them when the pain of a blister developing on the track kicks in. By being able to stop and deal with these problems yourself means you lessen the risk of an injury getting worse, which would lead to a longer marathon recovery time. Your future self will thank you for bandaging that toenail and keeping it on there VS pushing on and it dropping… off.
The first five minutes after the race
You ate, drank and (of course) ran to the line – now the real marathon recovery begins. After the selfies and high fives, one of the first things to do is to throw on dry, warm clothes. This is one mistake many marathon runners make, hanging around in their damp race clothes not realizing how cold they are. Once you’ve changed, it’s time to start refueling and rehydrating. A banana is the perfect post-race snack. If you’re lucky they handed you one along with your finisher’s medal. And of course you want to have your fluids put back on track as fast as possible (which is where that potassium comes in once again). Armed with food and drink, you should then find a spot to do your stretching or a rubdown. You’ve been moving for (likely) three to five hours, and so it is important to gradually cool the muscles and keep them warm as long as possible. Warming creams can be a shortcut here also, but if time is an issue, focus mainly on rubbing and stretching your legs, hamstrings and back in that order before anything else.
The first hour
Once you feel fully stretched (around 15 minutes), your recovery is only just getting started. During the first hour after the race your body’s immune system is at its lowest due to all the stress it has been under. Depending on how much you feel you can handle after the race, treat your first food intake like you would if you had caught a cold: a warm vegetable or chicken soup can do the job of both fending off any sicknesses after the race, as well as helping warm you from the inside and replacing some of those lost fluids. Carbs are also important to replenish, so pasta or rice thrown in can be just what the post-race-recovery doctor ordered. You also want to try and keep moving and walking around if possible, even after your stretch. Anything to help promote blood flow around the body will help you later in the day and to get a head-start on your recovery.
Fluid-replacement is important after the race, but even more important is not overdoing it. The rule of thumb is only 500ml of liquid each hour after the marathon to recover fluids.
This is to prevent going to the opposite extreme and having too much liquid for the amount of salt in your system, which can result in hyponatremia. Little by little, rebuild your fluids: there’s no need to rush anymore. Another insider tip is to have protein drinks within the first hour of crossing the line. This is again to help with healing of the muscles, and to have more of those rebuilding nutrients in to your body as soon as possible.
The final thing you should try and do as soon as you can after the race to help your marathon recovery is to take a shower or a bath – and a long one. While a bath is relaxing, a shower is better for a hit of contrast therapy. Once under the water, alternate between very hot and very cold temperatures for 30-60 seconds each round, focusing mainly on your legs and back. This kind of showering helps get oxygen-rich-blood, proteins, potassium – basically all the fluids and fuels you’ve just put in your body post-race pumping around the muscles where it’s needed to work faster. So enjoy that long shower as part of your recovery: you’ve definitely earned it.
The night after the race
The evening after the big race is all about eating, drinking, showering (yes, again) and taking it easy. Fluid intake is the main thing to pay attention to for getting your body back to its ideal state. A good indicator that your internals are back to normal is checking the color of your fluids when they leave your body: they most likely will be dark right after the run, but should progress from golden to a light, pale yellow after a few hours with hydration. Food is also something that should be on your mind (your body will be itching for carbs) so enjoy hearty, rich foods.
The evening after you’ve run the marathon is the time to listen to your body and take stock of how everything is feeling and make sure there’s nothing completely out of the ordinary in terms of pain. Soreness is to be expected, but if you can’t put weight on a leg then it may be something else. Even smaller things like blisters or chafing are important to note down, as it may mean you chose the wrong gear and so will need to make some adjustments for your next marathon (which at this point may be the last thing on your mind).
Once that’s all done, it’s bedtime. This is where some of the best marathon recovery takes place, and so with all the food and liquids replaced inside, settle down for hopefully some of the best sleep you’ve had in a long time.
The next days
In the days after the marathon, you’ll want to find ways to gently move the body to promote blood flow and recovery. Likely you won’t be up for running for a few days, so swimming is a great way to continue some (relaxed) exercise. The same goes for low-intensity cycling. During these first few post-marathon days, massages and daily stretching are also things to consider to further promote circulation and recovery.
A training plan for post-marathon recovery could look like the one below, however most important is to listen to your own body and go at your own pace.
Marathon recovery plan
- Day 1: Very light session in the pool followed by a 10 minutes Recovapro session
- Day 2: Light session in the pool or bike followed by a 10 minutes Recovapro session
- Day 3: Weights session and short “test” walk (2km). Stretching session (or yoga).
- Day 4: Second pool or bike session or, if body feels recovered, short, slow run (5km max). followed by a 10 minutes Recovapro session
- Day 5: Slowly return to your normal routine.
When it comes to getting back out there and running, your mind may feel ready after just a few days but your body may still need some time.
What’s most important is to listen to your body on that first run after a marathon and make sure everything is feeling like it should to get you back on track.
Ready for the next marathon?
Now that you’re armed with the information on how to recover from a marathon, all that’s missing is planning your next one and to have some fun finding the right gear for your next challenge, like the Recovapro Massager.