The 3-Step Process to Recover From a Marathon

A marathon is often a bucket-list goal for runners. Months – or even years – are spent training to finish 26.2 miles. But how are you supposed to recover from a marathon?

how to recover from a marathon

Because of its distance at 26.2 miles (or about 42.2km), it takes dedication and a lengthier training cycle to complete a marathon. It’s an advanced race – and requires more serious training than, say, a 5k race.

And just as the training must be more serious, so must the recovery. Racing a marathon results in a lot more “damage” than simply sore muscles:

  • Immune function is suppressed – making it more likely that your body won’t be able to fight off sickness-causing bacteria or a virus
  • Muscle strength is reduced (and inflammation and cell damage persists for up to two weeks after the marathon)
  • Even the heart may be damaged (while more common in beginner runners, all runners should only attempt 26.2 miles when sufficiently trained for the distance)
  • Muscle memory and coordination are compromised, making a repetitive stress injury more likely while running fast in the 2-3 weeks after the race

Most of these issues are far less serious or even non-existent for shorter races, which makes the question of how to recover from a marathon even more important. Both for your short-term happiness, but also your future training!

So no matter if you’re at the back of the pack or trying to race a fast Boston Marathon, prioritizing recovery after the race is critical.

Proper recovery can be segmented into three basic timeframes: the day of the race, the day after the race, and the week after the race.

Let’s dive into the first stage.

Stage 1: The Day of the Marathon

Christie Aschwanden on post workout recovery

Recovery starts as soon as you cross the finish line. Take a photo with your marathon medal and then let’s prioritize recovery.

How to Recover: Right After the Race

Walk for at least 10-15 minutes to cool down, rather than sitting or lying down immediately after the race. This will help two major issues:

  • Low blood pressure often accompanies a sudden stop in running. You don’t want to faint!
  • Walking will promote extra blood flow to clear your muscles and blood stream of exercise byproducts (like lactate, cortisol, and adrenaline)

At most marathons, there will be fluids and food available at the finish line. Take advantage of these resources! As soon as possible, start rehydrating and taking in calories to give your carb-starved muscles the energy they’re demanding.

When you’re able to eat, it’s important to remember that marathon refueling is very different than eating for health. While it’s important to eat nutritious foods, at this point it’s most critical to begin the rebuilding process with calories (any calories!). Focus on a few major principles:

  • Your body is dehydrated. Start drinking fluids as soon as possible.
  • Focus on carbohydrate-rich foods (yes, that includes simple sugars and processed foods. It’s ok after racing 26.2 miles!)
  • Try to eat something wtih protein in it to help rebuild damaged muscles.

After completing a marathon, it’s fine – and even recommended – to treat yourself!

How to Recover: The Hours After the Race

As soon as your stomach can handle more substantial food, aim for a well-balanced meal. But since you did just finish a 26.2 mile race, it’s ok to order that greasy burger, fries, and beer. You can have a more reasonable dinner but for now, focus on lots of food!

Remember that recovery isn’t just about what you do, but what you don’t do:

  • Avoid celebrating your finish with more than a few alcoholic drinks that will increase dehydration and prevent nutrients from being absorbed in your gut
  • Wait 1-2 days to get a massage, which will further exacerbate muscle damage if done too early
  • Try not to stand up for extended periods of time later in the day; now is the time to rest and put your feet up!

Later in the day, after you’ve had a chance to shower and eat, it’s still a good idea to avoid any form of self-massage or other exercise. Your body is in “fight or flight” mode and needs rest.

An ice bath is a helpful tool to help curb the inflammation that is at peak levels throughout your body. Dump a bag of ice in a tub of cold water and immerse your lower body for 10-15 minutes. Then, turn on the shower for a great contrast effect!

To further jumpstart the recovery process, focus on the following for the rest of the day:

  • Continue to hydrate and drink to thirst. Don’t allow yourself to go awhile without drinking fluids.
  • After that much-deserved cheat meal, have your next meal include a lot of nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables, healthy cuts of meat, nuts and seeds, and whole-grain foods.
  • Take a nap if possible. Sleep is when the body is most efficient at muscle repair so aim for a 90-minute nap that will allow you to get through a full sleep cycle.

Finally, go to sleep early and ideally try to get as much rest as possible. Your body needs it after a marathon!

Stage 2: The Day After the Marathon

sleep for recovery

How to Recover From a Marathon: SLEEP

After a (hopefully!) good night’s rest, you can continue the recovery process with some light activity. It’s not recommended to run the day after a marathon because of the repetitive impact, but a short, easy walk will promote healing blood flow without compromising recovery.

You can also choose a non-impact form of cross-training. My preferences, in order, are:

  1. pool running (a runner-specific, no-load bearing form of cross-training completed in the water – this is perfect for recovery!
  2. swimming (while swimming is not runner-specific, we’re not trying to build fitness. We’re maximizing recovery)
  3. cycling (not load-bearing, but may be more difficult than pool running or swimming)

It’s preferable to choose cross-training in the pool as the effects of the water will help the healing process. Due to the water pressure, there will be extra blood flow to your extremities that will aid recovery.

Just keep any exercise the day after a marathon extremely easy. The goal is to simply move not “get in a good workout.” And the total time for exercise doesn’t need to be any longer than about 20-30 minutes.

Now is also a good time to get a massage if you can. Keep it light and therapeutic – now is not the time to get a deep tissue or sports massage. Alert your masseuse that you’ve just run a marathon and they will keep the pressure light to enhance blood flow rather than remove myofascial adhesions or scar tissue. That’s best reserved for 1-2 weeks after the race.

Continue to hydrate well and eat nutritious food. Recovery takes 2-4 weeks to complete and it’s ideal to give your body the best fuel possible.

Stage 3: The Week After the Marathon

Most runners rush back into running because they’re either excited because of a big PR they just ran or they want vengeance after a bad performance. Stay patient! It’s best to take at least 5-7 days off from running entirely to let muscles and connective tissues heal.

And more broadly, recovering from a marathon takes more than sleep and great nutrition: it often requires a change of focus!

In this video, I explain recovery on longer timescales:

About three or four days after your marathon, begin some easy, short cross-training sessions like swimming, pool running, or cycling. The goal is movement, not performance, so keep the effort very easy.

You can also start some light strength exercises or mobility work that will help you transition back to running soon. Just avoid heavy weightlifting in the gym – the body is not ready for that yet!

These strength and core routines will be particularly helpful at this stage:

Prioritize sleep the week after the marathon to ensure you’re mentally and physically ready to run after about a week off. Once the time comes, you can start with a very easy 20-30-minute “test run” to see how your legs feel. The goal with a test run is to diagnose any aches or pains and to also see how recovered you feel.

If your legs still feel incredibly heavy or anything hurts, you may need several more days to rest.

But once you start to feel recovered and ready to start running, you can employ a “reverse taper” to get back to your normal mileage.

The marathon is a rewarding and challenging event. But the hard work continues long after you cross the finish line to maximize your recovery, return to running, and hopefully run another personal best at your next race!

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