After months of training and hours of running it seems you’re finally free of following a plan, tracking your life and worrying about making the right choices…
But smart runners know a post marathon recovery plan is a key factor in ensuring you’re able to come back strong, spend a little less time wobbling down stairs and don’t find yourself on the injured reserve list.
Marathon recovery isn’t just about how quickly you can run again, it’s about ensuring that your body gets a chance to fully recover and that mentally you remember breaks are a necessary part of training.
Elite runners often take a month or more off of running after a big goal race. They aren’t worried about losing fitness during this time, but rather focusing on how smart recovery means they’ll be able to run strong, pain free and for the next race on their calendar.
How long does it take to recover from a marathon?
The length of marathon recovery time will depend upon how hard you raced, how often you’ve run that distance and your general fitness level.
In general, as a running coach, I recommend that all of our runners do not run for a minimum of 10 days.
Yes, that’s for our runners who hit a Boston Qualifying time and our runners who finished their first marathon in 5+hours.
After that the time to start running is going to depend on a few factors:
- How were you feeling prior to the race?
- What were the conditions for the race? Yup, hot and humid can take longer to recover from.
- Are you excited to run or just feel like you’re supposed to?
- Do you have an aches or pains that need to be addressed?
Why do we need time off after a race?
Recovery is important for both the novice and elite runner because the toll of 26.2 miles on the body is just the same regardless of finishing time.
One study showed that it takes a minimum of 14 days for muscle inflammation to decrease and return to full power, while other studies have proven it can compromise the immune system for the same period of time.
As with rest days during training, your body is using this time to build a new level of fitness.
If you shortchange the recovery period, then instead of adapting and gaining fitness you keep your body in that dip of training and recovery. This is when we start to see people feeling burned out and often leads to stress fractures about 3 months post marathon.
Usually the injury doesn’t pop up right away, it’s about 2-4 months post marathon when runners who did not take time off start posting to social media they suddenly have an injury.
No one connects the dots, but they’re there.
Great so if we know that a few weeks of not running is going to make us fitter and keep us from then being forced to takes MONTHS off of running and lose our gains, why can’t we just do it?
Why don’t we take time off post-race?
Our head gets in the way of what we know to be true. So let’s try to put to bed some of the post marathon reasons you keep right on running.
The race didn’t go our way and we want to try and cram another one in soon.
Listen I myself did this after Chicago. It was 80 degrees by mile 15 I switched to run/walk to just enjoy finishing. So I gave myself 10 days no running then jumped in to training for another race.
It was going ok generally, but my energy levels never quite came back and I made the smarter decision to NOT keep pushing. I could tell I wasn’t even going to enjoy the next marathon if I kept going.
Fear of Weight Gain
We started running to lose weight and fear weeks of not running. Good news, now you can spend time lifting weights, which is going to change your shape and give you that metabolism boost of muscle you may have lost during marathon training.
Post marathon you may see some running weight gain, which is entirely related to inflammation from muscle damage.
Focus on eating for recovery and you’ll see that all drop off within the next 10 days.
Fear of Losing Fitness
It doesn’t disappear overnight and you shouldn’t be needing your body to run another marathon overnight.
That’s a crazy Shalane Flannagan goal after years and years of training or something that ultra runners do. The difference is a specific way of pacing yourself to be able to do the mileage over and over, which is not the goal of going out and running your marathon for a personal best.
Your time after the marathon is about regaining fitness you probably lost in other areas, like strength or the ability to do other sports that move your body more directions than forward.
Once you are ready to start building back, you’ll be surprised how much your body remembers and allows you to progress.
We Need the Endorphins
I’m going to say this is usually the big one that gets me!
Running makes me happy, so I want to get out there. Especially when we’ve got some post race runners blues going on.
But if the run feels off or we get injured, there’s no real boost to be had. This is yet another opportunity to work on our mental game and find the balance of slowing down and the joy in that too.
30 Day Post Marathon Recovery Plan
Unfortunately without good marathon recovery, your next round of training may fall flat and more importantly you’re susceptible to injuries which will put you off of running for weeks and months when you should be back.
Following is a guideline to maximize recovery from the finish line through the first weeks of ramping back up to run in a smart way.
My marathon recovery tips really start the moment you finish, but that’s not always when you’re thinking clearly. So try to have a plan in advance.
Begin refueling with whatever food your body can tolerate at the finish line, but ideally a sports drink to replenish sodium and electrolytes, along with a high quality carbohydrate and protein.
Often the easiest choice is a green smoothie with protein, until hunger fully sets in later that day!
- Carbohydrates – Your muscles are primed to replace depleted muscle glycogen which will speed recovery, so grab that banana, chocolate milk or head out for your celebratory pancakes.
- Water – Most of us are not able to maintain complete hydration, so start sipping and keep sipping. Don’t feel compelled to guzzle as this could lead to an upset stomach.
- Electrolytes – Add an electrolyte tablet to your water to help replenish the muscles and it will often encourage you to keep sipping and help with rehydrating.
- Alcohol – This is a huge treat for many of you at the finish line and you should enjoy it. There is no major evidence that a beer or glass of wine is going to significantly impact your recovery. As long as you hydrate too!
- Keep moving – Try not to stop and sit right away, the slow walk through the finishers chute is good to keep the legs from freezing up. You may notice feeling stiffer later in the day as DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) sets in. So try not to sit the rest of the day.
- Ice baths or Epsom salt bath – Studies have shown that ice is actually slowing the recovery process. But if you like the way it numbs you for a bit go for it. I prefer a nice hot epsom bath to loosen muscles and prevent muscle cramps.
- Post Run Recovery Meal – Once you’ve had time to chill out for awhile, you might find hunger finally starting to set in. Foods are not off limits, but you might still want to think about the foods that are going to help inflammation and muscle repair with lots of nutrients and carbs.
- Compression Tights – Wearing compression tights after my marathons has been one way I can walk around to sight see the next day!
When it comes to sleep, be prepared to have a rough night. Your adrenaline and cortisol are often so high that while you feel completely exhausted your body can’t seem to shut down.
A few things that have helped me with this (since we know sleep is the BEST recovery):
- CBD Oil – or when traveling I will carry CBD gummies if I don’t feel like messing with the bottle for oil.
- 1mg melatonin – heavier doses could result in waking up in the middle of the night and this won’t leave you groggy.
- Cool room – try to keep the room cool, your body will likely be running warm as it tries to recover, just like you might when sick.
Finally, I recommend only taking a pain reliever if you are truly having pain. If everything just aches, try the above things first to help with relaxation. We know that over the counter NSAIDS might blunt the fitness gains you’re making.
Day 1 – Post-Race Recovery
Try taking a VERY EASY walk to loosen up the muscles.
Consider getting a light massage to simply encourage blood flow to the muscles which along with compression will help encourage recovery. Do not get a deep tissue massage that will only further inflame the muscles at this point.
Continue to focus on enjoying high quality anti-inflammatory foods.
It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy any treat meals, but the more greens, veggies and quality proteins you ingest the quicker your body will repair.
- Sore? – If you’re feeling a lot of soreness consider using tumeric capsules in place of an over the counter medicine.
- Sleep – Yup, take a nap if you want to. Sleep in or go to bed early. You need all the sleep you’re able to get in.
- Stretch – It’s very possible you feel tight, so do some light relaxing stretches. We do not recommend the foam roller right away on those inflamed muscles.
- Fuel – Keep thinking about foods for the healing process. Vegetables, protein, healthy fats and yummy carbs.
Keep the movement easy with some walks or restorative yoga. This time is all about slowing down, taking time to relish the culmination of months of work and continuing to treat your body well.
Even if you are beginning to feel better, resist the urge to run.
Your muscles have more microscopic tears than you realize and the added rest will help ensure you don’t jump back too quickly leading to injury.
- Walk at a nice enjoyable stroll for 30-40 minutes.
- Spend 30 minutes doing some yoga.
- Now you can bust out the foam roller and go really light. Or better yet grab a massage gun which is often better and creating muscle relaxation.
OR if you’re tired and sore, DO NOTHING! Regardless of what you might see on social media, this is 100% an acceptable response to having just busted about 26.2 miles.
Finally, I’m giving you the green light to do a little more than stroll along. But not much.
Add in light cross training if desired, but this isn’t the time to head to your first CrossFit class no matter how good you might be feeling.
- Schedule a deep tissue massage (sports massage) for later this week to flush out the muscles and break up any adhesion’s.
- If you’re noticing any sharp pains, schedule time with a physical therapist. Best to find out right away if you need to make any adjustments.
- Walk, yoga, easy swim, easy bike ride
- Recap your marathon for friends at least one more time (what I think that’s an important part of recovery)
- Keep eating. I know you aren’t moving as much, but your body burns fuel to recover.
This is the time where I find many runners start to have extra energy and are beyond tempted to being running.
Which is why instead, I’m going to encourage you to start strength training!
- Checkout the Level 1 Runner Strength Training Program for something that’s guided.
- Start the week with only core or upper body workouts.
- Don’t start with lower body weights until around day 7-8 and only if there’s no pain.
- Remember you are still in recovery, so go easy. No need to be so sore you can’t lift your arms, then you’re slowing down the rest of your recovery.
Researchers from Ball State University compared a group that didn’t run for a week with a matched group that ran easily for 20 to 40 minutes a day.
The non-runners scored better in tests for muscle strength and endurance 10 days after the marathon.
Let your body be your guide to exercise, but keep the intensity low and only run if nothing hurts.
All runs should be done at a very easy, relaxed pace.
Most runners will find that the longer they have been running, the sooner they can resume running because their muscles are used to hard efforts.
- Your first run back might feel clunky, that’s ok.
- Run/walk is your friend right now. It lowers the intensity and gives your body and brain a break.
- Keep the first run to 3 miles or less and use it as a gauge for if you truly need more recovery or could handle another run.
- Try running every other day to start. (again I also just want you to keep making time for strength!)
Sample Marathon Recovery Week 2
Monday: Restorative yoga and a little walk
Tuesday: Walk and more restorative yoga
Wednesday: Walk and Core Workout
Thursday: Easy bike ride or Rest
Friday: Walk and Upper Body/Core Workout
Saturday: Walk and Vinyasa yoga
Sunday: Easy 2-3 mile run and walk
What is restorative yoga?
It’s usually the nemesis of runners who prefer to be moving quickly and working up a sweat.
However, it’s a great tool that can be used throughout training and in particular during the first week post race to help the body settle back in to alignment and release tightness without overstretch or over exerting the muscles.
Following are a few restorative poses that help to release a tight low back and de-stress the entire body:
- Legs against Wall – Performed with bolster under your legs, hips or back.
- Supported Child’s Pose – Sitting on knees, press backwards so you are folded over your legs with a bolster under your chest.
- Reclining Bound Angle – Laying on your back with knees bent and feet together, then allow knees to fall out to the side.
- Hip release – Laying on your back in corpse pose (fully relaxed all limbs straight), place a block under your hips.
Why all the walking?
Complete rest post race can cause the body to feel stiff and tight.
Walking is a great way to get the blood flowing and many find it reminds them to slow down and enjoy things they are often striding past while buried in their headphones.
Plus, it’s the closest activity to running. That means you’re going to get a better feel for how the legs are responding to recovery before you jump in to a run.
Traditional training used to say you needed to 1 day off of running per mile run in the race, which would be 26 days off after the marathon. So you should be pretty dang happy, I gave you the green light last week!
BUT if you were super sore and stuck to walking that is SMART and exactly what this time is all about.
- Now you can start to add in a little bit more mileage
- Enjoy some trail time to take your focus off pace or distance
- Do not yet add in speed work
- Keep doing all the core workouts and full body strength workouts
- You’re now cleared to start increasing the intensity of those strength workouts, you might even add in some short plyometrics
We like that short bit of intensity to give you a boost, it’s not quite the same as you going out to the track and expecting your muscles to perform for long repeated bouts.
Your body should be starting to feel more like normal again.
Our recommendation is usually to use this time for some fun running before diving right back in to race training. It gives you a chance to just enjoy the miles with no pressure.
Maybe that means runs with friends you couldn’t do when schedules conflicted. Maybe it means going to that running group you’ve always thought about and perhaps finding a great training partner!
- 95% of your mileage is still easy right now, but you can add in some strides.
- Next week you can try adding back a speed workout.
- Continue focusing on all the recovery pieces because your body still wants them. Good nutrition, good sleep, foam rolling or massager.
All right there is your full post marathon recovery plan and I hope enough logic to get you to follow through!
How long do you take off from running after a race?
Ever had post race blues?
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