Congratulations on completing your marathon! That is a massive accomplishment. Whether this was your first or you’ve done a few, recovering from a marathon is a critical component to your training plan that runners often neglect.

In the final part 5 of this series, Coaches Patrick and Jen will continue to answer some of the most frequently asked questions from athletes.

"What steps should I take to recover after my marathon?"

We are going to help you understand why developing the right recovery plan is critical. First, we will discuss the science behind post marathon fatigue and soreness, so you feel comfortable understanding what you are feeling post race and how to prepare your body for optimal performance down the road.

Finally, we will reveal how to get the 5 essential post marathon recovery strategies and plan to help get you back to running your best as soon as possible.

Why does taking the appropriate recovery time matter?

As coaches, we’ve heard all the arguments from athletes wanting to jump back into training or racing immediately after their race. You may feel super motivated after a great result or wanting to redeem yourself after a poor one. The most critical component of a post marathon schedule is including frequent movement that is low effort and duration, as this will help improve your recovery time. We will provide a suggested schedule in more detail below  in our 5 recommended strategies section.

You may have seen or experienced this scenario post race - looking at a flight of stairs with dread knowing it will be a slow and uncomfortable journey to navigate them. However, there seems to be this prevailing thought or ego to get back to running so quickly, sometimes, too quickly. Allowing the body to fully recover after a marathon is just as important as tapering before the marathon. The reality is, when you neglect a proper recovery strategy post-marathon, it increases the risk of injury and recovery time thus limiting the opportunity to reach your long-term full potential.

Why Does My Body Feel This Way After A Marathon?

Running is a stressful activity on the body. Your body has undergone extreme physical duress in addition to the stress you have put on your body from the training to prepare for the event. Specifically, after giving your best effort on race day your muscles, tendons, hormones, and almost all physiological systems are pushed to their limits.

Let’s talk about how 3 specific systems are impacted by the marathon and how long each takes to fully repair post race. It’s very important respect the stress your body has been put under and allow the following normal recovery processes to occur.  

1.    Skeletal Muscle - Muscles soreness and fatigue are usually the most obvious symptoms experienced after running the marathon. One scientific study conducted on the calf muscles of marathon runners concluded that both the intensive training for, and the marathon itself, lead to inflammation caused by the repeated small tears in the muscle. This often leads to muscle fiber death which causes subsequent weakness and lack of durability in those muscles for up to 14 days post marathon. As a result, it will take your muscles about 2 weeks post marathon to return to full strength. In other words, if you return to running too quickly, or too hard too soon after your race on already weakened muscles, it can lead to compensation and eventually injury. During the immediate post race recovery time, It’s important to listen to the feedback your body is giving you. If it’s uncomfortable just to walk, then hobbling during a run means your form is compromised which can lead to an injury.

2.    Cells - Cells are the little dynamos that are responsible for every function in your body. Your cell function is impaired as a result of the stress you put on your body. This is indicated by an increase of the blood marker creatinine kinase (CK). When CK is increased in the blood this indicates damage to skeletal and heart muscle tissue. One study concluded that elevated CK lasted more than 7 days post marathon while another study confirmed the presence of CK in the bloodstream post marathon for 3-4 days post race. These studies suggest the body needs at least 7-10 days of rest post marathon to fully recover from the cellular damage caused during the race.

3.    Immune system - A common situation we see in runners is post race illness. The reason being immune system function is depressed, which makes you more prone to contracting a cold and/or flu. A study indicates the immune system is compromised up to three days post marathon, along with an increase in stress hormones and is a major factor in contracting viruses. Therefore, it is critical that you keep movement to short frequent bouts as much as possible in the three days following a marathon.  What can also greatly assist immune system recovery while decreasing post race inflammation is eating healthy and nutrient rich foods. We recommend checking our article on training and racing nutrition for more info.

Now you understand how a marathon affects the systems in your body and the recovery processes in the 2 weeks after your race is complete. It’s important to take the right steps during this time to ensure you get the maximum benefit so you can return to preparing for your next personal best (PB) time.

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Looking for help to achieve your best performance?

Patrick Ash and Jen Ruland are coaches with Regina-based coaching company Endurance Journey Coaching. They provide one to one coaching and group training to help you improve your performance here.