Life After 26.2: How to Recover from a Marathon

by Megan Abdelnour

For months and months you focused on building your mileage, cross-training, eating nutritious meals, taking your vitamins daily, and staying healthy. //">You pushed your body to a new level and eventually hit the pavement for 26.2 miles. After a few hours of the most difficult and challenging experience you’ve ever been through you cross that finish line, shed tears of joy (if you’re me, that is), a medal is placed around your neck, and you go to celebrate your accomplishment with a toast and (hopefully) a well-earned meal. The next morning, though, you slowly start to realize something — after months of focusing on just one thing, you barely thought to consider what to do after the race was over. Most runners have had the same thought after a marathon: “Its all over. Now what?”

Post-marathon recovery is possibly as important as pre-race training and preparation. Professional running coach Andrew Kastor sums it up perfectly: “Make time and arrangements to adequately recover.” Think about it — you’ve just ran more miles that you may have ever run which can cause microscopic muscle tears, places added stress on your kidneys, can cause a drop in levels of red blood cells, temporarily suppresses your immune system, and, of course, you may have even lost a toenail or two. Good post-marathon recovery is important to prevent injury due to the incredible stress you’ve just put your body through. There are a few components to recovery:

Immediately following the marathon:

You did it! First of all, congratulate yourself, take some selfies, and enjoy the post-race atmosphere. Next:

- Take off your wet race clothes and change into something warm. I also like changing my shoes into shoes that have a little more room to move in, because your feet are swollen after the race.

- Find something to eat. I am typically not hungry after a marathon for several hours, but always force myself to at least have a protein drink to aide in muscle repair and recovery within 30 minutes of finishing. If you have an appetite, some other good options are: bananas, fruit, and bagels. You want to eat easily digestible carbohydrates and a little protein to replenish your muscles’ energy stores.

- Re-hydrate with electrolytes and water!

- Keep walking. Although you’ll want to lay down forever and not move, you need to keep walking after you cross the finish line. Walk back to your hotel room, to your house, walk around the parking lot. Just walk. Eventually, you should shower and rest but walking initially will help keep your legs loose and prevent them from stiffening. I’ve personally found that more walking immediately (I’m talking being on my feet for at least an hour after the race) and the day after a marathon have helped my recovery significantly.

- Take care of any blisters or injuries you sustained during the race. Get ice if you need it and seek out professional help if your injuries require it. Some people even love a good ice bath.

The first few days following the marathon:

- Listen to your body! Everyone recovers differently, so you have to do what you feel is best. But the following tips are just based off my personal experience and from research I’ve done from reputable sources. These tips also assume you aren’t injured; if you have an injury please consult a doctor!

- Balance activity and rest. The day after the Chicago Marathon I walked around throughout the city on a sightseeing tour. I didn’t do this after the NYC Marathon because I live in Brooklyn, so I relaxed at home all day. Which race did I recover better from? — the Chicago Marathon. Keeping your legs moving the day after the race to loosen up the muscles, while balancing your day with intermittent rest breaks, has been a successful formula for me. Some people even go running, and if you do be sure to keep your heart rate low and don’t run more than a few miles. But for me a long walk is the best. If you aren’t sure whether you should run or not, start with a walk and wait on running. There’s no rush!

- Don’t stretch cold muscles. Before stretching, you need to warm up with a walk or short workout. Focus on stretching your Achilles, calves, quads, hip flexors, glutes, and hamstrings.

- Get a massage or perform a self-massage to keep your muscles loose (this means you can perform the self-torture that is foam rolling).

- Continue to eat quality food. As much as you may want to eat all the fried delicious things because “Hey, I just ran a marathon”, you need to be smart in your food choices. Your body is still recovering and needs nutrients to re-build what was depleted; its vulnerable so be sure to eat smart.

- Drink LOTS of water and take your vitamins. Be sure to make sure to take your normal set of vitamins by providing your body what it needs in order to properly recover. Cal-EZ makes it easy to take your vitamins AND drink water — just mix a packet into your water and you’ve checked two post-marathon recovery items off your list.

Sightseeing the day after the marathon: Chicago “Bean”

Returning to workouts and to running:

Everybody is different, but ideally you should wait at least two weeks before hitting the pavement again. I know, I know — that seems like such a long time to take off from the sport you love and the sport that has become the sole focus of your life the past four months. But take this rest time as an opportunity to set new running goals, try out other forms of exercise, and just generally relax.

Now, that doesn’t mean that you take two weeks off from all exercise. After a few rest days (3-7 days) after the marathon, you should start an active recovery program. This includes cross-training such as swimming, deep-water running, stretching, walking, or bike rides/cycling at low intensity for no more than one hour at a time. The first week after you should keep your workouts light with little resistance. That means taking a week off from your lower body strength training squats, lunges, resistance band workouts for a short time.

When your muscle soreness has disappeared and you’ve waited at least two weeks (for most people), you can start a return-to-running program. Be sure at this time to continue to mix running with cross-training rather than simply engaging in a running-only routine. On running days, try to run on soft surfaces and less challenging terrain, keeping your runs short and at a low intensity for the first few runs back. A good way to return is to reverse taper in order to re-build your mileage using the reverse of the last few weeks of your training — you don’t have to stick to your training plan exactly but it’s a good guideline to ease back into it.

Start with a few short 3-5 mile runs during the weekdays. Be sure to assess your body — see how these runs make your body feel. You may need to take some more time off or you may need to decrease the amount of miles you’re running. Some people take a more gradual approach and return with short runs over the course of 4-6 weeks. Or you may be one of those people who feels fine during your first few short runs post-marathon. If this is you, be extra careful. You may want to keep running but keep it to a few slow miles only. Injuries can happen easily when you run too much too fast following 26.2!

Eventually you’ll be able to work back to “long runs”, with the first one being around 6-8 miles, and the following week somewhere between 8-10 miles. This also depends on your post-race goals. Maybe you don’t want to run higher mileage in which case you can stick to the shorter runs and just enjoy it!

Plan for the Future:

Use the time during recovery to set your post-race goals. Maybe you want to take time off running to focus on other things, maybe you have another race coming up, or maybe you want to run a shorter or longer distance. Whatever you choose, take your new-found free time to adequately plan for life after the marathon. And, be sure to share your accomplishment and enjoy every minute of celebration — you earned it!

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Disclosure: Cal-EZ has compensated me for this post, but all opinions are my own and always will be my own. I use Cal-EZ daily not because I was asked to or have to, but because I love it. I am happy to be able to share it with you!