January 18, 2012

How to recover from a marathon – in record time

It’s now three days post-marathon, and I am fully recovered. I am still a bit shocked at how fast I was able to run – and was very surprised to find that I wasn’t too sore from my efforts, either (though in fairness, this was one of my longer post-marathon recovery periods). Since I’ve been focusing a lot on beginning runner tactics lately with training plans to complete your first half marathon, I thought today I’d switch it up and talk about something for advanced runners: how to recover from a marathon.

Before you groan about ice baths and the like, let me note that I have actually never taken one. I also rarely get a post-race massage (unless it’s free and the line is really short), and I don’t take any crazy protein supplements. These are all standard methods I’ve seen in many articles for post-marathon recovery – and yet, people who follow them tend to look like this the day after the marathon (go watch that video, it’s hilarious). Guess what? I did 6 miles on the elliptical the day after my marathon, and in the past, I’ve done a second marathon the day after the first marathon. The day after my marathons, I don’t look like I’ve done a marathon at all – and it’s time for me to share my secrets.

The first mistake people make is in how they choose their race: flat is not fast, and it is terrible for your recovery. Did I just blow your mind with that statement? Let’s take a step back and think about it for a minute. When you run a marathon, your legs are going to be going in a pretty static forward and back motion for a very long time. If you are on a flat course, they are going to be going in basically the same exact trajectory for that entire time – and that’s what causes your hip flexors to lock up. If they aren’t stretching in multiple directions, they’re going to get so focused on doing what they need to do (going slightly forward and slightly back) that finishing and then doing anything else is going to be extremely painful. This is the reason that all my PRs have been set on hilly courses – by incorporating uphills and downhills, you’re changing the path your leg needs to take (because you’ll probably adjust your stride to be longer or shorter), and you’re also changing the muscles that you’re using to move forward. You’ll use your hamstrings more on the uphill, and your quadriceps more on the downhill – giving the opposite muscle a bit of a break in doing so. Furthermore, uphill running causes you to bend at the hip more, which again helps you to avoid the pain of your hip flexors locking up near the end of a race.

During a race, even if you aren’t on a hill, try to vary your stride when you start feeling tension and soreness. For example, when I took walk breaks in the last 10 miles or so of the race, I tried to use each walk break as not just a chance to take it easy, but as an opportunity to really stretch out my legs – and especially those darn hip flexors. By lengthening my stride so that it was almost a lunge walk, I worked my legs through a fuller range of motion and stretched out my tight hips. If you are always taking short little steps, your hip flexors are going to tighten to that range of motion; you want to expand it to avoid the “marathoner’s shuffle” so common at the end of a race. Don’t be afraid to even stop and take a quick stretch break during a race; if a 20 second stretch can help you pick up your pace by 10 seconds per mile (which is very likely), you’ll make it up in just 2 miles. Just make sure that you aren’t doing your full stretching routine, but paying attention to which muscles are sore, and then doing a stretch or two that is specific to those muscles. If your calves aren’t really tight, why are you stretching them mid-race? Save that for after.

So you finished the race (congratulations!) and now you’re tired and want to stop. Terrible idea! The absolute best thing you can do post-race is keep moving. However, while a lot of people advise walking after a race, I’d actually suggest the opposite (especially if you walked a lot during the race). Instead, find some kind of movement that keeps your legs going but moves them to a different plane than the one they’ve been in during the race. Sunday, after hearing Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” come over the loudspeaker system, I got up and demonstrated “my dance” (aka the official choreographed dance that we had to do when I worked at Johnny Rockets in high school), and then later when I got back to my condo, I did a little victory dance to “Born This Way.” Get your legs moving in a way that they weren’t moving when you were running and it will work wonders.

The obvious – stretching – is also important, but before you launch into your usual routine, pause to consider what is sore. My feet are almost always sore after a marathon (and I usually have blisters to treat, too), but I try to notice what feels different than the expected soreness. This race, I noticed that my calves felt kind of tired, but were generally fine – so while I did a quick calf stretch, I didn’t worry about it too much. However, my quads were a little tight – and I knew that would only get worse in the next 12-24 hours. Take some time to do stretches for those particular muscles (Google is your friend to find muscle-specific stretches), and also use a foam roller, Stick, or even wine bottle to “roll out” that muscle tension. The sooner you can do this after the race, the better, since that’s when your muscles will be warm and pliable. I try to stretch and roll/massage within an hour or two of finishing. If you have a non-slip bathtub/bathmat, the shower is a fabulous place for some of that stretching – the combo of getting to ease your tight muscles and simultaneously wash off the gross salty residue always feels awesome.

Also obvious but very important: drink tons of water to rehydrate and flush out your system, and get lots of sleep – these are the building blocks of allowing your muscles to repair and rebuild. Try for an hour more sleep than whatever your usual “well-rested” night is (e.g., instead of 8 hours, I tried for 9), if possible. 99% of the time, my feet hurt after a marathon… but that completely goes away after just one night of good sleep, and I’m left with just a few areas of muscle soreness (this time, my quads). Pay very close attention to what still hurts the morning after a marathon – those are the muscles you need to stretch a lot now, and strengthen the next time around. (Hopefully by now you’ve forgotten the pain and have decided that there will be a next marathon!)

You may notice that “eat lots of protein” is conspicuously lacking from this list. This is because if you eat lots of extra protein, you’re probably just putting unnecessary calories into your body that it doesn’t know what to do with – plus, in extreme circumstances, too much protein can tax your kidneys. Avoid manufactured protein shakes, and just try to incorporate a regular source of protein into each meal. Hopefully, you do this anyway; I just make sure that I don’t have any low protein meals for a day or two after the race (e.g., I’d pick an omelet over a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast). A normal amount of protein is plenty for your muscles to recover.

Finally, take all that advice about “doing a reverse taper” and throw it out the window. Am I a bit easier on myself the day after a marathon? Absolutely, but I still get in a good workout. In college, I watched our hockey team hit the stationary bikes as soon as a game was done – it was required by their coaches – and I’ve incorporated that into my own plan. Stationary biking is a great low-impact way to get your legs moving again. The elliptical is another great option. Do I run the day after a marathon? Not usually, but I’ve done it on occasion. Some soreness in your day-after-the-marathon workout is to be expected, so don’t let that deter you. I just make sure that while I’m going for a similar time workout, my intensity is down a bit and I’m not pushing it like crazy. This week, I biked for 20 minutes (4.5 miles) in the morning and then hit the elliptical for an easy 60 minutes (5.9 miles) while watching the Bachelor in the evening. The next day, I opted for a free weight lifting routine that had me up on my feet, but focusing primarily on my arms rather than my legs (though I did include 10 minutes of the rowing machine). And today, I’m back to normal and am planning to punish my legs for their time off with some crazy squats and deadlifts tonight 🙂

And as preventative for next time? Run more marathons. Part of the reason my body recovers so quickly after a marathon is that it’s very used to the distance. Running a marathon for me has become the equivalent of running 5 miles for other people – it made me sore the first time, but as I did it more and more, my body adapted to that distance and now can recover in record time. When you figure out your training plan, add as many long runs (20 miles or more) as possible. Having your muscles used to working for that long period of time will give them the endurance they need to last you through the race – and will make the day after seem like just another day after your long run.


10 thoughts on “How to recover from a marathon – in record time”

  1. This is really helpful! Thanks for sharing! It’s refreshing to hear that all of your PRs were set on hilly courses because I’m aiming for a big PR in Madrid this spring…which is a pretty hilly course!

  2. Those are great tips! I have snowboarding season passes this year so I’m planning on snowboarding after a lot of my long runs. I’m hoping the movement will actually HELP with the soreness! I was INSANELY sore after my first marathon so I’d like to avoid that this time around.

  3. You mentioned not reserve tapering after a marathon… What type of schedule do you suggest? I just ran a marathon 4 days ago… when should I start running and at what mileage? I was thinking of doing another marathon in October, but I’m debating that might be too long and should fit in another in between. Let me know! Thanks for this great article.

  4. Stacey, my preferred strategy is going on the stationary bike or the elliptical the day right after a race. The cyclical motion helps your legs to loosen up, but you won’t be pounding on your feet the way you would be when you’re running. The sooner you can bike/elliptical/move around after a race, the sooner your muscles will be back to normal. As far as when to run again, as soon as your muscles are (mostly) okay and your feet have recovered from all soreness (except blisters, which can take a while), you’re fine to run. Hope that helps!

  5. I ran my first marathon yesterday! I’m actually not sore anywhere, except my knees are killing me. I’m having trouble walking up/down stairs and getting out of my chair. I should probably do more knee strengthening for next time, then? I’ll try to keep moving, but I don’t know if I’ll make it to the gym, at least today 🙂

    1. So awesome that you finished your first marathon yesterday! Definitely try some foam rolling for your knees, but you might be surprised how light stationary biking can help to loosen them up. I’d recommend that over stairs!

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