Completing a marathon is a big accomplishment. But while a lot of effort is put into the preparation leading up to the race, what happens afterward is usually an afterthought. Rarely do we consider how to approach training after a marathon.
From what happens to your muscles to a detailed three-week marathon recovery plan to get you back on track, here’s exactly what you need to keep in mind following the completion of your big race.
What Happens to the Body
It doesn’t matter if you’ve just run your first marathon or your tenth – 26.2 miles is a long way, and it can be especially hard on your body.
Damage to muscles and tendons
One of the most obvious factors of that hit-by-a-car feeling that you may get in the days that follow a marathon is the damage that’s done to your muscles and tendons.
In addition to DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), which can last a few days, muscle damage can last for several weeks following a marathon because of the extreme effort that it takes to cover the distance:
- This study tested the inflammation and fiber necrosis that occurs in the muscles during the race, with results showing that it can take two weeks for muscles to return to normal functioning strength.
- On the cellular level, other research has shown that it can take as long as eight to twelve weeks for a regenerative response to occur.
OTHER SYSTEMS OF THE BODY MALFUNCTIONING
While it’s clear that the extreme stress that’s placed on skeletal muscle and tendons during the marathon will require some time to recuperate, your muscles aren’t the only part of the body that may be pushed to the limit:
- Yale researchers found that most amateur marathon participants had some form of mild kidney dysfunction following the marathon from stress and dehydration, and it could take days to a few weeks for a full recovery.
- The immune system is also compromised in the days that follow due to increases in the stress hormones like cortisol, making you more susceptible to viruses and bacteria for a few days after the race.
While these are certainly not the only systems in the body affected by such a grueling endurance event, they do provide a basis for recovery time in the weeks that follow.
Why You Need Time Off
Even if your body is signaling that it’s time to get back on the road and continue the grind, time off will be needed.
Some runners may feel great a few days after a marathon, while others might feel sluggish for up to a week or two.
Going back to hard training too soon can result in overtraining, increasing your risk of injury or illness. Before rushing back to running, consider the time off you may be forced to take because of injuries like Achilles tendonitis, hamstring strains, or patella-femoral pain syndrome (PFPS) among others. These can easily be avoided by getting the proper amount of rest following the race, which will ultimately result in fewer days off than it would be recovering from an injury.
And even if you do miss the injury bug, continuing with a running schedule immediately following a marathon can result in a decrease in performance in subsequent events. This symptom of overtraining shouldn’t be ignored, as it can continue to wear down the body in ways that can have long-lasting effects.
The long training miles involved in the months leading up to the race can also cause mental fatigue. Though some runners may be able to push past this easier than others, burnout can often occur to even the most seasoned runners.
Taking a break from the sport after a big event is sometimes needed to refresh mentally, and when you eventually return to your training it can have a positive effect on your outlook and perspective, providing just what you need to re-energize for your next big race.
What to Do in the Weeks That Follow
To recover properly following the marathon you’ll need to stick to some tried and true principles. Here’s what you need to do:
While a recovery run might sound like a good idea, running the day or two after a marathon is generally not recommended. Instead, concentrate on nutrition, getting plenty of sleep, and taking it easy until you’ve fully recuperated.
There will be plenty of time for more running later on. And for those of you worried about detraining, a week or so with no running isn’t going to significantly impact your cardiovascular fitness.
Challenging yourself and completing a marathon takes a lot of hard work and plenty of discipline.
After the race, reward yourself with a good meal.
In the days that follow, think massage, cryotherapy, and hot tubs to relax and let your muscles recover from all that hard work.
Do Other Activities You Enjoy
Even though running might not be a good idea, walking and other low impact active recovery activities – like hiking, cycling, and swimming – can be excellent ways to get your blood flowing and ease those aching muscles after you’ve had a few days of rest.
Just keep things easy and light and concentrate more on having fun and spending time with others rather than turning these activities into serious workouts.
Stick to a Recovery Plan
Getting back on track and running again can be tricky. Start running too soon and you can risk overtraining or injury. Take too much time off, and your fitness could begin to suffer.
To time it just right and start running again once your body is ready, you’ll need to have a solid strategy: from how much to sleep and eat in week one to building gradually to running again in week two.
If you’re not sure how to go about it, this three-week marathon recovery plan is the perfect guide for newbies and seasoned marathon veterans alike.
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Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.