What happens to your body after a marathon
Your muscles are damaged, food-stores depleted – yet, likely, you won’t be able to listen to all the signals your body is giving you due to all you’ve just been through. It's estimated most runners competing in a marathon will physically shrink by as much as 1.25cm average due to compression of the spine from impact, and will likely lose significant body mass through dehydration – up to around 10% depending on your pace and the conditions. Running for such a long time and distance is something the average body simply isn’t used to. You’ve pushed yourself past your limit and to get there, taken out a cheque your body will cash back after you’ve finished the race. Of course recovery, like all factors of the race, depends on how fit and well trained you are. Adhering to the guidance below at the different stages of your marathon journey – before, during and after - can severely lower the (potential) weeks of marathon recovery needed to get you back on track.
There is a lot of training needed for the average runner to be marathon ready. Experts recommend beginning your training an absolute minimum of six weeks beforehand with around 65km (40 miles) covered each week. Many training plans start three or four months out from the race. Even from these early training days, your recovery should be top of mind and you should start testing out how best your body reacts to different stretches and getting-back-out-there techniques. The earlier you start the better, so forming a habit after longer training runs in these key areas below could be the thing that gets you to the line healthy and lets you appreciate the achievement more after the big day is done.
1. Changing into warm clothing. As you clock up more and more long runs, your body begins to lower its immunity through the stress you’re putting it under. To combat this (and fight off getting sick which many first-time marathon runners find they are leading up the event) is changing out of wet and damp clothes after longer runs. Cooling down too quickly can shock your body and pave the way in for colds and illness.
2. Drinking fluids. It goes without saying but everything you leave out on the training track, you need to put back in. It’s not about putting it all back in at once though – slow and steady not only wins the race, but is the way to rebuild your fluid levels at a rate your body can handle. Generally, around 500ml per hour after training is the recommended amount – think a can and a half of soft drink, but opt for water, not the sweet stuff.
3. Stretching and rolling out muscles. By the time the marathon day arrives, stretching should be second nature to you so you’ll be able to do it on autopilot. The most common injuries during a marathon (aside from blisters, cramps and dehydration) are ankle sprains and hamstring issues. Prepare for these early by stretching them after your training sessions. Ankle stretches that promote multi-directional function (such as rotating your ankle off the ground clockwise then anti-clockwise) are great to help prevent ankle rolling as you get tired on the long run. Foam rollers up and down the backs of the legs and on the quads (the front of the thigh) are likewise among the easiest ways to stretch hamstrings and reduce recovery time both in training and after the marathon.
Of course, if you have other injuries or soreness in training that flares up (sore shoulders, knee issues and so on) focus on stretching and taping these, or seek out professional advice before the race. Better to do it immediately and know how to deal with any issues than on the day, surrounded by the chaos of a major marathon event!
4. Eating the right foods. Hand in hand with drinking post-training-fluids comes refueling with the right foods. Depending on your level of training, you will need to increase your food and calorie intake leading up to the race. On the day, you can expect to burn around 2600 calories while running (around 5 average meals’ worth of energy), and as your training increases, so too should your food intake. An important thing to remember is just because you’re training and running more than you may have ever done before, eating poorly can slow-down your training and in some cases, work against you. Don’t use this as your excuse to eat out every night at your local fast food joint, but rather to really enjoy simple, nutritious meals made for protein-rich recovery. The day (or morning) before a marathon, carb loading should be the thing on your mind. This energy will be stored and called upon during the later stages of the race so it’s important to get this right. Pasta, potatoes, rice and other high-carb foods will give you the slow-release energy you need to last the distance. For the full lowdown, check out the marathon fueling guidance from performance nutritionist Ben Samuels here.
With those pillars mastered in the weeks leading up to the marathon you’re already on the right path for a strong race and recovery. Of course, running should also be all about fun, so with your eyes set on the big day, use the lead up as your chance to try those “things only runners do” for yourself, to see if they’re right for you and if they can aid in your training and recovery. Things like ice-baths, deep tissue massages, even foam rollers may seem for many like they’re meant for “the pros” but you’ve signed up to run a marathon, you’re doing one of the toughest events runners can do, now is your chance to try them all and maybe find the one will be just what you’re looking for when it comes to fast-tracking your marathon recovery.
One last (hugely important) insider tip to best prepare yourself for the marathon – and marathon recovery – is sunscreen.
As anyone who has who has run a marathon on a hot day will tell you, sunscreen can be a lifesaver for you both during and after the run. During your 42km you’ll completely forget you’re spending hours out in the elements, sun beating down. A strong 40 or 50+ waterproof sunscreen gives you one less thing to worry about when it comes to marathon recovery after the race. There will be a lot of red faces after the run – make sure yours doesn’t stay that way longer than it needs to.