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Post marathon recovery

You’ve done it. 4hours 21minutes (the world average) of non-stop running to reach the end of 42 incredible kilometers. As the cheers die-down and your breath catches back up to you, the feelings of elation can begin to give way to something else: soreness, tiredness, fatigue. So what are the best ways to fast track your marathon recovery time? We found out.

To start with, marathon recovery should be viewed as being just as important as the training leading up to the event itself, and so we’ve compiled for you some of the best marathon recovery insights to make post-the-event is as great as the run itself. Follow the steps below.

What happens to your body after a marathon

Your muscles are torn, 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 is estimated most runners competing in a marathon will physically shrink 2cm on average due to fluid-loss, and likely lose (temporarily) between 2-5kg. 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 outlines 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.

 

Pre-race

There is a lot of training needed to get marathon ready for the average runner. Experts recommend beginning your training a minimum of 6 weeks beforehand with around 65km (40 miles) covered each week. Even from these early days, your recovery from the marathon 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 you appreciate after the big day is done.

 

1. Changing in to 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 soft-drink-can and a half of fluid, but opt for that much in 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 likewise are one of 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 now and know how to deal with any issues than on the day, surrounded by the chaos that can be common at 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 take-away shop, 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. 

 

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 for some may seem 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.

During

The pistol has sounded and you’re off! The first few kilometers of the race always go by in a blur. Screaming bystanders, your own nerves, the mass of other runners all spur you on and have you running on autopilot before you get back in your head and think about all that lies ahead. 

 

Around half way through the race, your body’s glucose reduces and the carbohydrate stores you have stocked up on will begin to wane (thus the need for plenty of fuel before the race even begins). The same happens with your water levels too, so all of these things need to be replaced by you at the aid stations, especially through the latter parts of the race. The key is to start early and get water and food in to you a little at a time, not slamming it all down in one go. Depending on your needs, after around 10km, at every aid station you should have a drink and something to eat so you’re fueled for later in the day. Gels, sports drinks, fruit, chocolate – each of these items serves a purpose and should be considered by you during the run to also help your marathon recovery after the race. Potassium (found in bananas especially) is a key element that helps with transporting fluid efficiently around the body, helping fend off cramps and staying hydrated. Look out for these at the station if your legs are starting to tighten to help get them back feeling better (hopefully) sooner.  

 

Aside from all those elements you need to get in you to make in through the marathon, there are a few things you should also carry on your person that will help you in the long run (see what we did there). Plasters and bandages are needed to be on hand as blisters and chaffing are hugely common on the day. Medics and staff are scattered around the course, they’re never quite where you need them when the pain of a blister developing on the track kicks in. By you being able to stop and deal with these problems yourself means you lessen the risk of an injury getting worse, which would lead to a longer marathon recovery time.  Your future self with thank you for bandaging that toenail and keeping it on there VS pushing on and it dropping…off.

 

The first 5 minutes after the race

You ate, drank and (of course) ran to the line – now the real marathon recovery begins. After the selfies and hi-fives, one of the first things to do is to throw on dry, warm clothes. This is one mistake many marathon runners make, hanging around in their damp race clothes not realizing how cold they are. Once you’ve changed, it’s time to eat the banana they would have handed you along with your finisher’s medal, as you want to have your fluids put back on track as fast as possible (which is where that banana’s potassium comes in once again). Armed with food and drink, you should then find a spot to do your stretching or a rubdown. You’ve been moving for (likely) more than 4 hours, and so it is important to gradually cool the muscles and keep them warm as long as possible. Warming creams can be a shortcut here also, but if time is an issue, focus mainly on rubbing and stretching your legs, hamstrings and back in that order before anything else.

 

The first hour

Once you feel fully stretched (around 15 minutes), your recovery is only just getting started. During the first hour after the race your body’s immune system is at its lowest due to all the stress it has been under. Depending on how much you feel you can handle after the race, treat your first food intake like you would if you had caught a cold: a warm vegetable or chicken soup can do the job of both fending off any sicknesses looking to find you after the race, as well as helping warm you from the inside and replacing some of those lost fluids. Carbs are also important to replenish, so pasta or rice thrown in can be just what the post-race-recovery doctor ordered. You also want to try and eat while still moving and walking around if possible, even after your stretch. Anything to help promote blood flow around the body will help you later in the day and to get a head-start on your recovery.

 

Fluid-replacement is important after the race, but even more important is not overdoing it. The rule of thumb is only 500ml of liquid each hour after the marathon to recover fluids. 

 

This is to prevent going to the opposite extreme and having too much liquid for the amount of salt in your system, which can result in Hyponatremia. Little by little, rebuild your fluids: there’s no need to rush anymore. Another insider tip is to have protein-drinks within the first hour of crossing the line. This is again to help with healing of the muscles, and to have more of those rebuilding nutrients in to your body as soon as possible.

 

The final thing you should try and do as soon as you can after the race to help your marathon recovery is to shower – a long one. Once under the water, alternate between very hot and very cold temperatures for 30-60 seconds each round, focusing mainly on your legs and back. This kind of showering helps get oxygen-rich-blood, proteins, potassium – basically all the fluids and fuels you’ve just put in your body post-race pumping around the muscles where it’s needed to work faster. So enjoy that long shower as part of your recovery: you’ve definitely earned it.       

The night after

The night after the race is all about eating, drinking, showering (yes, again) and taking it easy. Fluid intake is the main thing to pay attention to for getting your body back to its ideal state. A good indicator that your internals are back to normal is checking the color of your fluids when they leave your body: they most likely will be dark right after the run, but should progress from golden to a light, pale yellow after a few hours with hydration. Food is also something that should be on your mind (your body will be itching for carbs) so enjoy hearty, rich foods. World Ironman Champion and On legendary athlete Javier Gomez Noya recommends something a little salty too. His go-to post-race recommendation? Pizza.

 

The evening after you’ve run the marathon is the time to listen to your body and take stock of how everything is feeling and make sure there’s nothing completely out of the ordinary in terms of pain. Soreness is to be expected, but if you can’t stand on your leg for instance, then it may be something else. Even smaller things like blisters or chafing are important to note down, as it may mean you chose the wrong gear and so will need to make some adjustments for your next marathon (which at this post, is probably the last thing on your mind).

 

Once that’s all done, it’s bedtime. This is where some of the best marathon recovery takes place, and so with all the food and liquids replaced inside, settle down for one of the best sleeps you’ll likely have experienced in a long time.

 

The next days

In the days after the marathon, you’ll want to find ways to move the body to promote blood flow and recovery. Likely your body won’t be up for running for a few days, so swimming is a great way to continue some (relaxed) exercise. The same goes for low-intensity cycling. During these first few post-marathon days, massages and daily stretching are also things to consider to further promote circulation and recovery.

 

A training plan for post-marathon recovery could look like the one below, however most important is to listen to your own body and go at your own pace.

 

Marathon recovery plan

  • Day 1: very light session in the pool.
  • Day 2: light session in the pool or bike. Massage may also be recommended here.
  • Day 3: weights session and short “test” walk (2km). Stretching session (or yoga).
  • Day 4: second pool or bike session or, if body feels recovered, short, slow run (5km max).
  • Day 5: slowly return to your normal routine.

 

When it comes to getting back out there running, your mind may feel ready after just a few days but your body may still need some time.

What’s most important is to listen to your body on that first run after a marathon and make sure everything is feeling like it should to get you back on track.

 

Ready for the next marathon?

Now that you’re armed with the information on how to recover from a marathon, all that’s missing is finding your next one. To help, head over to our events page to see all that’s on worldwide and near you – or if you’re looking for the right gear for your marathon, such as the perfect marathon shoe  for your race, see our guide or see our guide on choosing the best road running shoes to arm you to tackle those 42km with ease.