Recovering from a marathon, Part I

You train for six months, taper perfectly, and run the marathon of your life. It's the next morning. You wake up stiff and sore. Now what?

Well, for the next couple of days, try walking downstairs backwards. Why do you walk downstairs backwards after a marathon? Because that's where the kitchen and the rest of the world are, and your quads scream at you if you try going downstairs the conventional way. But hey, they've earned the right to scream. You just pounded your legs on the hard pavement over 25,000 times.

How long will it take to recover?

The common rule of thumb is to take one recovery day for each mile of the race. That sounds simple. Twenty-six recovery days after a marathon actually sounds darned good. But, what is a "recovery day"? Does that mean you sit around with your feet up? Does it mean easy running is okay, but no intervals?

No two runners are exactly alike, and the amount of time you need to recover will differ from that of your training partner. Come back too quickly and you risk burnout or injury. Two-time Olympic marathoner Cathy O'Brien comments, "Whenever I've rushed back too fast after a marathon, I always seem to end up paying for it later."

Here's some advice to help you recover quickly while reducing the likelihood of post-marathon breakdown:

The 1st few hours:

Stay warm, drink, and eat.

Stay warm. There is nothing worse than finishing a marathon and standing around getting progressively colder. For one thing your muscles get stiff. Additionally, your immune system is depressed after a marathon, and you are therefore at greater risk of infection. So, be certain to arrange to have warm clothes at the finish area.

Drink. After any marathon, you will finish dehydrated. And the warmer the day, the more dehydrated you will be. So, drink plenty of fluids after the race. Your thirst mechanism is imperfect. When you are no longer thirsty, your body may still need more fluids. When your urine runs clear you are on your way to being fully rehydrated.

Eat. When you run a marathon, you deplete your body's glycogen stores, which are your stockpiles of carbohydrates for energy. Studies have shown that your muscles will replace their glycogen stores at the fastest rate during the first 1-2 hours after running. Glycogen resynthesis continues at a higher than normal rate for 10-12 hours after a glycogen-depleting run.

What this means is that you will recover more quickly if you take in carbohydrates soon after you finish the race. If your stomach doesn't feel up to a meal, eat a bagel or a banana, or drink some carbohydrates to get the replenishment process started, then eat more when your stomach can handle it. Continue to eat carbohydrate-rich foods for at least 2 days after a marathon, because it takes time for your muscles to fully re-load.

The 1st few days:

During the 1st 3-7 days following the marathon, you will learn all about DOMS. DOMS stands for delayed-onset muscle soreness, and is caused by microscopic damage to muscle fibers and the surrounding connective tissue as a result of eccentric muscle contractions. What is an eccentric muscle contraction? It is a lengthening or braking contraction.

When you run downhill, your quadriceps contract eccentrically to keep your knees from buckling when your feet strike the ground. When you run down the bridge into Manhattan at 16 miles of the New York City Marathon your quads contract eccentrically like mad. That's why you're walking downstairs backwards.

DOMS is generally most severe 24 to 72 hours after exercise. The reason for the lag is that it takes a while for the process of damage/inflammation/pain to occur.

In extreme cases, DOMS may last for as long as a week. When Joan Benoit Samuelson ran 2:22 to break the World Record for the marathon at Boston, Kevin Ryan, a 2:11 marathoner from New Zealand, had arranged with a local TV station to run with the lead woman and report the race. Kevin was recovering from an injury, however, and wasn't expecting to run 2:22. The downhills at Boston took a toll on Kevin's legs, and those of us in his training group were merciless in torturing Kevin during the following week's runs.

Okay. This DOMS thing sounds painful. So what should you do for the first few days after the marathon?

Get a massage. Go swimming. Ride a bike. Take a walk. But don't run until the soreness in your muscles subsides. Why? Because their resiliency is at an all-time low, and your risk of injury is high. These other forms of gentle exercise, however, will pump blood to your muscles and help you to recover more quickly.

There's another reason to skip running for a few days after the race. Sooner or later your warped judgment will lead you to start training for another race. You will be getting up at 5:30, running in the dark, through snow, rain, and hail. Your mind needs a break too.

O'Brien says, "I think of the marathon as the end of the season, and a time for rest. I take up to 7 days completely off. It makes a good mental break."

During this recess, indulge yourself. Eat kahlua mocha fudge brownie ice cream. Sleep in. Get thrown out of the local hot tub. Go dancing with Mick Jagger. In short, give your brain a rest from the mental routine of training.

Eating adequate protein will also help speed up your recovery. Your muscles need to repair from the pounding you have just given them. About 1.2 to 1.6 grams per kg bodyweight per day should be optimal. For a 132 pound (60 kg) runner, that equates to 72 to 96 grams of protein.

The 1st few weeks:

The soreness is going away. You still feel a little beat up, but you want to get back into training. How should you re-build your mileage?

Try doing a pre-marathon taper in reverse. After a few days off from running, just jog a few miles to finish off the first post-marathon week. Then run 50% of your usual weekly mileage the 2nd week, and 75% the 3rd week. To ensure a complete recovery, run at a moderate intensity, keeping your heart-rate below 70% of maximal.

At the end of the 3rd week, try running 1/2 mile at your 10K race pace. If you are able to run fluidly, with no residual soreness, you are ready to graduate to your normal training routine. If, however, you are still a bit stiff in the calves or quads or hamstrings, give yourself another week at 75% mileage with no speedwork. Then try the test again.

After you've passed this mini-speed test, you are ready to resume speedwork. Start off with a relatively gentle session, running about 2/3 of your usual volume of intervals.

When can you race again?

After 3-4 weeks of full training, you should be completely recovered from the marathon, and ready to consider racing. Be forewarned. The first race after a marathon is usually a blow to the ego because all the training for the marathon has made you strong but slow, and you haven't had time to re-build your speed. Consider the first race as a benchmark against which to measure your future improvement.

So, as you read this while walking backwards down the stairs, remember, the soreness will go away eventually. You may even fool yourself into remembering the marathon as rewarding, satisfying or even "fun". But don't let this delusion overtake your more rational sensibilities. Give yourself time to fully recover, and you will come back physically and mentally refreshed, and ready for more.


This article is a contribution from Peter Dickson Pfitzinger, an American former distance runner, who later became an author and exercise physiologist. He is best known for his accomplishments in the marathon, an event in which he represented the United States in two Summer Olympic Games: the Los Angeles Olympics and the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

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