After running a marathon, there are basically 3 options. You can: 1) vow never to run again; 2) take some time off and then gradually get back into training; or 3) jump into full training as quickly as possible. Option 1 is not recommended, and option 3 should be chosen with caution. Option 2 is almost always the wisest choice.
Your best strategy for future success after a marathon is to take a well-deserved break. A few days of no running followed by a few weeks of easy training will help your body to recover and your mind to develop new challenges. There is little to gain by rushing back into training, and your risk of injury is exceptionally high after the marathon, owing to the reduced resiliency of your muscles and connective tissue.
Allow yourself at least 3 days completely off from running. If your muscles are still sore or are tight enough to alter your running form (or, heaven forbid, you just don’t feel like running), then you should take a few more days off. The nearly negligible benefits of a short run at this time are far outweighed by the risks. Not running now will also increase your chances of being inspired to resume hard training when your body allows it. Taking several days off after the marathon may also prevent you from getting sick. After prolonged high-intensity exercise, your immune system is temporarily suppressed, creating an open window during which you’re at increased risk of infection. After running a marathon, your immune system can take up to 72 hours to return to full strength.
During the first few days after the marathon, you need to replace lost fluids and carbs, and to take in adequate protein for muscle repair. You need carbohydrates to replenish your muscles’ depleted glycogen stores. During each of the first 3 days after the marathon, take in approximately 4 grams of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight and 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.
After taking a few days off, you should be ready to resume easy training. The recommendations below will help you recover quickly while minimizing your risk of injury:
1. Fulfill your need to exercise by crosstraining: Alternative forms of exercise, such as swimming or cycling, are a great option because they increase blood flow through your muscles without subjecting them to the impact forces of running. Walking is also a reasonable (if slightly embarrassing) alternative for the first week or so after the marathon. Thirty minutes or so of crosstraining per day will help speed your recovery.
2. Train with a heart monitor: Training too hard after the marathon will ultimately slow your recovery and increase your risk of injury. It takes more discipline to hold yourself back and allow a full recovery than it does to mindlessly dive back into training. One way to ensure that you do not run too hard after your marathon is to set an upper limit to your heart rate and wear a heart rate monitor. During the first 2-3 weeks after the marathon, keep your heart rate below 75 percent of your maximal heart rate or 70 percent of your heart rate reserve.
For example, say your resting heart rate is 50 beats per minute and your maximal heart rate is 185 beats per minute. Using the maximal heart rate method, you would keep your heart rate below 139 beats per minute (185 X .75). Heart rate reserve is your maximal heart rate minus your resting pulse. In this example, your heart rate reserve is 135 (185 – 50). Using the heart rate reserve method, you would keep your heart rate below 145 (resting heart rate of 50 + (135 X .70)) during your recovery.
3. Avoid injury by minimizing pounding: Because your muscles and tendons are fatigued and stiff after the marathon, it is critical not to stress them during this time. Running on soft surfaces will reduce the cumulative impact experienced by your legs and back. You should also avoid hill running, not only because running uphill requires more effort than is optimal, but also because downhill running induces muscle damage, and you don’t want any additional muscle damage during your marathon recovery.
4. Get a deep massage: Most serious marathoners use sports massage to speed recovery and prevent injuries. Sports massage feels great, but does it really improve recovery? We don’t really know because the few studies that have been conducted on the benefits of massage have shown mixed results. However, I wouldn’t risk not having a massage (or several) after a marathon. Sports massage is designed to help overworked muscles become ready to train again. An experienced massage therapist will find sore muscles you didn’t know you had. To be effective, sports massage should be “pleasantly uncomfortable.”
5. Be flexible: Many factors affect how long it takes to recover from running a marathon, including your: diet, quantity and quality of sleep, general health, age (we tend to recover more slowly with age), etc. There is a large amount of variation among runners in the amount of time require for marathon recovery, so you shouldn’t copy your training partner’s recovery program. Nor should you devise a rigid schedule based on how you recovered from your last marathon. During your recovery, base your training strictly on how you feel.
Assessing your muscle soreness
Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is caused by microscopic muscle damage that occurs from eccentric (lengthening) muscle contractions. During downhill running, your quadriceps muscles contract eccentrically to resist the pull of gravity and keep your knees from buckling. The resulting muscle damage leads to inflammation, which causes soreness. It takes 1-2 days for this process of muscle damage/inflammation/pain to reach a peak, and the effects can last for up to five days. While you’re experiencing DOMS, your muscles need time to repair. The damaged muscles are also weaker, so any running done before the soreness goes away will be both painful and slow. Use pain as your guide when to start running after the marathon. If pain lasts more than 5 days, then you may have done more substantial damage, and should see a physical therapist.
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.