After months of toil, you’ve accomplished your marathon goal, and are blissfully content. After a few days, however, the initial euphoria wears off, and post-partum depression sinks in. You ask yourself the terrible question, “what now?” Last month, we looked at ways to improve your recovery after running a marathon. This month, we look at the next stage, how to re-motivate yourself and safely resume training after the marathon. Specifically, which types of workouts to do, which to avoid and why.
The first step towards rebuilding your motivation for training is to give yourself some freedom by escaping the tyranny of a strict training schedule. Cast aside discipline and indulge in forbidden pastimes (such as sleeping in). After a few days or weeks without structure, you will feel the need for a training program. This is the perfect time to begin the process of selecting new goals. The mind cannot generate much enthusiasm for vague notions of “getting back in shape.” To re-kindle your motivation, you need a well-defined goal. Be kind to yourself and set goals that are far enough down the road that you do not create self-imposed pressure to jump into hard training too quickly. But, set a goal nonetheless or you will likely find yourself ambivalent towards running.
The six-week post-marathon training pattern presented below is designed to provide a general framework for training after the marathon. This schedule is appropriate for runners who trained 45 to 70 miles per week during their marathon preparation. If your mileage was higher or lower during your marathon training, then scale the workouts up or down accordingly. Do not adhere rigidly to this schedule, but rather be prepared to alter your training based on how your body responds. There will be plenty of time for discipline in the months to come.
The first week after the marathon calls for 5 days of rest or gentle cross-training, and 2 easy runs. This is the most critical period for avoiding injury and illness. If anyone tries to talk you into doing more, just say NO. As we discussed last month, it is important to keep your training intensity in the low to moderate range during the first few weeks of your marathon recovery, and there is no better way to ensure that you stay in the correct zone than to wear a heart rate monitor. During the first few weeks after the marathon, keep your heart rate below 75 percent of your maximal heart rate or 70 percent of your heart rate reserve.
Training during the second and third weeks after the marathon should consist of a balance of rest days, cross-training, and easy runs. During this period, your training intensity should remain easy. Remember to do as much of your running as possible on soft surfaces throughout your recovery to minimize your likelihood of impact-related injury.
During the fourth week after the marathon, the volume of training increases moderately, and two sessions of accelerations or strides are introduced. The reason for these specific workouts is that your marathon training and the marathon itself will have made you strong but slow, and strides are a simple way to improve your leg speed and running form without too much effort. These sessions should be done after a thorough warm-up, with gentle stretching both before and after the run. Allow yourself plenty of rest between each repetition so that you can run each one with good technique.
During the fifth week post-marathon, it is time to re-introduce workouts to improve your lactate threshold. These “tempo runs” should be done at approximately your 15 km to ½ marathon race pace. Tempo runs do not break down the body as much as intervals because they are not fast enough to cause substantial muscle damage nor are they long enough to totally deplete your muscles of glycogen. Include a session of strides and a tempo run for at least two weeks before re-introducing track work into your training program. Following this schedule and fine-tuning based on how you feel should leave you injury free and ready to resume serious training.
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.