The run-free days after a hard running race or marathon can be torture, but resting for proper post-race recovery is vital to your long-term fitness. Here are some tips to recover properly after a demanding run.
Your training schedule shouldn’t end when you cross the finishing line. In the days and weeks after the marathon, you have to dedicate time and effort to recover from the 26.2-mile feat, not to mention giving your body a break after months of hard work.
Rest is crucial. It gives your joints and muscles a proper break after a demanding exercise. The stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, are produced during aerobic activity. After the race, they’ll be busy breaking down muscle tissue and causing stress on your body. Resting after a demanding running race enables your nervous system to return to normal, and helps rebalance your hormones. And this is happens whether you reached your goal or struggled to the finishing line. Your body will be very likely telling you ‘I’m in the shape of my life, let’s continue running,” but you shouldn’t listen to it; this is the time to sit back and put your feet up!
Does how hard you ran make a difference to the recovery period? Unfortunately, not really. You might be a competitive sub-3hr marathoner or the one that completed the race dressed as a sausage dog, but the outcome is the same: covering 26.2 miles by foot is hard on every aspect of your body, from the muscles, ligaments and tendons, to the immune and nervous systems.
Running a marathon depletes your body’s energy stores and causes muscle tissue to break down. A study in the Journal of the Neurological Sciences confirmed inflammation and muscle fibre breakdown in the gastrocnemius (calf) muscles of volunteer runners when training for a marathon and during a week after it.
And if this is not bad enough, endurance training also suppresses the body’s immune system. What’s interesting is that studies show that moderate activity, such as running at 50% of your aerobic capacity for 45 minutes a few times a week, doesn’t affect your immune system much–and might even benefit it, promoting the activity of germ-fighting natural killer (NK) cells that help the body remove viruses. However, running for 90 minutes or more at about 70% of your aerobic capacity (this of course applies to marathon) has been discovered to suppress NK activity and can make you susceptible to illness.
Running for an extended period of time puts your body under high oxidative stress, and this means that you’re overproducing potentially damaging free radicals, which can cause everything from fatigue to muscle and joint pain. The good news is science shows the immune system gains back full strength after a little resting – the immune system is stronger 3-6 hours after the event and the majority of racers are only susceptible to infection a day or two after race day. However during this time, it’s best to support your immune health by getting a lot of sleep, eating antioxidant foods (such as blackberries, spinach, asparagus) and avoiding high-intensity exercise.
How to stop injury in its tracks?
Injury is every marathon runner’s nightmare! Fortunately, there are several ways you can do to minimize your risk. If you felt pain during and after the marathon, there’s a high chance you have damaged the muscle soft tissue. If this is your case, it’s important to know the phases of the soft tissue healing process to avoid causing further injury.
- Phase 1: Bleeding for 0.48 hours
- Phase 2: Inflammation for 5-10 days
- Phase 3: Proliferation for 3-6 weeks
- Phase 4: Remodeling for several months or even years
During the phase 1 and 2, treat the affected area with the PRICE method (Protect, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevate). If pain wears off, you can return to running through phases 3 and 4. But if pain persists with a return to running after 5-10 days, you should consult a physical therapist.
What to do when the marathon is over?
The marathon is over and you don’t know what to do with yourself? Good news – recovering doesn’t have to mean resting on the couch all day.
Here’s what you can do in the first week after the race.
DAY 1: RACE DAY
Today you’ve crossed the finish line and your muscles will feel sore to some degree.
BODY: Make sure you walk for 10-15 minutes after crossing the finish line to reduce muscle stiffness. If you feel pain, put ice on the sore area for 10-20 minute periods, every few hours for 24-48 hours, or have an ice bath!
DIET: Make sure you stay well hydrated and eat protein-rich food. This helps you flush out the lactate build up and replenish muscle fibers from the micro-trauma sustained.
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What should I eat for faster recovery?
What you put into your mouth has a significant effect on your body’s ability to recover from a long run. Have a complete meal within two hours after completing the race. The meal should consist of high GI carbs, healthy fats, protein and plenty of vegetables. You need carbs to help replenish your glycogen stores, omega-3 fats to reduce inflammation, protein to promote muscle repair, and a colorful range of fruits and vegetables to provide lots of antioxidants.
A sample recovery meal: chicken breast with mixed roasted vegetables, olive oil, herbs and salt. Served with 150g of rice.
A sample recovery dessert: frozen yogurt with berries and a lot of water or herbal tea.
WORKOUT: Stretch and roll. A stretch and foam rolling session will relieve tightness. Wait at least 2-6 hours after the race before you do it. This gives your muscles time to replenish fluids and energy lost, and recover from the demands of the marathon.
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DAY 2: POST-RACE DAY
Inflammation from micro-trauma builds over the night, resulting in muscle stiffness.
BODY: Inflammation can lead to scar tissue formation and extreme muscle stiffness if it isn’t relieved. Book yourself for a gentle massage in the first few days after a marathon to promote recovery.
DIET: Eat a lot of fruits for an extra dose of antioxidants and vitamin C. This will not only help reduce free radical damage, but also benefit your immune system.
WORKOUT: Active recovery. Don’t just rest – recover actively! It’s the time to do some easy cross-training exercise. Go out for a light 30-minute cycle or go for a swim the day after a marathon to increase your blood flow and promote a faster recovery.
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DAYS 3-7: POST-RACE WEEK
How quickly you recover will depend on your body’s capabilities and how well you take care of it!
BODY: Listen to your body. How does it feel? Give your body enough time to recover before you return to running longer distances and at faster pace. If you’re still feeling sore and stiff, use this time to cross-train (swimming, yoga) rather than run.
DIET: Continue with a healthy diet. Keep in mind that you just did something amazing, running a marathon isn’t something you do every day so enjoy your achievement and feel free to celebrate.
WORKOUT: Gentle running. Start easy, only 2-4 miles and build back into your running very gently. Once muscle soreness has considerably decreased (usually 2-4 days after the race), go for a short jog to improve blood flow and feed your need for a regular run. Just make sure to take it easy and listen to your body.
Running for a prolonged period of time puts your body under high oxidative stress.
Take enough time to rest and recover
This is something that you probably already know – anecdotal evidence proves that most marathoners don’t like taking time out from run training. Not only do they fear they will lose their endurance fitness when they take a break from distance running, but they also find it really difficult to separate themselves from the activity they like so much. It is hard but just think what jumping back on the training wagon would do to your body. Not sure? Well, it will put you at an increased risk of illness, injury and a loss of motivation. And let’s be honest, no one wants it.
If you don’t rest enough, you become more vulnerable to the over-training syndrome, which in turn may lead to a greater risk of illness and injury. And this is not all: it will also prevent your body from adapting to the overload of training, which could gradually lead to weaker muscles and weaker joints. By taking a break from your training, you’ll be giving your body time to replenish energy stores and allow your muscles to repair and rebuild. A recovery period is in fact beneficial to your performance.
How much rest does your body need?
Most experts would say that one week off proper training after a marathon is necessary, and then sticking to a light running schedule for at least another week. Recovery and adaptation are essential elements for decreasing your risk of injury, boosting motivation and running faster later in the season.
If you’re still anxious to return on the start line, try this task: Write down two to three things you are proud of and two to three things you’d like to adapt in your training, mind-set and nutrition. Whatever the result, you’ll have done your best on the day – be proud of yourself. Plan an event that excites you to complete within the next year and use the recovery period to have fun. This is the time to go out and do the things you usually can’t because you’re busy covering miles.