You just completed 26.2 miles or 13.1! That's awesome an accomplishment! Congratulations! Take some time to enjoy the moment and reflect upon the road that led you to this momentous moment.
After the extended runner's high has worn off and the high fives slowly start the wane, many of you will start to strategize how to transition back into a normal running routine. Riding the wave of the extended runner's high, many will want to dive head first into another full blown running routine. It is very important to understand the what kind of effect the marathon/half-marathon had on your body systems and, what are the proper recovery strategies that will allow you to stay injury free and prepare you for your next race.
Physiological Effects of Marathon Running
Marathons are challenging on the body – there’s no way to sugar coat it. Muscles, hormones, tendons, cells, and almost every physiological system is stretched to the limit during a marathon race. It doesn't matter if you’re a Boston qualifier or it’s your first marathon, 26.2 miles is 26.2 miles and your body has been put through an immense amount physical stress. The following is a list of some of the scientifically measured physiological systems that are most affected after a marathon and how long each takes to fully repair.
Muscles soreness and fatigue are the most obvious case of damage caused by running the marathon distance. One scientific study conducted on the calf muscles of marathon runners concluded that both the intensive training for, and the marathon itself, induce inflammation and muscle fiber necrosis that significantly impaired muscle power and durability for up the 14 days post marathon. It takes your muscles about 2 weeks post marathon to return to full strength.
Cellular damage post marathon, which includes oxidative damage, increased production of creatinine kinase (CK) – a marker that indicates damage to skeletal and myocardial tissue, and increased myoglobin levels in the blood stream (which often results in blood being present in urine).
One study concluded that CK damage persisted more than 7 days post marathon while another study confirmed the presence of myoglobin in the bloodstream post marathon for 3-4 days post race. These studies indicate that the body needs at least 7-10 days of rest post marathon to fully recover from the cellular damage caused during the race. These markers, along with a suppressed immune system is the primary reason that the optimal marathon recovery schedule avoids cross training during the first 2-3 days.
Post marathon, the immune system is severely compromised, which increases the risk of contracting colds and the flu. Furthermore, a suppressed immune system is one of the major causes of overtraining. A recent study confirms that the immune system is compromised up to three days post marathon and is a major factor in over-training syndrome. Therefore, it is critical that you rest as much as possible in the three days following a marathon and focus on eating healthy and nutrient rich foods.
The research clearly indicates that the marathon induces significant muscle, cellular, and immune system damage for 3-14 days post race. Therefore, it is essential that all marathon runners have a 2-3 week marathon recovery protocol that focuses on rest and rejuvenation of these physiological systems.
Sample Marathon Recovery Plan
We’re going to outline a nutrition, rehab, cross training, and running plan for the 3 weeks after a marathon. This rehab plan is guaranteed to help you recover faster and return to training as quickly as possible.
Immediately post race
After you cross the finish line, try to get warm and get to your clothes. You’ll probably get cold very quickly, and while it won’t help you recover, getting warm will sure make you feel a lot better.
Try to find something to eat. Protein shakes, protein bars, fruits (especially bananas), and bagels with peanut butter are all good options. Many marathoners can’t eat soon after finishing, so grab a handful of items and make your way to friends and family.
When you get back to the hotel room or home, I highly recommend an ice bath. Fill the tub with ice and cold water and submerge your lower body for 15 minutes. You don’t need the water too cold, 55 degrees is optimal, but anything colder than 65 degrees will do. After your ice bath, you can take a nap or walk around to try and loosen the legs. At this point, you’ve done about all you can do for the day. Relax and enjoy your accomplishment.
Cross Training: None
- Contrast therapy: your lower body. To contrast bath, take large trash cans and fill one with hot (hot bath temp) water and the other with ice water (cold enough so some ice still doesn't melt) and put your whole lower body into the cold. Hold for 5 minutes and then switch to the hot for 5 mins. Repeat 2 or 3 times, ending with cold. This helps rush blood in and out of the area, which facilitates healing. Note: if you have a significant injury, do not do contrast therapy and stick with ice baths only and see a health-care professional for an evaluation
- Nutrition: Consume a healthy amount complex carbohydrates (potatoes, yams, rice, oatmeal, quinoa), protein (including protein shakes/bars), and vitamin C and potassium rich foods (coconuts, peppers, dark leafy vegetables, beans) The Carbohydrates will help your muscle restore its glycogen stores and protein will help repair the muscle damage while the vitamin C and potassium rich foods will help combat free radical damage and boost your immune system.
- Soft tissue repair: Light massage will help loosen your muscles. Don’t schedule a deep tissue massage yet, just a gentle effleurage massage or a light rolling with the stick.
Running: Two days, 3-5 miles very easy
Cross Training: Optional – three days, 25-50 minutes easy effort. The focus is on promoting blood flow to the legs, no strenuous training.
- Nutrition: Continue eating a healthy diet
- Soft tissue repair: Now is the time you can get a deep tissue massage if you have areas that are really bothering you or that are injured.
- Contrast baths: continue contrast bath if you don't possess a significant injury.
- Epsom Salt Bath: About an hour before bed, massage your legs out with the stick or self massage and then soak in a hot/warm bath with 3 cups epsom salt and 1 cup baking soda for 10-15 minutes. After the soak, stretch real well and relax. This always perks up my legs quite a bit and you’ll also sleep great.
Running: Three or four days of 4-6 miles very easy.
Cross Training: Optional – Three sessions total. One easy session and two medium effort sessions for 25-50 minutes.
Running: Begin to slowly build back into full training. My suggestion is four to five runs of 5-8 miles with 4 x 20 sec strides after each run.
Cross Training: 1 easy session, 1 medium session, and 1 hard session of 50 minutes.
Don’t worry about losing any running stamina during this recovery period. First, it’s much more important to ensure proper recovery so you can train even harder during your next training cycle. If you don’t let yourself recover now, you’ll simply have to back off your workouts when it matters. Likewise, you won’t lose much fitness at all. It takes about 2-3 weeks of training to get back into good shape and ready to start attacking workouts and planning races.
Try not to schedule any races until 6 weeks after your marathon. I know you may want to avenge a disappointing performance or you’ll be coming off a running high and you’ll want to run every race under the sun. However, your results won’t be as good as they might be if you just wait a few weeks and let your body recover and train a little first. Patience is a virtue, it will pay off in the end.
Until next time - ENVISION, BELIEVE, EXECUTE and SUCCEED