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Post Marathon Recovery: Tips for Feeling Better After a Marathon

Amanda Wendorff

Recovery after completing a marathon is just as important as the training leading up to the race. It's a time for your body to heal, rebuild, and reflect on the achievement of running a marathon. Proper recovery can also set the foundation for your next race, whether it's another marathon or any other running goal you set for yourself.

In this article, we'll share a recovery plan and some tips to help you navigate the post-race time. Here are a few concepts we'll cover:

  • Immediate post-race recovery strategies, starting at the finish line.
  • The importance of post-race recovery foods and hydration.
  • Active recovery, and how gentle movement is better for the body than complete rest.
  • The post-marathon recovery timeline and when it's safe to return to running and to get back into training.
  • Activities to avoid immediately after your race to prevent delaying your recovery.
MOTTIV app user Ashley Hankamp expresses her excitement of finishing a race!

Your Marathon Recovery Plan Starts At The Finish Line

Once you cross the finish line of your marathon, take a moment to celebrate, and then turn your mind to recovery.

There are a few things you can do in the first few hours post-race that can really shorten recovery time and how quickly you can get back into running.

Post-Race Recovery Foods

One of the biggest determinants of how well you recover from a marathon is what you eat immediately after you cross the finish line. Your body has just undergone significant stress and now needs the right nutrients to start the healing process.

Try to eat calories, particularly carbohydrates and proteins, shortly after your race to immediately start the process of:

  • Replacing the glycogen stores that you burned through during the race
  • Repairing and rebuilding muscle tissue
  • Reducing inflammation

In the time immediately after you've run 26.2 miles, you likely won't have an appetite for much food. This is normal. When you're racing, blood will move towards the hardest-working muscles, like the legs, and away from the gut, which may lead to short-term nausea.

The best options for food right after you cross the finish line to jumpstart the recovery process are small, easily digestible post-run snacks that contain carbohydrates and, ideally, a protein source.

Some good examples of post-race food include:

  • A pre-prepared protein drink or recovery shake, like Skratch Labs' Post Workout Recovery Drink Mix
  • Low-fat chocolate milk, which has a good combination of carbs and protein
  • A piece of fruit
  • An energy bar like a Clif Bar
  • A bagel or any other food that is served at the finish line

Depending on how your gut is feeling and what is available at the finish line, it may be tough to get in a perfectly balanced recovery snack. Don't despair if that's the case - your biggest goal immediately after a race is to get some food -- any food -- in and start the recovery process.

Hydration for Recovery

Replenishing your fluids after a marathon is just as important as eating the proper foods. Particularly in hot or humid conditions, you may sweat quite a bit during a marathon race and even be dehydrated at the finish. Your body needs liquid and electrolytes after a run.

As soon as possible, start gradually rehydrating by drinking water with electrolytes, like NUUN, or a sports drink like Gatorade.

To ensure you're effectively rehydrating yourself after the marathon, pay attention to your thirst and how you feel. If you've got a headache or feel lightheaded and lethargic, that may indicate dehydration. Have a bit more of an electrolyte drink! Also, keep an eye on your urine output. Clear or pale urine generally indicates good hydration. If your urine is darker yellow, or if you cannot urinate in the couple hours after a marathon, you're likely a bit dehydrated and should take in some more fluids.

Keep Moving

After the excitement and adrenaline of race day fade, it might be tempting to sit or lie down and rest for the rest of the day. However, one of the best ways to recover and reduce the onset of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is to keep moving. Engaging in light movement after your race can significantly improve your recovery period. Here's why:

  • Walking helps to maintain blood circulation, which is crucial for delivering nutrients to your muscles and removing waste products accumulated during the marathon.
  • Staying upright and moving can also help reduce swelling and prevent stiffness by gently stretching and using your muscles in a low-impact manner.
  • Cross-training or walking in the days following the race can continue to aid in recovery and promote muscle repair and flexibility.

Incorporating light movements, such as a slow walk back to your car or hotel or even some easy yoga or stretching, can make a big difference in how quickly and efficiently your body recovers.

This is a snapshot of a guided mobility (yoga) video made for endurance athletes, found inside the MOTTIV training app, lead by yoga instructor Helen Falaveno.

The Best Post Marathon Meals

Within an hour or two of finishing your marathon, your stomach should be ready for a larger, nutritionally balanced meal. A lot of carbohydrates are good post-run to replenish the energy you burned in the race, protein will aid in muscle rebuilding, and some healthy fats are good for overall health benefits.

Remember, also, that completing a marathon is a major accomplishment! There's nothing wrong with indulging in a celebratory meal of some of your favorite foods after your race. So go ahead and meet your run buddies for a big post-race brunch or dinner!

Here are a few good post-race meals to consider:

  • Eggs and toast with fruit
  • Steak and a baked potato
  • Salmon or other fatty fish with rice
  • A nice, juicy cheeseburger

Tips for Recovering the Day After a Marathon

The day after a marathon, you should expect to feel sore muscles and a bit fatigued. This is very normal - a marathon is a big effort!

The day after a marathon is a time to really focus on taking care of your body so that it can recover and bounce back. Here are a few things you can do to speed up your recovery.

Keep Eating and Hydrating

The day following your marathon, it's imperative to continue focusing on nutrition and hydration. Your body has been through a significant ordeal, burning through its glycogen stores and expending a tremendous amount of energy. Now is the time to replenish and prepare for the recovery phase.

After running a marathon, your body is in a state of repair. Be sure to give your body plenty of healthy carbohydrates, proteins, and fats to help you recover. And most of all, make sure you are eating enough! Most runners take the day after a marathon off, and you may not feel like you need to eat much. But remember, your body needs those carbs to replenish depleted glycogen stores, protein for muscle recovery, and healthy fats to reduce inflammation.

Rehydrating after a race is about more than just quenching your thirst. You've lost a significant amount of fluids and electrolytes through sweat, and these need to be replaced to avoid dehydration and its effects, such as headaches or muscle cramps. Drink water consistently throughout the day, and if you find yourself getting bored with plain water, consider coconut water or sports drinks that contain electrolytes.

Get Extra Rest After a Marathon

The importance of rest cannot be overstated in the recovery phase. During sleep, your body goes into recovery mode, meaning it repairs itself and gets stronger during rest. On the days after you run your marathon, take it easy and aim for 8-10 hours of sleep a night to restore your energy levels. If you're feeling particularly tired, a mid-day nap can also be beneficial.

Light Movement

While it might seem counterproductive, engaging in light activity can actually speed up your recovery. Many runners opt to do some light cross-training the day after a race, such as easy cycling, swimming, or a walk. If you're feeling sore the day after the marathon run, some gentle, restorative movements that help increase blood flow without stressing your muscles will actually help reduce muscle soreness. Yoga or light stretching is also a good way to keep your body from getting too stiff while also calming down the nervous system. While you're still feeling muscle soreness, it's best to hold off on strength training.

Take Time Post-Race to Reflect

Reflection after a race is a crucial step in the recovery process. It allows you to assess what went well and what could be improved for your next half or full marathon. Take some time to journal and reflect on the things that went well during your race and the areas of improvement. This will help you to make improvements during your next long-distance race.

Also, spend some time discussing your race with friends, family, fellow runners, and running coach. Your supporters can provide different perspectives and valuable feedback, while also sharing in your celebrations.

MOTTIV app user Kathy is all smiles after completing a race!

Post Marathon Recovery Timelines

Once you move further into recovery week, you may start to wonder about the recovery timeline and when you can get back to running. Remember, every athlete is different, and recovery times vary, but here are some general guidelines as to what to expect during the recovery process and how to gauge when you're ready for the next steps in your running journey.

How Long It Takes To Recover From a Marathon

The feeling of fatigue after completing a marathon is a clear sign that your body has been pushed to its limits. It's normal to feel tired, and you may experience this fatigue for several days following the race. This period of rest and recovery is crucial for allowing your body to repair itself. Engage in passive recovery methods during this time, emphasizing sleep, hydration, and nutrition. Full rest days are also a good idea.

Take a Little Break From Running

The urge to return to running can be strong after a race. You've likely been motivated and may be excited to get ready for another race or even start marathon training. However, remember to really listen to your body and not rush this process.

Some runners might feel ready for a light jog a few days after the race, but it's important to approach the first run back gently, with no emphasis on pace or distance. The goal of a recovery run is to facilitate movement and aid in the recovery process, not to resume training at full intensity. Pay close attention to how your body responds during and after easy running, as well as your running form. If you experience any pain or significant discomfort, it may be a sign that you need more time to recover. Always let your body be the guide!

Resuming Marathon Training

Deciding when to get back to running after a marathon depends on several factors, including the intensity at which you ran the race, your overall health, and your previous running experience. A general rule of thumb is to allow one day of rest or light activity for every mile raced. However, this should be adjusted based on personal recovery needs and how you feel.

For those new to running, it's wise to err on the side of caution and allow for more recovery time. Serious training should only be considered when you feel fully recovered, both physically and mentally, from the race. This may take a few weeks, but it's always better to be cautious so that you can avoid injury rather than training too soon.

When Can I Run Another Marathon?

Planning your next marathon requires careful consideration of your recovery and training. For most runners, particularly those new to the sport, it's best to wait at least six weeks before tackling another marathon. This timeframe allows your body to fully recover and rebuild, preventing injuries and ensuring you're in optimal condition for your next race.

Even better, take a couple of weeks to recover and then start a new training plan 12 to 16 weeks before your next race. This is the smartest and most cautious approach and will help promote longevity in the sport.

Remember, recovery is an essential part of running. The recovery period is not just about physical recuperation but also about preparing mentally for the challenges ahead. Taking enough time to recover fully can lead to improvements in performance and a more enjoyable experience in future races.

Post-Marathon Recovery Tips and Tricks

In addition to sleep, nutrition, and active movement, there are some other things you can do to speed up your recovery. Here are some tips and techniques to consider incorporating in the week after your race while your body is still recovering:

Cold Water Immersion & Epsom Salt

Cold water immersion, commonly referred to as ice baths, has been a popular recovery method among athletes for years. The theory behind this practice is that cold water helps to reduce inflammation and muscle soreness by constricting blood vessels and reducing blood flow to the affected areas.

While ice baths can help you feel less stiff, remember that it is still important to let the muscles recover fully through rest. Always follow up with gentle movements to encourage blood flow back to the muscles, aiding in their growth and repair.

Many runners also have found that Epsom salt baths can aid recovery. You can find Epsom salt at your local pharmacy.

Massage and Foam Rolling

Incorporating massage and a foam roller into your recovery can have significant benefits. These practices help in increasing circulation, which is vital for delivering nutrients to the muscles and removing waste products accumulated during the race.

Be gentle with any sports massage or self-massage, especially right after your race. Focus on major muscle groups used during running, such as the calves, quads, hamstrings, and glutes, and be careful not to overdo it on particularly sore areas.

Expect Sleep Trouble

It's not uncommon to experience difficulties sleeping after the adrenaline and exertion of finishing a marathon. This can be frustrating, especially when you know how crucial sleep is for recovery. Creating a relaxing bedtime routine can significantly improve your ability to fall and stay asleep. Consider practices such as reading, meditation, or light stretching to signal to your body that it's time to wind down. Avoiding screens, caffeine, and heavy meals before bed can also help in improving sleep quality.

Be Patient and Listen to Your Body!

Perhaps the most crucial advice for post-marathon recovery is to be patient. The desire to jump back into your running routine, especially if you're feeling good a few days post-race, can be strong. However, the recovery process is not just about feeling subjectively better but about allowing your body the time it needs to repair fully. Rushing this process can increase the risk of injuries and potentially set you back further than if you had allowed adequate recovery time. Listen to your body, and give it the respect and time it deserves to recover properly.

Post-Race Activities to Avoid the Day After You Run a Marathon

While there are plenty of things you can do the day after your race to speed up your recovery, there are a few things that may seem like a good idea right after a marathon but will actually slow down your recovery. Specifically:

Don't Try to Run

While you may be feeling motivated or have a bit of a runner's high after your race, it is generally not a good idea to run the day after a marathon. Doing so can prolong or worsen the muscle cell damage that occurs in hard efforts like marathons and create excessive fatigue that will take a long time to overcome. Instead, engage in light movement, like walking.

Don't Drink Too Much Alcohol.

While it may be tempting to celebrate your accomplishment with some adult beverages, be aware that excessive alcohol can really hinder your recovery after a marathon. A beer with your running buddies is fine; several drinks will prolong your muscle soreness and fatigue.

Don't Take Anti-Inflammatories For Muscle Soreness.

Your sore muscles will surely remind you of the hard effort you completed, but avoid the temptation to reach for ibuprofen or other anti-inflammatories to reduce the pain. Studies have shown that using anti-inflammatories can actually slow muscle healing and recovery. Additionally, anti-inflammatories can have negative side effects, such as kidney damage—a risk that is elevated even more with dehydration.

Wrap Up

Completing a marathon is an impressive feat, and how you handle the recovery period can impact your future running performance and enjoyment of the sport. By focusing on nutrition, hydration, rest, and gentle movement, you can aid your body in the recovery process. Remember, recovery is just as important as training in your journey as a runner. Be patient with yourself, and listen to your body—it will let you know when it's ready to hit the pavement again.

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Amanda Wendorff

| Author

Amanda Wendorff is a professional triathlete, focusing on the 70.3 and 140.6 Ironman distances. In the last several years she’s competed in multiple gravel bike races. Top Achievements: Top 3 Ironman Ireland and Ironman 70.3 Coquimbo, Multiple time top-5 finisher, 3rd Overall at Moran 166 Gravel Race in Michigan, Age group podium at Gravel Worlds, Big Sugar, and Ned Gravel in first year of gravel racing.

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