Marathons are becoming more and more popular. In fact, 8.6% more people participated in marathons in 2010 than in 2009! As they become more accessible, it’s important to remember that a marathon isn’t like any other race.
It’s much more. Because of its distance, the marathon will inflict more damage to your muscles than any other event (aside from an ultramarathon) and require a smarter recovery plan. The 48 hour period after a marathon is vital to ensure you recover properly.
Here’s your plan to recover quickly, fully, and come back strong.
Eating for Recovery
After you finish, you should immediately eat simple carbohydrates. They can be in the form of a sports drink, bagel, or energy bar. I’m bullish on replenishing carbs after a marathon, so I think it’s fine to go slightly overboard. Now isn’t the time to worry about excess calories.
While sports drinks and bagels are great, they’re not a meal. Within 1-2 hours (the sooner the better), you should eat a full meal that’s as balanced and healthy as possible. Include a mix of complex carbohydrates plus a good source of protein.
Refueling shouldn’t take a backseat to rehydration. Almost every runner will finish a marathon in a particular state of dehydration, so drink fluids consistently the rest of the day. Caffeine has even been shown in several studies to aid the absorption of carbohydrates, so enjoy a cup of coffee or tea after the race.
I like to keep the elements of a runner’s diet simple, but ensure you’re eating nutrient rich food like fruit, vegetables, and nuts. The food you eat immediately after a marathon helps your body rebuild, so give it what it needs.
It’s also okay to indulge in a dessert or unhealthy meal. You likely burned over 3,000 calories (and the after-burn will continue to burn a few hundred more), so enjoy an ice cream sundae or burger and French fries. Just remember that it’s a cheat meal, not a cheat day.
Finishing a marathon is a demanding endeavor and the importance of extra sleep shouldn’t be forgotten. Your body repairs itself primarily during sleep so make it a priority.
Aim to get an extra hour of sleep for 2-4 nights after the marathon. If you’re lucky enough to have time for a nap, take one in the afternoon the day after the race.
To get the most out of your night’s rest, skip the alcohol. It’s counter-productive to keeping you hydrated and more than 1-2 drinks can affect the quality of your sleep by limiting your REM and most restorative sleep cycles.
When you get home after the race, take an ice bath by dropping a bag or two of ice in your bath tub. They reduce inflammation and swelling, both of which you’re going to have a lot of!
The day after the marathon, try running 1-2 miles as slowly as possible on grass or dirt. You’ll increase blood flow to your muscles and it will probably make you feel a lot better. But if you’re especially sore, choose a zero impact form of exercise like cycling or pool running.
If possible, schedule a massage for the day after the race to flush out your muscles. Getting a massage right after the race isn’t wise, as it can actually increase muscle damage.
After a few days of complete rest, 5-10 minutes of daily dynamic stretching will help loosen your muscles, increase blood flow, and prevent you from developing muscle adhesions. Stick to dynamic stretches – core work and body weight exercises can wait until you’re more recovered.
Of course, if you developed any severe pain or a running injury from your marathon, you should see a physical therapist or your doctor to confirm the appropriate treatment.
I should also mention that the best way to recover from a marathon is to be adequately prepared to run one in the first place. If you’re not ready at the start line, the damage done to your body will be more severe. That’s where a coach and community can help.
Being smart about your post-race recovery process is not only going to help you feel better, but you’ll come back to running more refreshed and ready to build on your last performance. Recover intelligently!
Jason Fitzgerald is a running coach, 2:44 marathoner, and the founder of Strength Running. Sign up for free running advice to help you achieve your best.