You may feel many emotions after completing a marathon: pride, satisfaction, elation. But what happens once the endorphins wear off and your body starts to show telltale signs of the ordeal it’s just gone through? Training for and completing the distance are only two parts of the equation - it’s important to optimise your post-race recovery too.
Get the expert insight on how to recover effectively after a marathon from James Collinge. James is Director and clinical lead at Invicta Health and Performance – a physiotherapy company based in Cheshire. James has a Masters Degree in Strength & Conditioning and works with England Rugby.
What happens to your body in the 48 hours after a marathon?
An article published by the PIT Journal states, “running can cause bone stress injury, bronchospasm, cramps, blisters, and other issues” - all of which are symptoms you may experience after running a marathon. One study published in Frontiers in Physiology found that endurance running may affect anti- and pro-inflammatory markers, meaning that you may also suffer from inflammation after running a marathon.
James explains, “Prolonged endurance running like marathon events can have a profound physiological and neurological effect on the body. Mechanically, you’ll have exercise-induced muscle damage and structural microtrauma to connective tissues due to the repetitive nature of loading over a sustained period.”
“Metabolically, this is going to lead to secondary pro-inflammatory responses and oxidative stressors, especially within the lower limbs including the muscles and fascia but also the tendons and bones.”
Your body will start the process of homeostasis (restoring equilibrium) over the subsequent 48 hours post event, with most markers returning to near baseline at 72-96 hours post-marathon.
How long should you rest completely after a marathon?
As explained above, the body goes through various stages of trauma when running a marathon and needs time to adequately recover. However, after a long period of marathon training, it can be difficult mentally and emotionally to sit still and forgo training for the period of recovery. So can you still run? Or should you tough it out and enjoy the rest?
James explains, “It really depends on the athlete’s training history, physical qualities, and competition goals. The recovery and management of an amateur running their first marathon compared to a seasoned professional completing consecutive long-distance events is a complete contrast. But there’s also a difference between complete rest and active recovery.”
Active Recovery vs Complete Rest
James explains that, “Active recovery methods post-marathon have better outcomes in recovery compared to complete rest. But this active recovery should come in the form of non-running activities. If an amateur runner completes their first marathon (day 0), days +1 to 3 should consist of active recovery to accommodate the resolution of mechanical and metabolic strains acquired during the marathon. From days +4 onwards, a runner may think about returning to running in a low volume, low intensity fashion. Target your next event and periodise your training to gradually return back to the loading demands of the next competition.”
What should you not do after a marathon?
If you really want to optimise your post-marathon recovery and get back to training as quickly as possible, it’s important not to make any of the common mistakes. James explains that there are 4 mistakes he sees that could hinder marathon recovery.
1. Drinking too much alcohol the night after the marathon
It’s perfectly understandable that you may want to celebrate your incredible achievement with drinks and people close to you. However, it’s important to remember that alcohol is a diuretic and pro-inflammatory; combine that with poor water consumption and you will be creating a poor internal environment for recovery.
2. Eating too much ultra-processed food
As with the celebratory drinks, you may decide to enjoy some high fat, high salt, high sugar foods which were perhaps off the menu throughout your marathon training. However, foods like this lack mineral quality which your body needs to recover. Of course, it’s important to celebrate your achievement, but think about balancing the scale with high quality, nutritious food and drink choices to help your body recover properly.
3. Neglecting sleep quality
Sleep is a primary pillar of recovery. Make sure you get enough sleep post event which might equate to a little more than your typical 8 hours, and ensure this is of good quality. Smart watches and sleep apps can be helpful for this. Don’t be afraid to nap during the day if you have the luxury!
4. Returning to training too soon
Many people return to running too quickly after a marathon and don’t schedule some time “off-feet” with a planned reintroduction back to the loads you were once running. Work closely with a running coach or trainer to periodise your return to training.
Post Marathon Recovery Food & Drink
What you eat and drink in the hours and days after running a marathon can have a huge effect on your recovery. One study published in the National Library of Medicine examined how protein supplementation following a marathon influences post-exercise recovery. The study concluded that eating a combination of carbohydrate plus protein resulted in meaningful reductions in ratings of soreness, energy and fatigue 72 hours post-marathon.
James explains which foods are best. “When it comes to nutrition, there are three primary pillars: food quality, mineral density, and hydration. Food quality in the form of fresh, organic produce with a balance of macronutrients; complex carbohydrates to restore glycogen stores; essential proteins for muscle repair and regeneration; healthy fats for neurological and cellular function – all of which act to restore energy balance.”
“The majority of vitamins and minerals in your diet will come from fruit and vegetables but rather than a stereotypical “5-a-day” regime, opt to “eat the rainbow” with the five colours of phytonutrients (Greens, Blues/Purples, Reds, Yellow/Oranges, Whites). Add as many varieties of colours from natural food products to each meal as you can to receive a range of vitamins and minerals found in each group, e.g. add a handful of berries to your porridge, splash of cherry tomatoes and spinach to the bolognese etc”.
When it comes to drink choices, James has one simple answer: water! “Isotonic drinks (e.g. Lucozade Sport, Powerade) have their place post event to begin to restore your blood sugar levels and electrolytes lost in metabolism. But they should not be your primary fluid.”
A good method to monitor and replace the fluids lost during a marathon would be to bring a portable weighing scale with you to the event. Pre-event, weigh-in on a flat even surface and record your weight. Post-event, repeat the weigh-out under the same conditions. The difference in weight loss pre and post is primarily water loss through perspiration. If you are 2 kilograms lighter in weight post event, look to restore that deficit by drinking 2 litres of water over the next few hours. The colour of your urine also serves as a quick reference guide to hydration levels, the darker the more dehydrated, aim for a clear sample.
About the author: Alex Parren is a Freelance Health & Fitness writer as well as a qualified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist.