It has been three weeks since my race, and it honestly feels like it’s been MONTHS already. There is a lot of conflicting information floating around about how to best recover from a marathon, and unfortunately, a lot of it has to do with the fact that it just depends. It depends on the caliber of athlete you are, if you have done this type of race before, and how quickly you recover from exertion in general.
In this post I will go over each of these points, indicating where I am for all three areas and what I have done.
Caliber Of Athlete
If you are an elite athlete/runner, your recovery is going to be different than your average hobbyist who goes crazy and signs-up for a marathon. Even if you are moderately athletic to begin with, and were running some, if this is your first marathon, chances are your body is not used to running this often and will need an adequate amount of rest afterward.
I had just run my third half marathon going into training for this marathon. I was running four days per week, and I have been running at least 16 miles/ week fairly consistently for about four years now (including through pregnancy). My half marathon training consisted of running four days per week, and only ever two days in a row. That gave my body time to rest from the mileage and stress I was putting on it. I usually did one speed run per week, some runs where I pushed the pace, and honestly, none that were easy paced (I know better now). In addition, I was lifting 3 days per week: one total body, one leg day, and one upper body day.
When I began marathon training, I got a coach, and it helped me to correctly add on mileage and figure out when to do tempo runs, speed runs, and easy runs (another blog to come on the difference between these runs and their importance). I continued to hit the weights three days per week, and looking back, I wish I had hit them harder (there’s only so much time in a day). Over time, I increased my running to five days per week, with my peak mileage hitting 43 miles in a week (it would have been 49, but I got sick during my peak week).
Even though I trained hard and have been running for years, that was a very taxing amount for my body as it was the first time I had ever increased my mileage by so much. I was a newbie marathon runner, so I needed to recover like a newbie. For me, this meant five days completely off of running and working out, followed by a very slow and easy 2-mile run for my first run out. After that, I took another week off because my foot was really sore (borderline plantar fasciitus is my self-diagnosis) during that run. It was nothing serious, but since I was not training for anything, there was really no reason for me to force myself to run through the discomfort. After another week off (two full weeks minus the 2-miler) I went out for two easy and beautiful runs in Hawaii. If I were home, I probably would have gone back to running four days, keeping the mileage between 3-5.
An elite athlete, or someone who has run multiple marathons or even ultra marathons, would not require as much recovery. They may be able to jump in for some really easy runs after a few days rest (usually referred to as a shake out run). Their bodies are used to the higher mileage because they may have been running 60-70 miles per week during training, depending on what else they are working toward that year. Someone training for an ultra marathon may use a marathon as a long run, so they would not even necessarily need to recover afterward.
Have You Done This Type Of Race Before?
As I briefly described above, having done this type of race before can have a significant impact on your recovery requirements. When I ran my first half marathon, I took about five days off of running/working out after the race. By my third half marathon, I was able to lift the next day, and began my marathon training. My first workout back was too many burpees for what I had just done, so my legs were extremely sore for the next several days and by Saturday I had overexerted myself; however, if I had been smart, I still could have lifted and done some easy runs that week and been fine.
Athletes who have done marathons before are going to have a similar experience. Their body has already been through the marathon recovery process, so it has begun to adapt to the recovery needs. The exhaustion level is not as high as the first time around, the soreness probably is not as extreme, and tweaks in training have likely led to better hydration and intra-race nutrition (this is not to say someone can’t get this right the first time).
For me personally, since this was my first marathon I was surprised that I was not sore after the day of the race. When I crossed that finish line, I was focused on nothing more than sitting down. We were about a mile from our hotel, so after I got a quick leg massage and chugged a bottle of water, we grabbed a coffee and walked the mile back. Doing that definitely helped my legs recover because they did not stiffen up the way they would have if I sat around the rest of the day. I also had a protein bar when I finally felt hungry, followed by a gyro pita for lunch. I think this helped the process of replenishing the nutrients my muscles needed to recover.
I switched between water and electrolyte water on the course, and took in a total of 5 Gu packets. The evening of the race I also spent some time in the hotel hot tub. I think the combination of these things helped significantly decrease how sore I was. My heart rate, on the other hand, was still very slightly elevated for most of the week. This is an indication that my body was still working hard to recover from the race. So even though I did not FEEL sore, my body was still working hard to recover from the impact of the race.
Someone who has done this type of race before may not feel any soreness, or may not need to go to such lengths to ensure they do not feel as sore. Further, they may find that their heart rate is only elevated for a day or two after the race, or is not significantly increased by light activity.
How Quickly You Recover From Exertion In General
Some people just take more time to recover than others. You can improve that aspect of your fitness (you can improve almost any part of your fitness if you stick to it), but some people just naturally take less/more time to recover than others from exertion.
When Pat and I compete in ANYTHING athletic, he pretty much always beats me (except distance running – that’s my thing!). I push myself as hard as I can, but he is always able to push himself harder. The difference is, my recovery is much quicker. We did a Crossfit workout for time a few years ago and he beat me by seconds. It was a 7:30 workout and it took him about an hour to feel recovered after. I went on to do some push-ups and other exercises within five minutes of finishing. I tell this story to illustrate that, despite how athletic someone is (Pat is definitely athletic) they may take a while to recover. AND, just because someone is pushing as hard as they can (I am not a gracious loser) they can still recover quickly.
Even though I pushed really hard at my race, my recovery was not as bad as I thought it would be. A lot of that has to do with training, hot tub, walking after the race, and trying my best to refuel instead of eating something that would make me sick. Likewise, some of it just has to do with the fact that I recover pretty easily from physical exertion.
A good indicator of this, which I mentioned in my last point, would be to monitor your heart rate. I never wrote down my resting heart rate before my race, but I always ask my doctor when I go in for check-ups, so I have a fair idea of where it is.
After my race, my resting heart rate was still normal (surprisingly), but if I did ANYTHING it would rise quickly to much higher than the activity required (i.e. walking to the kitchen caused a 20 bpm jump). This was a good indicator to me that my body was still working hard to recover from the race. Even though I felt fine, my body was still working hard to recover, so heart rate is an important tool to use in tracking your recovery, because you may do something silly and overdo it (which is something I would definitely have done!).
These indicators can be applied to any type of race or physical competition, but you likely would not need quite as long to recover from a shorter race (you may take just a couple days after a 5K instead of a week, even if it is your first race). Running and fitness are a lifelong goal of mine, and I try to make this a space that helps you make it a life long goal as well. With that in mind, the best way to recover from a marathon is to listen to your body and just be honest with yourself. I was itching to run by three days after my race but I knew I was putting myself at a high risk of injury. I had nothing to train for after, so I gave myself a few extra days. Don’t take yourself too seriously. I would prefer to take three extra days off over going out too soon and being out of commission for weeks or months. I want to be able to run in three weeks, three years, and three decades, so I need to approach recovery in a responsible manner that allows for that.
Taking extra time off is not a green light to sit on the couch and crush pizza everyday either (although a few slices won’t kill you!). It’s all about responsible moderation. Let your body rest, indulge in a few things you may have avoided during training for performance reasons, and focus on fueling it after all of the hard work you put your body through. Look for the long-term goal instead of the immediate need for satisfaction. Don’t compare yourself to others and their recovery. Keep these three components in mind, and if possible, monitor your heart rate. Your heart rate will be your most tangible gauge of recovery.