Recovery Tips for Marathon Runners
By Carolyn Mather, RN, PhD.
As we enter another season of marathoning, I thought I would share what I have found to be the very best recovery tips after having finished 114 marathons. Although each of us has a variety of recovery strategies, I find that the following methods work but are often not followed. Plan to try all, or at least some, of the following after your next marathon. Your body will thank you.
Crossing the finish line is an emotional experience. Regardless of your time, you have completed 26.2 miles. Your body has gone the distance and after congratulating yourself, there are two key elements that need to be done immediately. No matter how tired you are, you need to keep moving. This is not the time to sit down or take a nap. Walk through the finish area, cherish that mylar blanket, get some dry clothes on (especially if it is cold or cool) and get food and beverages in you within 30 minutes. Often I am a bit nauseous, but know it is crucial to get post- race nutrition quickly. Not only is your immune system suppressed, but you’ve spent so much time on your feet that there’s a significant amount of foot-strike hemolysis (the breakdown of red blood cells). Keep moving and eat and drink whatever you can handle. In recent finishes I have found a can of cola and an energy bar do the trick. I have never been a soda drinker so I find the carbonation settles my stomach and the energy bar starts the healing process. Fresh fruit, yogurt, or a bagel may also do the immediate job. The fresh strawberries at Grandma's Marathon are the best!
Definitely get a good meal in you as soon as possible. Find quality protein/food whether you prefer a hamburger and fries, pizza, or my personal favorite, a nice Subway foot long sandwich filled with all the toppings. You should eat this meal as soon as you can tolerate it. In the old days there was a reason that you got beef stew after finishing the Boston Marathon. Not only did it warm you up but it got the healing process started!
There have been many studies questioning if NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprofen, etc.) hinder soft tissue and bone recovery after exercise. Before taking any of these medications post marathon, talk to your health care provider about possible benefits and side effects of using NSAIDs. If in doubt a beer will probably help more without any debilitating side effects. Of course too many beers may cause debilitation!
Although I am too wimpy to go this route, some people like to take ice baths post-race. They will definitely temporarily help with pain and are a reasonable alternative to taking NSAIDs. Icing a specific area can help with localized tissue recovery. Stay out of the hot tub as this increases the microscopic bleeding into your tissues. Wait a few days on that one. I have found that after Grandma's Marathon I can tolerate a waist deep walk into Lake Superior. And that definitely helps my legs. Using ice to relieve specific discomfort in targeted areas is much easier to tolerate.
Now I will share my best tip that you probably will not like but believe me it is well worth the effort (and it may well be an effort). Walk, walk, and walk some more. I always knew this worked to keep your body moving to decrease stiffness and soreness but my dear husband Steve totally proved it to me after one of his marathons. After his first marathon he refused to heed any of my advice and paid dearly for it the next day. He could hardly move. But after finishing the Venice Marathon, ( not having me with him as I had finished earlier and was doing what I was supposed to do), he got a bit lost in the back ways of Venice. He walked for several hours trying to find me, his bag, or our hotel. He was amazed how much better he felt the next day. He said he felt all of the marathon induced lactic acid had been walked out. To this day that is his most important post-marathon advice.
Unfortunately for the women I have coached I make them do this post marathon after they have eaten, cleaned up, and perhaps gotten ready for a nap. We go for a walk, a long walk usually more than an hour or more. They are not usually thrilled with this, but believe me they thank me the next week. It truly makes a huge difference.
Putting in compression garments post-race can work small miracles for muscle recovery. The most important factor is getting “firm compression” -- 20-30 mmHg of pressure. Whether you choose to wear compression socks or tights while running, is a personal preference and not necessary for any added performance or recovery benefits. I have experimented with this new addition to my marathon wardrobe and have found wearing compression socks during my long runs and during and after the marathon has been a significant addition to my recovery process. I urge you to give them a try before, during, and after see what works for your legs. I always baby my legs when travelling and wear my compression socks.
In the days after a marathon, your priority is fueling and hydration. Strive to get back to your pre-marathon weight. Hydrating is of paramount importance. You need to get your fluid balance back to normal. This is the time to eat and drink the things you love and crave. You have earned special treats!
If you can, schedule a massage four days to a week after your marathon. This will help with any residual soreness or tightness and can address any specific problems areas. Besides it will just feel so good and again you earned it. Also use your at home massage gear (the stick or foam rollers) to do self-massage on any tight areas.
Get all of the sleep you can. You will most likely be pretty tired and sleep is when your body repairs and rebuilds. Your body knows what it needs to repair and rebuild, so listen to your body and get lots of rest. Also do lots of light stretching to get rid of the post-marathon stiffness.
As I stated earlier in this article, moving will definitely enhance recovery. But physically, mentally, and emotionally the body needs to recover. The answer to when to resume running is a complex one and one that you will have to experiment with over many marathons. Conventional wisdom states you should take a day off for each mile raced to return to normal. For most runners this seems to work well as you have to get your body metabolically and hormonally back in balance. Taking a few days to a few weeks completely off may be exactly what you need. First timers should definitely heed the day off for each mile advice. This may be the hardest aspect of your marathon recovery as most runners try to get back way too quickly. Keep moving by walking or doing a little cross-training but focus on rest and recovery!
The marathon course and the conditions in which you ran will certainly influence the recovery process. Hilly courses beat up your legs more while strong winds may take their mental toll. Having a less than desired outcome can affect you emotionally. Try to really pay attention to what your body needs and err on the side of moderation.
Utilize these keys tips and your next marathon recovery will find you ready to plan your next race. Have fun and rest well.