Post-Marathon Recovery Tips
[As featured in the May 2012 OKC Landrunner newsletter]
Being one of those “crazy people who races lots of marathons”, I’ve learned to put everything possible into the recovery process, so I can bounce back for the next marathon. Here are my tricks and tips:
• The #1, most important aspect to post-marathon recovery is to get food and beverages in you within 30 min.. I usually go with a quick and easy Powerbar and then a water bottle full of Emergen-C, an iron supplement, and a B vitamin supplement. Not only is your immune system suppressed post-marathon, but you’ve spent so much time on your feet that there’s a significant amount of footstrike hemolysis (~breakdown of red blood cells).
• If the race has good post-race food, eat it, but if not—seek out some quality protein/food, whether you prefer a hamburger and fries, pizza, and maybe a beer (but not too many!). Definitely get a good meal in you as soon as possible.
• This may sound crazy, but I’m a fan of cooling down post-marathon—any sort of walking (~at the airport) or light running can help keep the ‘rigor mortis’-feeling from setting in.
• In the days after a marathon, the priority is fueling and hydration. If you know your “typical weight”, you can use this as a benchmark, striving to get back to this weight. I find that re-hydration is the biggest factor for getting the weight back up. As suggested by Leslie Buford, seek out foods and beverages you crave and enjoy—her personal favorite lately is Cadbury Crème Eggs.
• Putting on compression garments post-race can work small miracles for muscle recovery. I picked up some full-length, compression pantyhoses at CVS last year and most recently got a pair of full-length compression tights from my sponsor, 2XU. My biggest “problem areas” tend to be my butt and quads. What’s most important is getting “firm compression”—20-30 mmHg of pressure. Whether you want to wear it while running is personal preference and not necessary for any added performance or recovery benefits. There’s several companies, 2XU for example, who make all sorts of compression gear. Between socks, tights, and various leg sleeves, all of it is highly helpful.
• Getting a massage within 3-4 days post-marathon is also amazingly helpful for working out the muscle soreness or problem areas.
• You’ll likely be very tired for the first few days-week post-marathon. Sleep is when the body rebuilds and repairs itself. The body knows best what it needs to repair the damaged muscles, so nap and sleep as much as it tells you to.
• I previously did an extensive post about NSAIDs/Cox-2 inhibitors/corticosteroids. There have been studies questioning if NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprophen, etc.) hinder soft tissue and bone recovery after exercise. Before taking any of these medications post marathon, talk to your physician about possible benefits and side effects by using NSAIDs.
• Although I’m not a fan of them and the research generally doesn’t support them for enhancing muscle recovery, some people like to take ice baths post-race. They will definitely temporarily help with pain and are a reasonable alternative to taking NSAIDs. If there’s a “mechanical component” involved (~ice cupping a sore spot for example), this could help with localized tissue recovery.
• In terms of when to resume running again, this is highly personal preference. ‘Moving’ will definitely enhance the recovery, whether walking or cross training. I’m not the average bear, but I like to take 1-2 days completely off (go shopping!), do a few single day runs, and then do a reverse taper. I’ll be back to normal training within 2 weeks. Others might take 7-14 days off, or even a whole month off. I think the biggest factors are hormonally and metabolically getting the body back in balance. You really have to tune in to what the body needs– usually fuel, fluids, and sleep. Mentally, emotionally, and physically, the body simply needs time. I find I get “some snap” back in my legs by 10 days, whereas it takes a month+ to feel “fully normal” again.
Conventional advice recommends 1-day-for-every-mile you race to get back to normal. I would say, on the whole, this is true. Certain parts of the body/mind recover faster than others. It also depends on the course and conditions—courses with a lot of camber and downhill can beat you up far worse than those that are gently rolling or flat. I find hot marathons (as long as there is no heat exhaustion) lead to faster recovery than cold and possibly wet marathons. I’ve run a few slick courses that required longer recovery because of slipping so much.
I believe you can run back-to-back, full-quality marathon performances within 4-6 weeks of each other. If you’re a prolific marathoner, as I am—it’s actually easier to mentally/physically recover, the more frequently you do it. The marathons end up feeling like long runs. The body “learns” and “remembers”—develops a better/faster ability to buffer soreness and repair/replenish itself afterwards. Mentally/emotionally you prepare yourself to bounce back for the next one. If you’re only running 1-3 marathons a year…. well…. it’s a big stress when you throw 26.2 hard miles at it, vs. doing it more often.