How To Heal Your Body After A Marathon

Just completed a marathon? Feeling lost without the structure of a training plan? Expert advice on the best ways to recover physically and mentally

Running your first marathon can be like arranging a wedding. It involves months of preparation, planning and anticipation for one big day you desperately hope goes well. The day comes and goes, hopefully you feel great and then – what next?

It’s not uncommon to feel a bit flat after the initial novelty of completing 26.2 miles. It’s also hard to define your next running goal. Should it be another marathon? Should you try getting faster over a shorter distance? Or take your distance running to the next level and sign up for an ultra?

Firstly, take some time to celebrate your achievement. With so many people taking on mammoth challenges like multiple marathons, triathlons and ultras, it can be easy to underestimate what you’ve accomplished. It’s a huge deal to run 26.2 miles. Fitting in the training is a big feat by itself and almost deserves a separate medal! Take some time to give yourself a mental pat on the back. Remember that the sense of achievement you feel will stay with you for the rest of your life.

However, before you start training towards a new goal or make any decisions about how you want your running to develop in future, it’s important to ensure you make 
a full recovery.

Recovery rates

You need a solid nutrition strategy immediately after the marathon, so your body can start recovering. “Recovery rates are most efficient in the 20-30 minutes after exercise and this window of opportunity should be optimised so it can replenish depleted glycogen stores, repair muscle 
fibre damage and maintain blood sugar levels,” says Imogen Wolsey, a qualified dietitian who has a master’s in sports nutrition. “Most runners won’t be able to stomach much immediately after the ordeal of a marathon, but anything is better than nothing: a small handful of salted nuts and a banana (or sweetened banana chips) are practical and tasty options.”

If you can’t face the idea of eating anything straight after the race, then try sipping on a sports drink or some form of milkshake, which will address fluid losses 
as well as refuelling you. Make sure you drink plenty of fluids post-race. “No matter how effective your fluid replacement plan is during the race, you will very likely be dehydrated to some degree at the end of the marathon, especially if the weather is warm. As a result, you must start drinking fluids as soon as you finish your run,” says Liam Mahoney, a nutritionist from nutrition brand Grenade (grenade.com).

What you do in the days and weeks after the marathon will have a marked effect on how quickly your body recovers. Here’s a timeline of ideal post-marathon recovery…

The day after the marathon

“Certainly, you should rest,” says physiotherapist Mark Buckingham, from Witty, Pask & Buckingham (wpbphysio.co.uk). “Gentle walking or swimming would be useful to work the legs through a range of movement, to reduce stiffness and flush through the remnants of the waste products from the previous day’s efforts. The legs, dependent upon how used to marathons you are, will either be very stiff and tired or just tired. Do what you can, but your body needs to heal. A light, easy massage would be helpful as well as some light stretching, 
but nothing too hard.”

Consider wearing compression recovery tights to aid blood flow. “The more blood flowing to the muscles the faster they repair,” says Matthew Pierson, gait analysis specialist from Sportshoes.com.

Muscles and overall physiological systems are still in serious recovery mode the day after a marathon, so ensuring a good balance of carbohydrate and protein is important for replenishing glycogen stores and repairing muscle damage,” says Wolsey. “The immune system is severely compromised, which increases the risk of contracting colds and flu; it’s therefore critical to get adequate rest and consume a variety of fruits and veg to boost vitamin intake. Eating anti-inflammatory foods will help to ease soreness, such as omega-3 rich salmon, walnuts and avocados.”

Three days after the marathon

Your legs should be feeling better and any aches should be fading. “Continue the easy swimming/bike non-impact exercise,” says Mark. “This is an excellent time for a massage, as the real knots will be evident as the general tightness has eased. After the exercise, a general stretching session will be a good idea, or a yoga class.”

Stick with the healthy foods, like fruit and veg, but make sure you’re having plenty of fluids and don’t restrict your food intake. “Feed your body what you fancy when you’re hungry, even if that means eating more than your usual three meals and two snacks a day,” says Wolsey. “Metabolism will be increased post-marathon and not only is hunger a sign that your muscles need some extra fuel, but you will also often crave a nutrient you are lacking in, so don’t ignore what your body is telling you!”

One week after the marathon

“Most runners should be able to resume gentle training a week after a marathon, although if there has been physical damage, such as lost or loose toenails, abrasions or blisters, more time might be needed for full recovery,” says Professor John Brewer, Head of Applied Sports Science at St Mary’s University (stmarys.ac.uk) and author of Run Smart (£12.99, Bloomsbury).. “Choose a short run that you know is easy to get back from if things feel too tough, and set off slowly. Mentally, some people need longer than a week to recover, and many runners will take a complete rest for two weeks, or even longer, before running again.”

“If the legs feel up to it a general jog is fine,” agrees Mark. “Otherwise, continue with the swimming or bike, but start to increase the intensity. The tissues will have recovered and healed so it’s time to start using them again, but without lots of impact to undo the repairs. Stretching and yoga will continue to be useful, to restore full range in the muscles.”

Two weeks after the marathon

“You should be fully recovered physically and able to resume training, but don’t try to do too much too soon,” says Professor Brewer. “If you aren’t training for another marathon, then mileage doesn’t matter so much, so this is a time to start enjoying your running again with no pressure.”

“This is the stage when you should be looking to get back to full training again with steady running,” says Mark. “Everything has healed and recovered.”

Stick with the healthy eating if you can. “A balanced, nutrient-dense diet with plenty of complex carbohydrates, such as oats, pasta and rice, in addition to lean protein sources, should be sufficient in helping the muscles to regain full strength in the two weeks after a marathon,” says Wolsey. “A few treats won’t do you any harm, but include as many different coloured fruits and vegetables as possible.”

One month after the marathon

“A month after the marathon, you should be ready to train normally again,” says Matthew. “At this stage, the problem isn’t your body but your head. You have spent months training for an event and then it’s all over. You have no focus. It’s time to sit down and plan the next goal – it’s always good to have a goal to keep you going.”

Words: Christina Neal


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