Running a marathon is a fantastic achievement, so congratulations! After months of physical training and psyching yourself up, the big day arrives, the endorphins charge through your body and you own the challenge — one step at a time.
But as one race ends, another begins: recovery. With this next step, there are no shortcuts.
Restoring your body back to normal takes patience and an understanding of the physiological changes.
Jemelle Carpenter-Gayle, physiologist at AXA PPP healthcare, highlights the different stages our bodies go through after endurance running and simple wellbeing strategies to overcome post-marathon pangs, so you can continue on your fitness journey.
Remember that everyone’s different
Whether you’re 35 or 65, a seasoned runner or fresh from your first marathon, the process of recovery is different for everyone. Your training and health also play a role. Not forgetting factors beyond your control, like weather conditions and the intensity of the race on the day, which can not only influence performance but the immediate steps to take in recovery.
What the body experiences post-marathon
The intensity and duration of a 26.2 mile run really pushes us physically and mentally.
Exercise causes our muscles to tear. ‘Creatine Kinase’ or ‘CK’ is an enzyme that is found in the heart, brain, skeletal muscle and other tissues.1 After strenuous exercise, CK levels gradually increase and decrease over 7 to 10 days. So, a week after the marathon, a doctor or sports scientist may check your blood to measure your CK levels. A high count can indicate that there’s injury or damage to muscle tissue.2
Feeling light-headed and dizzy are other common outcomes of running long distance. This is partly due to glycogen stores depleting. Glycogen is mainly stored in the liver and muscles; it provides the body with a readily available source of energy if blood glucose levels are low. To replenish these stores, carbohydrates are recommended. It takes around 24 hours for the body to convert this food into glycogen.3
It’s common to feel sick after a marathon, because the body reduces blood flow to the digestive system —especially if you’re running in hot conditions. Once you stop, the internal balance of blood flow is restored. Dehydration or, contrastingly, too much water retention can also trigger nausea.
Running in a marathon can take its toll on mental wellbeing too. The build-up to the big day fosters feelings of excitement and nerves, then there’s the exhilaration of the run itself. Adrenaline surges through the body and this rush may linger until bedtime, meaning you struggle to fall asleep. Your muscles twitch and your brain can’t switch off.
The initial euphoria at achieving your goal might be replaced with the ‘post-marathon blues’ as the adrenaline wears off and the realisation that this incredible event is over kicks in. If you’re eager to slip back into your trainers, look ahead to your next challenge. Book a 5k, 10k or even another marathon at a later date that you can feel excited about and motivated for. Try not to feel down that the race is over — there are always future opportunities.
Steps to take after a marathon
Immediately after the run
· Slow down to a walk — The intensity and duration of a 26.2 mile run really pushes us physically and mentally. So, when you cross the finish line, collect your medal and greet loved ones, your body is still working overtime. It’s therefore wise to slow down to a walk and keep strolling, rather than stop completely. This will allow your heart rate to steadily drop, diverting circulation back to its resting state and flushing out lactic acid from the muscles. Just keep moving so your muscles don’t cramp up. Avoid stretching until two to six hours after the marathon, so as not to strain your muscles any further.
· Wrap up in a ‘space blanket’: After exercise, our bodies plummet from hot to cold, raising our risk of getting ill. To prevent this sudden drop in temperature, wrap up in a space blanket; this is a thin, heat reflective material designed to keep you warm. Alternatively, wear a jacket. It’s also important to change out of damp sportswear into dry clothes, including fresh footwear.
· Go for an ice bath: This will help reduce inflammation of the muscles. If you don’t have access to an ice bath, compression socks work well too; simply put them on and go for a walk.4
· Book a sports massage: Not only will this feel like a well-deserved treat, but a good sports massage will aid recovery, improving blood flow and rejuvenating fatigued or injured muscles. On-site massage stands may see long queues, so if it’s looking like you’ll have to stand and wait, it may be wise to postpone for another day — unless you go with a friend, who can save your space in the queue while you walk up and down.
· Drink plenty of water: Exercise causes us to sweat and, in turn, lose electrolytes. Electrolytes hydrate the body, regulate nerve and muscle function, and help to rebuild damaged tissue. Drink plenty of water to replenish your electrolytes and combat dehydration, so you’re less likely to feel dizzy, faint or get a headache. Many marathon runners prefer an electrolyte drink, formulated for fitness sessions of two hours or more. If you’re not feeling hungry, an electrolyte drink helps restore glycogen stores. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, as it can have the opposite effect and trigger dehydration and lethargy.
In the days after your marathon
· Eat carbohydrates and protein: Eating well after a run can further support recovery. Enjoying a mix of carbohydrates and protein will help repair muscles and restore glycogen stores. The two work together: carbs stimulate insulin, which is needed to uptake protein into the muscles. If you fancy a quick snack, opt for fruit or an energy bar. At mealtimes, half a chicken breast with a side of spinach of quinoa will provide the nutritional goodness (and flavour) you need.
· Make time for ‘active recovery’: This comprises of low-intensity exercise — no running at this stage. If you’re feeling good, do gentle stretches. Go on regular walks and explore the outdoors. After all, the body can take up to seven days to no longer feel sore. This naturally varies from person to person.
· Create a relaxing wind-down routine: Rest — or restlessness — varies from person to person. It’s hard to pinpoint how long sleeplessness will last. So, create a relaxing wind-down routine; run a bath, read a book or listen to a podcast. The optimum sleep period after a marathon is 9-10 hours, so treat yourself to get closer to that target.
· Stretch: Breathe deeply and steadily while stretching. Here are a few simple moves:
o Lie down with your legs up the wall, so that you’re in an ‘L’ position; this will help to stretch out your calves and glutes
o Use a foam roller; this is a lightweight tube made of compressed foam, made for rolling along your muscles to eliminate muscle knots and reduce soreness
o Depending on your flexibility, put your knee towards the wall and pull your ankle back. Lean into the wall with your knee to help stretch your calves, which may tighten through running
Crucially, always do stretches that feel comfortable. It’s important to breathe deeply and steadily while stretching to the point where you can feel a tight pull in the muscle, but not pain. It’s wise to seek medical advice if stretching hurts.
Getting back into running
· Take a week off: When it comes to recovery it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Following the event, it’s wise to take one full week off from running. Don’t worry about undoing your hard work — a study has found that even if you stop exercising for just two weeks, you’ll only lose up to 7% of your maximum oxygen intake, which can easily be regained once training again.5 Instead, just walk. Then, undertake 4-6 weeks of light training; focus on other forms of fitness like mobility and building muscular strength.
· Then, go back to week one of your training programme: After six weeks, look to replicate your training programme from before the marathon. Go back to week one of that programme, but remember it’s not about time taken, distance or stamina.
· Listen to your body: There are so many factors affecting your re-introduction to running, like experience — if you’re a seasoned runner, you’ll know how long your body takes to recuperate. If you’re new to long-distance running, be kind to your body and wait it out. Age, health and diet play a role too. We’re all different. Therefore, how soon you get fully back into running is completely up to you. Just be mindful that the body takes time to recover — you’ll be back on form before you know it.
· Combat blisters: Feet really feel the impact from pounding the pavements. So, it’s always worth investing in comfortable running shoes that are fitted by a specialist — especially if you’re prone to blisters. If you know your problem areas, apply lubricant or Vaseline on those spots. If you do get a blister, remember that it’s a healing mechanism. The small pocket of fluid that forms protects the damaged skin. Most blisters heal within a week, but if this isn’t the case, visit your GP.
The period of recovery is so minor compared to the sheer dedication, effort and enthusiasm you’ve put in to achieving your goals. It’s an inspiring accomplishment. Life is what you make it so, if you’re inclined, remember that there will be other running challenges — but you only have one body. It’s served you well, so take your time and look after your health.
1. Baird M, Graham S, Baker J, Bickerstaff G, 2012. Creatine-Kinase- and Exercise-Related Muscle Damage Implications for Muscle Performance and Recovery: https://www.hindawi.com/journals/jnme/2012/960363/
2. Keltz E, Khan F, Mann G, 2013. Rhabdomyolysis. The role of diagnostic and prognostic factors: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3940504/
3. Murray B, Rosenbloom C, 2018. Fundamentals of glycogen metabolism for coaches and athletes: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6019055/
4. Armstrong S, Till E, Maloney S, Harris G, 2015. Compression Socks and Functional Recovery Following Marathon Running: https://cdn.journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2015/02000/Compression_Socks_and_Functional_Recovery.30.aspx
5. Coyle, E. F.; Martin, W. H.; Sinacore, D. R.; Joyner, M. J.; Hagberg, J. M.; Holloszy, J. O., Time course of loss of adaptations after stopping prolonged intense endurance training. Journal of Applied Physiology 1984, 57 (6), 1857-1864: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1a6b/d112d814496eef5205bbe2f498d89e26307a.pdf