The marathon is one of the world’s most popular athletic events, with up to 11 million people participating each year. This fall, the marathon is prominently in the spotlight with all of the majors happening within a short window due to the pandemic pushing back timelines–Berlin, London, Chicago, Boston, Tokyo (virtual), and New York in that order.
While the marathon is a universally loved racing distance, it’s also one of the hardest endurance events to train for. The risk of injury is high if the body isn’t ready, the training cycle is long, and you only get so many chances to run a good one. In order to run a marathon well, you need to learn how to recover even better, to ensure you get to the start line healthy. And once you’ve finished, prioritizing recovery is key so you can bounce back for your next 26.2.
When you’ve been pounding your feet on the pavement for at least 2 hours (probably closer to 4 since most runners finish around that mark on average), your body has experienced a fair amount of muscle damage. You’ll likely feel the heaviness of your legs settling in once you’ve finished, and over the course of the next few days you’ll experience delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), resulting in reduced muscle strength.
Many people assume after a really long run, you should stretch and roll. However, when finishing a marathon this could cause further damage to the muscles, as you’ve already exacerbated them. It’s best to keep lightly moving and walking around, and any sort of sports massage or stretching should be done later once you’ve had plenty of time to rest and replenish.
As for replenishment, it’s important to hydrate and refuel as soon as you can with a carbohydrate-rich snack and drink (bananas, dried fruit, pretzels, or an electrolyte drink work well). Within the next 1-2 hours, a hearty, balanced meal with protein, fat, and carbohydrates will deliver key nutrients to the body and set you on the right path towards recovery.
Even the most elite marathoners take rest days after marathons. A few days off (or up to a week of no running) is recommended to allow your muscular and skeletal systems to repair. Returning back to baseline will vary from person to person, but monitoring key physiological markers such as resting heart heart and heart rate variability will help you determine the speed at which your body is recovering. WHOOP monitors these metrics and incorporates them into your daily recovery, so you can track your body’s progress and determine when it’s time to get back to training.
It’s one thing to take a few days off from running, it’s another to make sure you’re getting quality sleep. Sleep consists of four sleep stages: Awake, light, REM, and deep sleep. If you’re not spending enough time in deep sleep, when your body repairs muscular and skeletal systems, you will not recover. Adults should get at least 1-2 hours of deep sleep per night, however, your body might need more to speed the post-marathon recovery process.
Prioritizing sleep is far more important than any kind of special recovery treatment you can get, as it’s the body’s most natural and efficient way to heal.
Even if you’re taking time off from running, active recovery is still very important and will aid post-marathon recovery. What is active recovery? Active recovery focuses on low-impact exercises and movement to increase blood circulation, reawakening potentially stiff joints and tendons, and keeping you from being too antsy post-marathon.
Most coaches will say you need up to 4 weeks to recover fully from a marathon before you can return to more intense training. This is a perfect time to relax without any sort of strict mileage plan in place. Instead, you can walk, bike, swim, do yoga, or try a new activity you didn’t have time for when logging all those miles. When you’re ready, you can incorporate easy 30-60 minute runs, potentially within a week of completing your marathon.
In a survey of 14,614 WHOOP members who recorded 30 or more runs in the app from February through April, these were the top recovery modalities that helped runners improve their daily recovery (with reduced RHR and increased HRV):
It’s important to test which modalities work for you during your training cycle so you have some go-to treatments after your marathon. For example, perhaps a 10-minute ice bath following your weekly long run helps reduce inflammation and boosts your HRV the following morning. Additional modalities logged by WHOOP members in this survey included acupuncture, cupping, cryotherapy, and red light therapy.
Paired with quality sleep, well-rounded nutrition, and active recovery, choosing a handful of beneficial recovery modalities will efficiently get your body back to baseline, and you’ll be even stronger for your next marathon.