Recovery After Running a Marathon

Follow these steps to recover after your long race

Marathon Finishers with Water and Heat Sheets
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Crossing the finish line of a marathon is a supreme achievement. You've taken your body to the limits and now you can celebrate your victory and start on the road to recovery. Now, here's how to take care of yourself to ensure a quick and easy recovery.

What to Do Immediately After You Finish

Your active recovery starts at the finish line. What you do immediately can make a difference. During the race, your heart rate will be elevated and lactic acid builds up in your muscles. After a full or half-marathon race, your first goal should be to get your heart rate to drop gradually, flush lactic acid from your muscles, and avoid dehydration by doing the following:

  • Take the space blanket they hand you: Your body will cool down swiftly even if you were overheated coming into the finish. Use the heat blanket or sheet they give you so you don't have a sudden body temperature drop, which can result in uncontrollable shivering and even collapse.
  • Keep moving: Keep walking slowly around the finish area as you snack and drink up. Walk for at least another 15 minutes so your muscles do not knot up from built up lactic acid.
  • Replenish your electrolytes: The best time to restore your muscle energy and fluids is now. Drink a sports drink and water. Avoid alcohol and caffeine as they can dehydrate you further. If you haven't urinated within six hours following the marathon, seek medical help: you may have had kidney shutdown. Eat some high carbohydrate snacks and salty snacks. Food high in potassium like bananas are good options. Be aware that many people experience nausea after finishing. If you vomit, you will still need to replenish yourself, and sipping on a sports drink is one of the best ways to do it. Sip slowly to keep it down.
  • Avoid vigorous stretching: After the race, your muscles are already overworked and damaged, you are better off walking versus stretching. Also, skip the foam rolling for at least a day after the race as acute muscle damage is possible immediately following a marathon.
  • Get into dry clothes and compression socks: Getting into clean, dry clothes will help stop your body from losing body heat. It's best to have a change of clothes available in your race gear bag or brought to you by a spouse or friend. Be sure to include below-the-knee compression socks in your bag. Wearing compression socks for 48 hours after marathon running has been shown to improve functional recovery, according to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

Damage Control: Injuries That Need Medical Attention

You may barely make it over the finish line. If you come limping in or feeling poorly, you need to take the help that is provided. Keep the following in mind when it comes to medical treatment and care required after a race:

  • Don't delay visiting the medical tent: Obey the medical team at the finish line. If they think you need help or observation, you do. Your brain is usually fried at the end of a race, and they are the ones who know what they are doing.
  • Watch out for dehydration and hyponatremia: You may be low on fluids (dehydration) or you may have an imbalance of too little salt and too much fluid (hyponatremia). If you have passed the point of no return for either of these issues, the medical team may start an IV and will monitor you until you can urinate. In severe cases, you may be transported to the hospital. If you are treating yourself, drink a salt-replacement sports drink and salty snacks rather than plain water. Slow marathoners, such as walkers, are the group most at risk for hyponatremia.
  • Properly treat sprains and strains: If a joint is red and swollen and sharply painful, it is beyond mere overexertion. It is now time for RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation). You may end up needing medical attention for a stress fracture or other serious injury.
  • Bring a buddy: You may experience fainting or gray-outs after the marathon. You should not drive alone or be alone for the first 12 hours. You need a buddy after the marathon to monitor you for medical problems. Even if you are a medical professional yourself, you should have another person around to help.

Symptoms of stroke and heartbeat irregularities are especially serious. Disturbances in your body salt level during the marathon can trigger heartbeat problems and, in rare cases, lead to sudden death.

Recovery at Home

While training for and completing the marathon may be over, your work isn't over. Post-race recovery is part of the process—and it's hard work. Keep the following recommendations in mind to save yourself some soreness in the days after the race:

  • Avoid prolonged sitting: Plan your trip back home to reduce the time spent sitting in one position or you may be too stiff to get out of the vehicle. If you are traveling home by airplane, give yourself a day to unkink before taking the flight.
  • Keeping moving: After you get home, plan another 10 to 15 minutes of slow walking to keep your body from freezing up. If you plan on foam-rolling after the race, wait at least two to six hours after the race.
  • Elevate your legs: Propping your legs above your heart for 10 to 15 minutes can help reduce inflammation and cut down on stiffness and soreness.
  • Take a cool shower or enjoy an Epsom salt soak: Stay out of the hot tub. A hot bath may further damage already sore muscles that are already soaking in lactic acid. A lukewarm bath or shower is good. Use a whole box of Epsom salts in a lukewarm bath for a body soak to help relieve pain and soreness.
  • Celebrate with the right recovery food: A high carb meal with protein will give your body the fuel to start recovering. This is the time for the pasta party. Avoid alcohol. If you really must have a toast, low alcohol or no-alcohol beer is the safest choice. Continue to drink sports drinks, fruit juices, and water throughout the evening.
  • Urinate before taking pain medications: Before you take any over-the-counter pain killers, ensure that your kidneys are in proper working order and that your hydration is returning to normal by taking a pee. Then you can take your pain reliever of choice.
  • Treat your blisters and pains: Use​ a good sterile technique to drain any tense blisters. Cover any hot spots and minor blisters with blister bandages to allow them to heal.
  • Go to bed: You may sleep like the dead, or you may have difficulty sleeping due to pain and stiffness, but sleep is the time the body best repairs itself. Nap and get ample sleep after the marathon.

The Week After the Marathon

You deserve to be celebrated. In fact, don't be shy about wearing your finisher's shirt and medal to work or school the next day. Other marathoners will be happy for the chance to congratulate you and to regale you with their own experiences. After a race, it's common to feel a certain high that comes with knowing you accomplished a goal that you set for yourself. With that said, there are a few post-race lows to keep in mind in the week immediately following the marathon:

Post-Marathon Blues

You will probably feel exhausted and depressed the week after the marathon. This is normal, so plan for it. It goes away as you recover. Many people experience post-race blues. If the blues don't pass with self-care, seek medical help as the chemical changes in your body and brain could have tipped you over into clinical depression, a dangerous and life-threatening condition that can be reversed if caught early.

Stiffness and Soreness

You can expect to experience pain in muscles you didn't know you had. As you got tired during the marathon, your posture and gait may have adjusted, relying on muscles you don't normally use much when running or walking. The pain may be delayed. Expect it to pop up for the next two to four days.

You may want to schedule a relaxing professional massage for a day or two after the marathon to relieve knots and stiff muscles. Gentle massage is key, you don't want to further damage muscles that are repairing themselves.

If you have blisters, your gait may be thrown off until they are healed, so limit your walking and running to 15 to 30 minutes at a time until completely healed. Your walks and runs should be at a gentle pace. Use them just to loosen up the stiff muscles.

Weight Gain Post-Marathon

You may note a two to four-pound weight gain immediately after the marathon, likely from water retention as your muscles repair and rebuild. Do not panic and start dieting. Eat a balanced diet with enough nutrients to rebuild and repair your body. The bloat weight will probably come off within a week.

Don't start or resume weight loss dieting for a week immediately following the race. Your body will need carbs, protein, and nutrients to rebuild damaged muscles. If you have cravings, indulge them moderately. Your body may be telling you what it is missing. It may be missing veggies, fruits, and fish, but it's probably not truly missing more than one serving of chocolate cake, so use moderation.

Do not attempt long walks or runs for one week after the race. Even if your feet are in good shape, limit your walks to under an hour and your runs to under 30 minutes the first week as you recover.

Full Marathon Recovery Phase

The recovery phase for full marathon runners can take anywhere from four to six weeks. You should complete your recovery before resuming any intense training or racing. Consider how you are feeling and consult with a medical expert if recovery—particularly from injuries—seems to be lagging. You may need more time. Keep in mind the following before attempting to jump back into your regular training:

  • Ease back into training: For fitness walkers, limit yourself to an hour-long walk at a brisk pace after the first week, returning to longer workouts after the second weekend after the marathon. Runners should similarly ease back into their routine, gradually adding more time and distance. You can get back to running a day or two after the race, but consider doing a "reverse taper" where you gradually build your runs back up by doing the last two weeks of your marathon training schedule in reverse.
  • Adjust your diet: While recovering, you are likely walking or running fewer miles than during marathon training. After the first recovery week, adjust your calories according to your activity levels. You may have to track your food intake and adjust it if you begin to gain weight due to less activity. As always, eat a balanced diet high in vegetables, fruits, and other whole, nutritious foods.
  • Consider crosstraining: Balance your walking and running with other fun and healthy activities such as biking, swimming, strength training, core, and balance training.

    Half-Marathon Recovery Phase

    The recovery time for a half marathon is usually about one or two weeks if you are completely pain-free. You can get back to running the day after the race or later, depending on how you feel. Just don’t rush right back into serious training as your body is still recovering from your training and the race.

    A reverse taper is also recommended for half-marathoners. All runs should be at an easy pace and your two-week post-half marathon schedule might look something like this:

    Day 1 Half marathon race
    Day 2 Rest or walk
    Day 3 20-minute run or walk
    Day 4 Rest or 30 minutes easy cross training
    Day 5 30-minute run or walk
    Day 6 Rest
    Day 7 Run or walk 4–5 miles
    Day 8 Rest or 30 minutes easy cross training
    Day 9 40-minute run or walk
    Day 10 Run or walk 3–4 miles
    Day 11  Rest or 30 minutes easy cross training
    Day 12 Run or walk 4–5 miles
    Day 13 Rest
    Day 14 Run or walk 8–10 miles

    If you feel any pain in the week following your half-marathon and it persists into week two, stop training and see a medical professional such as a physical therapist or sports physician.

    A Word From Verywell

    After the marathon, it's common to be thankful that you made it through it and swear you'll never do it again. But long-distance races tend to be addicting. After a couple of weeks, you're likely to feel the urge to look for your next race. If so, you'll need tips on periodization and training for your next marathon or half marathon. Whether it's one-and-done or not, you are now a marathoner for life.

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