Recovery After Running a Marathon

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.

  • 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 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 If You Can: 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.
  • Immediate Marathon Recovery Foods and Drink: The best time to restore your muscle energy and fluids is now. Drink 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. Potassium sources such as bananas are good.
  • Nausea: Be aware that many people experience nausea after finishing. If you vomit, you will still need to replenish yourself, and sports drink is one of the best ways to do it. Sip it to keep it down.
  • Massage: Gentle massage is good, but avoid vigorous stretching as your muscles are already overworked and damaged.
  • Dry Clothes: Getting into clean, dry clothes will help stop you losing body heat. It's best to have some available in your race gear bag or brought to you by a spouse or friend.

Marathon 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.

  • The Medical Tent: Obey the medical team at the finish line. If they think you need help or observation, you do, don't argue with them. Your brain is fried, and they are the ones who know what they are doing.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • Don't Be Alone: 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 have no judgment after the marathon; you need somebody else to do that. Symptoms of stroke and heartbeat irregularities are especially serious. Disturbances in your body salt level during the marathon (hyponatremia) can trigger heartbeat problems and perhaps lead to sudden death. People can and do die alone in their hotel rooms after the marathon.

    Recovery at Home

    • The Ride Home: 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.
    • Move Another 15 Minutes: After you get home, plan another 10 to 15 minutes of slow walking to keep your body from freezing up.
    • Cool Shower or Epsom Salts Soak: Stay out of the hot tub. A hot bath may further damage already 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.
    • Celebration Meal and Marathon 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, a low alcohol or no-alcohol beer is the safest choice. Continue to drink sports drinks, fruit juices, and water throughout the evening.
    • Pain Relievers: You need to first know your kidneys are working and your hydration is returning to normal as evidenced by being able to urinate. 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 sleep after the marathon.

    Recovery the Week After the Marathon

    • Wear Your Medal and Shirt: You deserve to be celebrated, don't be shy about wearing your finisher's shirt and even your 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. You will be a role model to all of your friends and family.
    • Post-Marathon Blues: You will probably feel exhausted and depressed the week after the marathon. This is normal, expect it and plan for it. It goes away as you recover. Many people experience post-race blues. If they 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.
    • Stiff and Sore: You can expect muscles to hurt that you didn't know you had. As you got tired during the marathon, your posture and gait changed to use 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.
    • Massage: 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.
    • Marathon Recovery Food and Nutrition: Eat a balanced diet. Your body will need carbs, protein, and nutrients to rebuild damaged muscles. Do not resume a weight loss diet until after the first week. 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.
    • 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 unless you have been overindulging in eating. Don't start or resume weight loss dieting for a week.
    • Resuming Fitness Walking and Running: If you have blisters, your gait will be thrown off until they are healed, so limit your walking and running to 15 to 30 minutes at a time until they are healed. Your walks and runs should be at a gentle pace. Use them simply to loosen up the stiff muscles.
    • No Long Walks or Run for One Week: 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.
    • Sleep: Your body builds muscle and repairs itself while sleeping. Get lots of sleep after the marathon.

    Full Marathon Recovery Phase

    • Getting Back Into Walking and Running: Experts say to give yourself four to six weeks of recovery after a marathon before resuming any intense training or racing. 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.
    • Recovery Food, Nutrition, and 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.
    • Crosstraining: Balance your walking and running with other fun and healthy activities such as biking, swimming, strength training, core, and balance training.

    A Word From Verywell

    After the marathon, it's common to be thankful you made it through it and swear you'll never do it again. However, 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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