If you want to ensure a proper recovery and stay healthy after a marathon, read on!
The elation of finishing a marathon! All the training, discipline, and effort led you here, THE FINISH LINE. Well, past it, actually! And, if you’re like me, you have endured some “healthy” paranoia to stay well in the weeks before your race, which alone can be taxing.
You’re ready to let loose after being so careful to reach race day healthy. You deserve that! But, post marathon, your immune system is weakened — just when you need the opposite to stay healthy. This post gives a quick overview of your body’s state post marathon, and how to best increase your odds to stay healthy, and ensure the best recovery.
The Marathon’s Impact on Your Body
Weakened Immune System
Studies have shown that moderate exercise boosts your immune system, while intense training over a sustained period (ie: culminating with your marathon) can negatively affect immunity. Another study reveals a runner’s immunity is compromised for at least three days post marathon, therefore more susceptible to colds, or infection. This just happens to be the same time you travel home, get back to work, and your “real life.”
Muscle and Cellular Damage, Oh My
Besides a weaker immune system, your body has sustained skeletal muscle, and cellular damage. In response to the muscle damage, your body responds with an “inflammatory response,” releasing free radicals. This muscle damage and inflammatory response lead to the familiar soreness felt especially in the first 48-72 hours. Beyond that timeframe, the microscopic tears in your leg muscles typically take ~two weeks to heal, and return to full strength. Lastly, an additional study indicates that the body needs at least 7-10 days rest after a marathon to recover from the cellular damage imposed by the race.
Given all this, what can you do to enjoy the afterglow of the marathon, but stay healthy and nail your recovery? Not to mention ensure you minimize burn-out, injury, and set yourself up to enable a stronger future training cycle.
Use precautions prior to the race. Traveling on a plane, attending an expo with the crowds, etc., means increased germ exposure. Have good hand hygiene: carry a hand sanitizer with you, wash your hands often (continue this post race, too). Eat healthy (take healthy snacks with you), hydrate properly, and rest more than walk the day prior to your event.
Post Marathon Recovery Plan, Stay Healthy
PART 1: First Hour
- Change into dry clothes. Even if event day is warm, you still are likely be chilled and damp post race. Bring an extra set of comfortable clothes, and shoes (preferably not sandals). Leaving damp clothes on your skin exacerbates any chafing or blisters earned during the race. The sooner they’re off, the better!
- Get your feet up. After several hours of hard work, you may need to address any swelling in your lower legs (often result of lymph build-up & extracellular fluid). Not to mention, it’s relaxing! Find a spot to lie down and elevate your feet, if possible for 15-20 minutes. Then, try to repeat that again later in the day.
- Quick calories. Sometimes it’s difficult to eat right after a marathon, but it jump starts a healthy recovery when you snack within 30 minutes of finishing. Carbohydrates and protein are key to maintain blood sugar levels, replenish muscle glycogen, and repair muscle tissue. Post race options are often limited to what’s available at the finish line, so consider packing a snack in your bag. Bananas, chocolate milk, fruit, bagels, electrolyte beverage (sports drink) are good options. And for some, liquids/smoothies are easier for the body to process after a race.
PART 2: Balance of Race Day
- Get Cleaned Up. A shower obviously is needed, and will help rejuvenate you. But, it can help identify any areas to address (chafing!). A cool/cold bath (ice bath) may benefit you, too. Here’s an article on some do’s/don’ts – and know that you should not exceed more than 10 minutes if you choose an ice bath. Also know that even a cool bath/shower can provide some recovery benefits if you don’t use ice.
- Focus on Nutrition. Once freshened up, and your stomach has settled, it’s time to have a real meal. Try to eat healthy and sensibly, and continue to drink lots of water. Bring a snack in the event that meal is delayed! Think: fruits, carbs and protein. The carbs and protein helps repair muscle damage. Fruits provide vitamin C and antioxidants, helping to combat free radical damage and boost your immunity.
- Celebrate (sensibly). You deserve to celebrate, no doubt! Just remember that your body is somewhat running on fumes. Being on your feet for a long period of time, and excessive alcohol intake won’t help you recover. If you are to drink, limit your intake, as alcohol increases urine output, and dehydrates you further — not what you’re going for during recovery.
- Sleep. If you’re like me, you probably didn’t sleep great the night prior. You’re likely exhausted, and sleeping won’t be much of a challenge. Keep some fluids next to your bed, and a snack. Elevate your feet some as well while in bed to help address swelling.
Post Marathon Recovery Plan, Stay Healthy
PART 3: 72 Hours
- Quality food. Remember your body is still in a vulnerable state, and what you consume either helps or hinders the process. Sure, a treat or two is definitely reasonable, but do try to avoid eating low quality/junk food options as your main stay during this time frame.
- Stay active. Sleep and rest are very important, it’s also necessary to keep moving. That can be walking, a light spin on a bike, or an easy dip in the pool. Lactic acid/waste products need to continue to flush through. Total rest and being stationary is not the goal, rather it’s light activity.
- Light massage. Your calves, hamstrings, quads and glutes have been through the ringer. If you have any recovery gadgets (foam roller, massage stick, lax ball), use them, or your hands, to loosen up and aid recovery. Note if an area is very sore and tender, use a lighter touch with massage.
PART 4: Beyond 72 Hours
- Deep tissue massage. Now is the time to have a massage, if you desire, and address any areas that are really bothersome.
- Eat healthy, and rest. Enough said. Learn more about the importance of rest here.
- When resume running? There are varying opinions on how long you should rest before you resume your runs. Most seem to indicate at least a week, and as much as two weeks. If you do choose to begin running after the first week of rest, the runs should be an easier pace and shorter duration.
- Remember, after a marathon, proper recovery and staying healthy is important to ensure you can train even harder in you next training cycle. Failure to recover well will likely lead to backing off your regimen when it counts, and put you at risk for overtraining.