Tips for Marathon Recovery

By Carolyn Mather, RN, PhD/Running Journal/January 2007

Having finished 92 marathons, started a dozen more, coached many runners, and observed and studied our sport, I feel that during nearly three decades of running I have come up with a fairly good set of techniques for recovering from the marathon. For those of you running a marathon during the height of this marathon season, I can assure you that these methods will help you recover quickly and avoid many of the post-marathon problems many encounter. Enjoy your marathon and then try the following. And before you travel to your marathon schedule a massage for the middle of the week after the race. This is part of your reward for all of the training. Your body will thank you!

Begin the recovery before crossing the finish line. During the last few miles of your marathon, either drink a cup of the fluid replacement on the course or better yet take a last gel. This will do you little good in the last mile or two but will get you started on the recovery process before you cross the line. The extra carbohydrate will begin assisting your body in recovery as it begins to be absorbed while you are finishing. I discovered this back in 1995 while I ran the St. George Marathon in one of my seemingly endless attempts to qualify for the Olympic trials. I was actually fortunate enough to be considered a contender so I had my own fluid bottles on the course. Early on things went badly and I knew this would not be a perfect day. But I decided to drink all of my fairly concentrated fluids, especially in the last half. I actually had a bottle at 40K so I drank all of it. I was amazed that the next day I felt great. I started experimenting with late race carbohydrate consumption and found it really hastened the recovery process. Since that race, the few times I have neglected to do this I have felt the difference! Give it a try and see if it helps you.

Keep moving. Once you cross the finish and hopefully feel the exhilaration of having completed the race it is tempting to sit down. Keep moving. Your muscles need time to cool down gradually. I remember when my husband Steve finished his first marathon and met his goal. He sat down off to the side and refused to move as he basked in his glory and sheer exhausted state and had gallons of water dumped over his very warm body. I thought he would never walk again, as when he tried to get up it was nearly impossible. He was so stiff he could barely move. Do not let this happen to you.

Start drinking and eating. Although it is very difficult for many to want to eat or drink, this is extremely important in getting nutrients in to begin repairing all of the damage you have done. That is why most marathons have lots of tempting goodies at the finish. While training try to find out what foods settle best in your stomach and put some in your checked bag if such things will not be available at the finish. Personally I like V8 juice as it settles my tummy. I am also a big fan of the homemade ice cream at the end at Grandmas. Find out what works for you and get it in you. Drink replacement fluids instead of water to get the electrolytes back into your body. Even if you are nauseous, you need to start putting the nutrients back for quick recovery. Get your legs in an ice bath or cold water. The sooner you can do this after finishing the better. This past June at the Grandmas Marathon, I got my fluids, some boxes of raisins, and my ice cream, kept walking, put on my dry clothes, and found myself at the edge of Lake Superior. I quickly took off my warm up and got in the cold water. It may not have been an ice bath but it took my breath away, so it was plenty cold. Many others soon followed suit. A light massage will help, but for most of us there are very long lines for massages when we finish. Standing in line will not help, so schedule a massage for later in the week and find cold water or get back to your hotel and get in an ice bath.

Walk, walk, and walk some more. I am certain a nice nap sounds better but, believe me, from years of experience walking after a marathon is really good for your legs. After my cold water soak in Lake Superior I walked the five miles back to my hotel. Again I use my husband to demonstrate how effective walking is. After he finished the Venice Marathon in his personal best 3:37, Steve could not find his checked baggage. Several different volunteers told him where to go but it took him more than four hours of walking to find his clothes. He recovered so quickly that the next day he felt ready to start training again. The first time I ran the New York City Marathon I met Grete Waitz out walking the streets of Manhattan several hours after her win. Walking is even very good for the fastest of the fast!

After Barb Jarnagin ran her personal best 2:55, I had her out walking for several hours in the late afternoon. Although she had severe cramping the last few miles of the marathon the walking aided her speedy recovery. Take some snacks and some replacement fluids on your walk. Your job after a marathon is putting the nutrients back even while you walk.

I recently observed a 2:54 marathoner sitting in the airport for several hours after completing the marathon before getting on a plane for several hours. His time in the airport would have been better spent walking the entire terminal as I was doing. Plane trips after a marathon can be deadly for your legs unless you do as many of these preventative tips as you can squeeze in. If at all possible try to arrange your flight or drive home for the day after the race.

I have also found that post-race party dancing can do wonders for your legs. Although that is not always possible, it does work. I have pictures of myself dancing with Boston winner (and Olympic gold medallist) Gelindo Bordin the evening after he won the race. I did not win but I had completed the race pacing one of my teammates to a 3:05! And the dancing really helped. Stretch. I have found that you can get in quite a bit of stretching waiting for results or for the awards ceremony. Stretch lightly, loosening those tight areas. The more you move, the better and quicker your recovery will be. But be careful with your stretching as you do not want to get muscle cramps by stretching too vigorously.

Although you should take some time off from running after you complete your marathon I have found a 30-minute jog the morning after the race will help keep that lactic acid moving out of your muscles rather than parking it there and making you sore. This may be extremely difficult. I recall Steve accusing me of trying to kill him as I prodded him through a park for 30 minutes the morning after his first marathon (also remember he did lots of sitting). After his second marathon he was nagging me to get out and do our 30 minutes the next morning. This time I was the reluctant one. Guess I created my own monster.

I also ran 10 miles with Uta Pippig the day after she won Boston in 2:21. Now that was a memorable run as no one recognized the Boston winner as she cruised quickly along the Charles River. Fortunately for me I did not run the marathon that year! Ten miles of easy cruising has never been on my post- marathon menu!

I am sure after reading this you wonder if the training just keeps on after the marathon. If you want a speedy recovery and minimal soreness then you need to keep working for a few days after the marathon. Believe me you will feel so much better for following these tips. Then you can become a couch potato. However if you are like most of us crazy marathon runners, you are hooked on the marathon and will be planning the strategy to get to your next marathon. Now go run your marathon assured that you will recover quickly.

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