If you've just run a marathon, you might be thinking, now what? That, or you really want to lie down, which would be a completely understandable reaction.
Whatever you do, it should be part of your post-marathon recovery plan. According to Will Rodgers, head coach at Running Lane, most runners take between 30,000 and 45,000 steps during a marathon — and those steps have a major effect on your body. That's why you should prioritize recovery in the hours, days and even weeks after your race.
Don't know where to start? Here's what your body just went through — plus a step-by-step guide to helping it bounce back.
Why Recovery Is Important
Believe it or not, your race isn't over when you cross the finish line. Just as you plan for race day, you should absolutely plan your post-marathon recovery.
"The biggest post-marathon recovery mistake that runners make is not having a plan," says Angie Spencer, registered nurse, running coach and owner at Marathon Training Academy. "They've often carefully followed a training plan up until race day but are left wondering what to do after the race."
What exactly do you need to recover from? For starters, marathoners may experience short-term kidney injury, according to an August 2017 study in the Official Journal of the National Kidney Foundation, and marathons can also strain your heart, according to the American Heart Association.
Plus, one July 2019 Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy study found that nine out of 10 runners experienced an illness or injury in the weeks leading up to a race. If that's you, recovery is even more important.
"There have also been studies indicating that running a marathon can damage the body all the way down to the cellular level," says Seth Kopf, owner and running coach at Kopf Running. "Unlike muscle soreness, cellular damage isn't always noticeable, meaning you won't feel sore. This is why allowing for proper downtime after a marathon is really important."
After your race, you may notice more immediate changes such as weight loss due to fluid losses (which can be higher depending on the temperature during your race) and muscle soreness. But because a lot of the effects can continue over time and, as Kopf notes, don't come with blatant indicators of stress on the body — including a compromised immune system — healing should begin immediately after you cross the finish line and continue up to two weeks after the race.
Knowing all of this, why do we keep running marathons? Well, a July 2019 Medical Hypotheses study likens marathons to childbirth in that we eventually forget the pain. "Despite all of these challenges to the body, one positive side effect of the marathon is the release of brain chemicals like norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin, which regulates positive mood and increases alertness," says Spencer. Thanks to those chemicals — and the proper recovery plan — you can have a positive experience (and the least amount of discomfort possible).
Proper race training helps the recovery process go more smoothly. Kopf notes that some discomfort is inevitable, but it will be worse if you’ve been inconsistent during your training period. "Incorporating dynamic warm-ups, active cooldowns, strength work, foam rolling and stretching into your training will better set you up for success on race day and in your recovery efforts."
The Basics of Recovery
"Runners often gravitate toward two extremes post-marathon," says Spencer. "Some take an extended rest period, but then have trouble getting back into a normal running routine again. Others don't take any time off post-race and immediately throw themselves back into a challenging training routine, which can cause injury and burnout."
The basics of recovery that start post-race and continue in the days and weeks after include rehydrating and refueling, stretching, foam rolling, rest and finally, a return to light activity (also known as active recovery). To make it easier, we created a post-marathon schedule for you to follow after your next race.
Read more: Hip Stretches for Runners
Your Post-Marathon Recovery Schedule
As soon as you cross the finish line, you'll be tempted to stop moving, but keep walking for roughly 10 to 15 minutes after the race, Spencer says. With larger marathons, you can often accomplish this by walking through the finisher's chute, collecting your medal and grabbing any post-race provisions (including cooling blankets and food).
"Head over to the post-race food area to grab some food and something to drink," says Spencer. "Consuming a combination of carbohydrates, protein and fluid 30 minutes after the marathon will give your body the tools it needs to begin repairing muscles and rehydrating. If you can't stomach solid food right away, try to at least consume a recovery drink in that 30-minute window."
After you've had something to eat and drink and walked through the finisher's area, change out of your clothes if they're wet. Spencer says this will help regulate your body temperature, which can rise two to three degrees over the course of the race, making your body work harder to pump blood. (And of course, Spencer stresses that you should head to the medical tent to address any injuries or problems.)
What about the post-run celebration? Go for it. "I tell my runners to live a little once they finish the marathon," says Rodgers. "You deserve a reward for training hard for four to five months, so go eat that hamburger and french fries."
The Day After a Marathon
First things first? Sleep in! This is your time to start resting, and sleep is vital not only for recovery, but for everyday cognitive function. Rodgers notes that in the days after a marathon you should absolutely get more sleep if your schedule allows (and you should make it a priority). This is also your time to start foam rolling.
Rodgers is a firm believer in active recovery to boost blood flow to damaged muscles. "I don't recommend touring Disney World immediately afterward, but walking two to three miles over the course of the day is great for reducing soreness more quickly."
After you've walked, Rodgers says that you can do some light stretching, though cautiously, as your muscles are damaged and just beginning the healing process. You should continue to hydrate and refuel to replace what was lost during the race, and consider taking vitamin C or a multivitamin for extra immune support.
One to Two Weeks After a Marathon
Much of what you do in the weeks after a marathon is a continuation of what you started the day after: getting adequate sleep, foam rolling, stretching and possibly going for a massage.
"You should wait a couple of days post-race before getting a massage, which can further enhance muscle damage if done too early," says Kopf. "Prioritize sleep, which is your first line of defense in recovery. Aim for nine to 10 hours of sleep for several days/weeks after the marathon. Naps are another great way to enhance recovery, if you can fit them in your schedule."
As for your nutrition, you should have replaced any lost fluids, carbohydrates and proteins by now, but Kopf still says to eat nutrient-dense meals in the weeks after a marathon. Think: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and lean cuts of meat.
You can expect your muscles to feel better by a week later, according to an August 2017 Journal of Sports Medicine study, so returning to running isn't out of the question. But be mindful and don't feel the need to rush back in to a regular routine right away. Swimming, light cycling and yoga are solid low-impact alternatives.
"As a general rule of thumb, I recommend taking two full weeks off from running for all of my athletes after finishing a marathon training cycle," says Kopf. "Think of recovery as a 'spa treatment' for your body. Booking a massage, spending time foam rolling while you catch up on your favorite shows, taking a long hot bath and going to bed early will help your body repair and regenerate faster. Lastly, and probably most importantly, these things will give you the head space to mentally reset, too."
- Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy: "Running Themselves Into the Ground? Incidence, Prevalence, and Impact of Injury and Illness in Runners Preparing For a Half or Full Marathon."
- Official Journal of the National Kidney Foundation: "Kidney Injury and Repair Biomarkers in Marathon Runners"
- American Heart Association:"Running a Marathon Can Increase Cardiac Strain in Amateur Runners"
- Journal of Sports Medicine: "Effects of Marathon Running on Aerobic Fitness and Performance in Recreational Runners One Week after a Race"
- Medical Hypotheses: "Why Is Running a Marathon Like Giving Birth? The Possible Role of Oxytocin in the Underestimation of the Memory of Pain Induced by Labor and Intense Exercise."