5 Tips for Recovering after a Marathon

It is hard to know what to do after a marathon. Follow these 5 guidelines to give your body the rest it needs and maintain your fitness.

Alas, it seems, another fall marathon season is in the books. Anyone who has ever poured extensive effort into training and mentally preparing for a race for months knows that the feeling afterwards is somewhat bitter sweet. There is nothing like crossing the finish line, receiving the medal, seeing your name in the results, and achieving a goal. Doing these things is the whole reason we do this crazy sport. However, when the high passes, when the reality of achieving these goals sinks in, and there has been some time to chew it up and swallow it, many people are left with a “what now?” feeling.

On one hand your body needs rest, especially if you have put it through a marathon build up and a 26.2 mile race. On the other hand, you have gained a huge amount of fitness. Perhaps you have even gone from being out of shape to being able to call yourself a runner. You don’t just want to flush all that work down the toilet.
Follow these five guidelines to give your body the rest it needs without losing your fitness.

1. Take time off

If you have been on the fence, or unsure if you should take time off after your Marathon. If you want some rest, but also don’t want to be like the person who leaves The Biggest Loser and gains 250 pounds, let me put your mind at ease. TAKE TIME OFF! Your body needs it. Think about it this way; did you get fit and prepared for the marathon in one week? How about two? Three? No, it took you months to gain all of the fitness you have, you certainly aren’t going to lose it if you skip a few runs.
If you skip the time off for fear of gaining weight or losing fitness, you will vastly increase your chances of injury. Injury will force time off, and you can’t always control how much time it will force you to take off. If you have a stress fracture, that will put you out of commission for 6-8 weeks. You WILL lose fitness if that happens. I would recommend 1-3 weeks of no structured training at all, just enjoy yourself.

2. Stay active

At the risk of sounding like I am contradicting myself, for most people it is best to exercise during the weeks after a marathon. To illustrate my point here, I feel I should emphasize the difference between training and exercise. Training is a structured regimen geared toward an event or multiple events with a goal in mind. Exercise is active movement to keep the human body in good health. Just because you are taking time off doesn’t mean you need to be sedentary.
It is certainly ok to take some days completely off, if you don’t feel like doing anything for a few days, don’t do anything. However, keep in mind that you have conditioned your body to a very high level of activity. If you are sedentary because you are overly concerned with allowing your body the rest it needs, you will likely feel rather crumby after a few days.
Some great activities might be getting out and riding your bike, hiking, walking, the things normal people do to fit in their pants, but we runners rarely do because we are recovering from our training run. At the end of every cross country season my college teammates and I would spend a week playing pickup basketball games, something we would never do during the season because not only were we constantly recovering for our next training run, but we had a healthy fear of injury. Take a week or two and do some of those activities that you don’t indulge during your training.

3. Figure out your formula and don’t be afraid to go for a run

Resting, especially after a marathon, or a long season of racing, is different for everyone. There is no set amount of time you should rest for, and no set formula for how much you should run and when you should run during this rest period. Some people take 1-3 weeks of absolutely no running and then hit the roads or trails with their batteries recharged.
Some people absolutely cannot do no running. This is only partially a mental thing. It’s true that you learn to love running, and it gets hard to just ignore it for a week or two, or three. Beyond that though, if many people take that much time off from running they increase their chance of injury when they come back to it.
A general guideline is to take 1-3 weeks off, but taking it “off” is a relative term. You can still run during this time, but don’t follow any specific training program. Run easy and by feel, go whenever you feel like going, go however far you feel like going, and run however fast you feel like running, just enjoy it. If you are taking a short, 1-1.5 week break follow this rule for the entirety of your break and then gradually get back into your training. If you are taking a full, 3 week break, be progressive. Spend the first week doing very little running, do just a little bit more the second week, then just a little bit more the third week.
Most of all, listen to your body during this time, your body will be the best indicator of the formula that will work for you.

4. Be mindful of your diet

You just spent months training and/or racing. During this time, you were probably tailoring your diet to get the most out of your training, and it is likely that there were times that you didn’t eat some things that you really wanted to eat. You probably told yourself “after the race,” or “after the season.” You absolutely deserve to splurge. However, be careful about your splurging.
Remember that you are going from burning a lot of calories each day to only burning the normal amount that a healthy person of your age and weight would be burning. Don’t go out of your way to eat a lot and eat as unhealthily as possible just because you aren’t training for anything. If you do this, you will put on a lot of weight quickly, which will make returning to running difficult and increase your risk of injury. You will also feel shockingly bad. Even eating the normal amount of food that you ate during your training will leave you feeling full when you are taking a break, so be mindful of your portions.
The best rule of thumb to follow with your diet is to not restrict yourself. Don’t tell yourself you can’t have any foods, and don’t tell yourself you can’t have seconds, but eat how you want your body to feel. don’t force the extra helpings of dessert just because you aren’t in training.

5. Reflect and then Move Forward

When I was in college there was an alumni, who trained with us, who had qualified for an Olympic team and two world championship teams. She used to tell a story about how she did not qualify for the final in the Olympic games and she was very upset. In a phone call with our coach she expressed her feelings, and he told her that “she was allowed to be upset for one day, then it was time to move on.”
I have always thought this was good rule to follow, whether you are happy, or unhappy with your performance. Reflection is necessary to make yourself better. You have to look back on your performance and think of what you did right, what you did wrong, and learn from your mistakes. If you achieved a goal, or had a good performance, you should take some time to pat yourself on the back and remind yourself that the goals you have are possible. This will help you as you move toward even loftier goals. If you didn’t achieve a goal, or had a bad performance you deserve to be upset. You poured a lot into that goal, and if you weren’t upset when it didn’t happen that would most likely mean that you just didn’t care.
However, you can’t stay in the past forever. Use your break to reflect. Think of things that went well in the race and in your training. Think of what you can do to improve. Pat yourself on the back, for a good performance, be angry about a bad one, but put a time limit on yourself. The break is a good way to limit that reflection. If you are taking 2 weeks off, allow yourself 12 days of reflection, then on the 13th day, take those lessons you have learned set your new goals, make your new plan and get ready to go.

John Coyle is a recent Graduate of Weber State University where he ran Cross Country and Track. He  now runs professionally. He also manages Teton Running Company in Idaho Falls, ID and is the Marketing Manger for RunnersOnTheGo.com. 

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