Most marathoners agree that the last 6.2 miles of the race are just as difficult as the entire first 20. It is during that last, seemingly endless stretch that calves tighten, quads burn, and joints you did not know existed start to ache. But all that becomes a blur as sheer force of will drives you toward the finish line. Unfortunately, crossing the finish line does not make the pain go away. Just as marathon training takes a long time, so does marathon recovery. However, you can start the recovery process right after you cross the finish line.
The temptation to collapse and lie down when you cross the finish line might be overwhelming, but don't. Instead, walk around slowly while you start to rehydrate. Try cooling down gradually for 5-10 minutes. Also, change clothes to stay warm and dry.
You will need fluid after the race, no matter how much you drank during the race. However, water alone will not do the trick. After a marathon, you will have a low concentration of glucose, sodium, and other electrolytes. You can rehydrate with a variety of fluids, including water, smoothies, recovery drinks, and juice. Avoid the temptation to guzzle fluids. Sip them slowly.
You should begin eating soon after completing your marathon. Eating is important because it also helps to restore energy and hydration levels. Consider consuming a shake that balances proteins and carbohydrates within 15 minutes after the marathon. This will give you a quick burst of fluid, protein, and carbohydrates. How much carbohydrate and protein feedings you should have are based on body weight. Talk with your nutritionist to find out what is best for you.
Take Care of Your Body
Other than eating and drinking, there are a few things to keep in mind in the hours following the race. Try to do what makes you feel better. If stretching feels good, stretch. If walking keeps you from getting tight, keep walking slowly. If you feel a throbbing injury, ice it.
Use Ice, Not Heat
Heat is one thing you should avoid during the first few days after the race. A Jacuzzi or hot tub, or even a heating pad, might seem like the perfect remedy for aching legs, but heat can actually increase swelling and muscle soreness. It seems less soothing, but you should ice your aching muscles and joints instead or take a very short bath in ice water.
The recovery continues in the weeks following the race.
You will be sore. Climbing and descending stairs presents quite a challenge. Pay attention to your body and its need for rest. In a few days, the soreness will begin to subside.
You may want to schedule a massage after your race. Ask a fellow runner to recommend a masseuse. You'll want to work with someone who is familiar with massaging people who run long distances.
Light walking and stretching will help you regain some flexibility and decrease muscle soreness. Just remember to stretch gently. Excessive stretching may trigger spasms in damaged muscles.
Lay Off the Running
Training for a marathon gets you in the habit of running a lot. After a few days of rest, you may start itching to hit the road again. Try not to do that, it may result in injuries. Recovery time is just as important as the hill and tempo runs you included in your training plan.
Try to abstain completely from running for at least one week, preferably two. When you return to running, take it very easy. Run at a pace that would allow you to carry on a conversation.
Do not worry; your body will not ache for the 6 weeks following the marathon. But just because the pain is not acute does not mean you are back to full strength. Use the time to try other fitness activities that do not stress your body as much as running, and ease up on your running mileage and intensity. Remember, the key to recovery is to do so gradually.
Many marathoners experience a feeling of letdown after the end of many months of training. The best way to stay motivated is choose a post-marathon goal and begin to plan training for your next event after you have completely recovered.
Finishing a marathon is an incredible athletic feat. Enjoy it for a while, and give your body the time it needs and deserves to make a complete recovery.
American College of Sports Medicine
American Running Association
Canadian Academy of Sport and Exercise Medicine
After the marathon. American Council on Exercise website. Available at: http://www.acefitness.org/acefit/healthy_living_fit_facts_content.aspx?itemid=2645. Accessed February 23, 2017.
Four nutrition tips for post-marathon recovery. Indiana University website. Available at: http://iuhealth.org/news-hub/detail/four-nutrition-tips-for-a-good-post-marathon-recovery/#.WK9JFU2QwdU. Updated February 22, 2013. Accessed February 23, 2017.
Maschi R. Marathon recovery tips: Getting back on the road safely. Drexel University website. Available at: http://drexel.edu/now/archive/2012/november/marathon-recovery-tips. Accessed February 23, 2017.
Last reviewed February 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 2/23/2017