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Marathon Recovery Training

By Paul Greer, MS - from Road Runner Sports

Most runners don't consider the toll the marathon can take on their bodies both mentally and physically. Recovery doesn't just happen; strategies for a successful recovery require careful planning, particularly if you return to quality running soon after your race.

Week 1 Is Critical
Over the years, I've developed an ideal 28-day marathon recovery plan that will get you in great shape within the month. During the first week of marathon recovery, I suggest you stop running completely, which allows your damaged muscle cells to regenerate. Researchers have shown that no running at all for the week following a marathon will improve both muscle strength and endurance. Since running a marathon depletes your body's energy stores as well as causes some muscle tissue damage, resting from training will help your body to rebuild.
     Most coaches agree that while rest is good, total inactivity is not. I agree, and recommend that you should engage in "Active Recovery". To help get rid of muscle waste, spin lightly on a stationary bike for 30 minutes or walk slowly for a short distance in the days immediately following the race. Give yourself at least one week to really recover by doing these types of light aerobic workouts, which will improve your circulation and flexibility. During this first week, you should also replenish carbohydrates and drink several 8-once glasses of water daily.

Back to Running in Week 2
During week two, build back to easy running. Begin by running very easily (20-30 minutes) on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday of that week. If you ran the marathon on a Sunday, you should do a tempo run 10 days later, on Wednesday. A tempo run will boost your fitness, but it won't further stress your still-tired muscles the way an interval workout would. The tempo run workout consists of warming up slowly for 10 minutes, then running for 20 minutes at a pace 20 seconds faster than your marathon speed, followed with a 10-minute cool-down. Repeat the tempo workout on the 14th day after the marathon. Mileage during the second week should be 25% of your usual marathon-training mileage. Don't be afraid to take days off completely.

Add Some Speed in Weeks 3 & 4

In week three, begin upgrading your aerobic capacity by running some long intervals.   On Tuesday, do a workout on the track or trails of 3x 1200m repeats at 45 seconds per mile faster than your marathon pace.   On Friday, do 3x 1-mile intervals at the same tempo.   For both of these interval workouts, jog five minutes between each interval.   Run 30-40 minutes on the other days.   Week three mileage should be 35% of usual.

            During week four, you should begin restoring some of the foot speed you may have lost during your marathon build-up.   On Monday and Thursday, run 10x 200m intervals on the track, trails or road at a pace somewhat faster than your 5K race pace.   Jog three minutes between each interval and remember to warm up and cool down thoroughly.   Concentrate on staying relaxed and holding your form.   During the other days of this week, you should run easily for 40-50 minutes.

Additional Ways to Speed Your Recovery
Here are a few additional strategies you can include in your regimen to improve recovery following the marathon.

  1. Don't sit as soon as you finish the race.   Keep walking to avoid cramping.   Your leg muscles need blood pumping through them; otherwise, your legs will become very stiff and sore.
  2. Start rebuilding glycogen stores immediately after the race by taking in foods high in carbohydrates.   Consume 12-16 calories of carbohydrates per pound of body weight per day.   Also try to eat foods high in antioxidants to help repair the tissue damage that takes place during the marathon. Fruits and vegetables are good sources of antioxidants.
  3. Immediately after the marathon, take in as much sports drinks as you can.   The electrolytes in sports drinks replenish your potassium and sodium stores for normal cell and nerve function.   Make sure you're drinking enough water in the days that follow. (You'll know you're drinking enough if your urine is clear or pale yellow).
  4. Don't neglect flexibility and mobility.   Stretching helps work out the waste products that accumulate in your muscles during the marathon, so stretch daily for at least 20 minutes during your post-marathon recovery period.   Massage therapy also helps with waste removal, especially within 48 hours after the race.   A post-marathon massage promotes muscular relaxation and improved circulation.   Both aid in the recovery of muscle tissue.   I suggest you plan ahead and make an appointment with a massage therapist for the next day or two following your marathon.
  5. Rest is as important AFTER the race as it is before, so try to get a good night's sleep the night after the marathon.   An extra hour of sleep per night for a few days post marathon will definitely help your recovery.
  6. Soaking your feet in Epsom salts and water will keep the bruised toenails or blisters that formed during the race from getting infected, and will promote healing.
  7. Studies have shown that there's a high risk of catching a cold during the first week following a marathon.   To avoid developing a cold or any type of upper respiratory condition, eat a balanced diet that's high in vitamin C, sleep well and try to minimize stress.

Avoid Depression
Throughout my years of coaching athletes, I've observed that there are always a few runners who suffer from post-marathon depression.   To avoid falling victim to depression, try:

  1. Setting new running goals for yourself.   Concentrate on shorter distances in the months following your marathon.   For example, go from the marathon to running 5Ks.
  2. Join a running club. Particularly if you've always run on your own, the change in your routine will help add interest to your workouts, and will add a social aspect to your runs.
  3. Focusing on cross-training in the months following the marathon.   Aerobic activities such as swimming and biking will help rejuvenate your body and mind after the rigors of marathon training.
  4. Setting an important non-running goal for after the marathon.   For example, plan a trip to an exotic location.   Having something to look forward to after the marathon will create the same kind of excitement as running the race.

Since you'll probably start planning for your next marathon within a few weeks, it's critical that you follow a sensible and careful marathon recovery plan.   You do plan to run the next one faster, don't you?

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