Ran the marathon? Here’s 7 things you need to do to speed up your recovery

post marathon recovery
How to recover from a marathon, fasterMichael Blann

Congratulations! You completed a marathon! After months of training – and dedicating every weekend to those ‘Sunday long runs’ – you’ve gone and done it. Those 26.2 miles have been loaded onto Strava and the medal is hanging around your neck. So, what next?

Well, the race doesn’t end just yet (sorry). Before you think about signing up for your next feat of endurance, you need to let your body recover. After all, post-marathon recovery is a key part of the marathon training process (and one that often gets forgotten about).

In fact, failing to prepare for your post-marathon recovery could leave you open to injury and illness. And no one wants that when they’re trying to ride that ‘I’ve completed a marathon’ high.

To ensure you don’t fall foul at the last hurdle, and get back too soon and push too early, we’ve spoken to those in the know to get their pointers on exactly what to do after a marathon in terms of post-marathon food, post-marathon massage and more. We’ve even created a seven-day step-by-step plan for you because, you know, we’re nice like that. And we want you to treat the recovery the same way as you did the training.

Here, then, is how best to recover from a marathon...

How to recover after running a marathon

1. Keep moving

Post-marathon recovery starts the moment you cross the finish line. And that doesn’t mean falling to your knees and staying there.

‘After 26.2 miles, it is likely that you will feel some degree of muscle soreness,’ says Sarah Green of Six Physio. ‘The key is to keep moving. Try to walk for 10-15 minutes once you cross the finish line to reduce muscle stiffness.’

2. Fuel up

You had a strict pre-marathon food eating plan – and focused on carb loading the week before – so why wouldn’t you focus on your post-marathon nutrition to aid your recovery?

As you get swept away with friends and family celebrations, it’s easy to forget your nutrition. But what you choose to have for your post-marathon food is important.

According to Francesca Cappozzo, nutritionist at Maître of Thyme, your post-marathon meal:

  • Replaces the fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat.

  • Replenishes muscle and liver glycogen stores (glucose, energy stores).

  • Supports the repair of any damage caused by the exercise and builds new muscle as a response to the stimulus of exercise.

  • Ensures your immune system is working well.

‘Glycogen re-synthesis starts immediately after you reach the finish line and depends on the availability of glucose,’ says Cappozzo.

‘It happens most rapidly during the first few hours of recovery. The best recovery strategy is to consume 50-75g of fast-release carbs with fluids and electrolytes, and a protein snack with 10 to 20g of good quality protein to repair damaged muscles. It’s better to not eat too many fibre-rich carbohydrates such as lentils and legumes in recovery meals, since these may be less suitable for quick glycogen storage.’

TOP TIP: Don’t stress if you don’t feel immediately hungry after crossing the finish line – you’ve just run 26.2 miles and your stomach is likely full of gels and jelly babies. Just try and eat whatever you can – whether that's just a bag of crisps, a banana or a protein bar. Then dig into a proper meal later.

3. Re-hydrate

According to various studies, conditioned athletes can lose between 1-1.5L of fluid per hour when completing a marathon, depending on the environmental conditions in which they competed.

Depending on the completion time, this can result in high volumes of fluids lost, with studies showing that marathon runners can lose up to 3% of their initial body weight during the race, says Vlad Sabou, performance nutritionist at Science in Sport.

‘Besides water loss, electrolytes are also lost through sweat, most noticeably sodium, which plays a key role in multiple bodily processes, including muscle contraction and the absorption and retention of fluids in our body,’ he says.

‘Rehydration therefore plays a key role in the recovery process to ensure that the water and electrolytes lost during the marathon are replenished and that our body can recover optimally.’ He adds that rehydrating is also key when it comes to preventing the risk of medical conditions such as hyponatremia, which has been found to affect 10-15% of marathon runners.

What drinks should you opt for after a marathon? A sports drink that contains sodium is superior to plain water for rehydration as it promotes water retention in our body and stimulates thirst, ‘therefore helping you ingest more fluids and rehydrate quicker,’ says Sabou.

4. Focus on sleep

Sleep represents a basic physiological need and key component of life, playing a key role in reducing mental and physical fatigue, as well as promoting muscle tissue repair, particularly after intense physical exercise such as completing a marathon, says Sabou.

‘It is important to know that improving sleep duration and quality was shown in several studies to enhance recovery from a range of athletic competitions, more specifically to accelerate the recovery of muscle function and to reduce muscle pain and soreness, which are key considerations after completing a marathon.’

The magic number of hours needed? ‘At least 8-9 hours on the night after your marathon,’ he says – adding that you can maximise the quality of your sleep by avoiding alcohol and caffeine close to bedtime, avoiding electronic devices and indulging in a relaxing bedtime routine.

5. Treat your feet

After you’ve crossed the line, we recommend getting changed into clean, dry clothes and comfy shoes – when I ran the London Marathon in 2021, I was staggering around the capital very slowly in a pair of Oofos sliders (not the most fashionable of choices, but they’re super cushioned and feel like heaven after a 26.2-mile slog).

‘Aches and pains in the soles of your feet are common after running so try using a Carnation Footcare PediRoller, which can help to stretch the muscles in the bottom of the foot and relieve pain,’ says podiatrist at Carnation Footcare, Dave Wain. ‘It is particularly helpful for those who suffer from conditions such as plantar fasciitis.’

‘Blisters are also very common after completing a marathon so, if they do develop, treat them as quickly as possible, so you won’t be uncomfortable for too long,’ says Wain. ‘You should use a hydrocolloid dressing as this creates a controlled environment for the healing of blisters, protects the skin from bacteria and also helps relieve any pain caused by friction and pressure.’

6. Consider wearing compression gear

According to various studies, compression garments have been shown to help accelerate recovery from exercise. How? By increasing blood flood to the area where they are worn, and therefore accelerating nutrient delivery and metabolite removal, as well as ameliorating post-exercise oedema, says Sabou.

Several studies have found that wearing compression garment during exercise can reduce muscle soreness and muscle pain following exercise. While a recent meta-analysis indicated that wearing compression garments during resistance exercise and cycling can accelerate the recovery of muscle function. ‘Nevertheless, the same meta-analysis and another large review indicate that compression garments do not accelerate the recovery of muscle function following running, including completing marathons and half-marathons, however, they do affect reducing perceived muscle soreness and pain,’ adds Sabou.

7. Go for a swim

Completing a marathon, not to mention the months of training, puts your body under a lot of strain – especially for your muscles, bones and joints – so, when it comes to what exactly to do after a marathon, perhaps consider taking your training intensity down a notch (at first, at least), and head to the pool for a swim or go to a yoga class.

‘Re-starting light training sessions can be completed and might be beneficial 3-4 days after the race,’ adds Sabou.

post marathon recovery
Photographer, Basak Gurbuz Derman

Everything you need to know about recovering from a marathon – the FAQs

Q) Will using an ice bath help my recovery?

A) ‘If you've pushed through your threshold and felt some pain, then icing immediately afterwards on the affected area for 10-20mins at a time, up to every few hours for 24-48 hrs can help give short-term relief,’ says Jonathan Grayson of Six Physio.

‘If you're feeling brave you can try an ice bath for your legs for 10mins to help with that muscle soreness too.’

Q) When can I run again after the marathon?

A) ‘You should build back into running very gently,’ says Grayson. ‘Once muscle soreness has significantly reduced (usually two to four days after the race), try a short light jog to aid blood flow and “feed the need” for a regular run. Just be mindful to take it easy and listen to your body.’

Sabou adds that completing a marathon is a highly challenging physiological undertaking, so the decision on when to return to training should be well informed. ‘Studies show that damage markers of skeletal muscle and systemic inflammation are substantially elevated at the end of a marathon and returning to baseline levels can take between 6-8 days, depending on the marker,’ he says. ‘However, several studies showed that muscle recovery takes place substantially quicker and muscle performance is close to baseline 2-3 days after the race.’

TIP: The number of marathons completed in the past and your age can affect your recovery rate and should be considered when deciding how quickly you return to training.

Q) Why should I follow a post-marathon recovery plan?

A) It's clear that following a post-marathon recovery plan is an integral part of the whole marathon training block – not only to ensure that your body is able to recover optimally but also to limit some of the negative side effects that occur following completing a marathon, such as muscle soreness, pain and muscle cramping.

‘Following an effective recovery plan will accelerate your recovery and will allow you to get back to training quicker and in a more prepared state,’ says Sabou. ‘Besides rehydration and sleep, the other two key physiological priorities are the restoration of glycogen stores and the repair and regeneration of muscle tissue. Your glycogen stores can be re-fuelled through the consumption of carbohydrate-rich meals, snacks and drinks following completing the race and during the remainder of the day, meanwhile, consuming protein in multiple sittings plays a key role in repairing and regenerating your muscle.’

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