By Roy Stevenson
Your body is a war zone after a marathon. Research shows that up to 25% of marathon finishers get sick within a few weeks of completing a marathon. So your goal is to get back in good health, and then resume your training schedule so you’ll be ready to race again in a month or two. Unfortunately, recovering from a marathon has a lot of dogma and myths attached to it.
David Costill, Ph.D., former head of the exercise physiology department at Ball State University, Indiana, says, “A lot of things happen to the body as a result of running the marathon. You become overheated, dehydrated and muscle depleted. Your hormonal milieu gets thrown out of whack, and you traumatize your muscles.” He adds, “You have to bide your time to get your body back in balance.”
Other research on the effects of running a marathon from muscle biopsies consistently show ruptured fibers, inflammation within the muscle and spillage of intracellular contents outside the muscle. The list goes on: broken blood cells, torn muscle fibers and damage to ligaments and tendons. It can take your muscles and skeletal system from 7–10 days, or longer, to recover. Some biopsy research shows lingering muscle fiber damage 30 days after a marathon. Here’s some advice on recovering properly.
Immediate Post-Marathon Recovery
Keep moving, gradually slowing down to a walk, to allow your stressed system to attain a steady state and normalize. Stopping suddenly can cause lightheadedness, dizziness and possibly fainting, if your blood pressure drops too rapidly. Your cool down should ease you back to resting state gently to begin the repair process.
Get Your Feet Up
Much of the soreness after a marathon is due to swelling from fluids that have accumulated between the muscles, causing pressure on nerve endings near the skin. Dr. Costill recommends elevating your legs to help ease the pain.
To Massage or Not to Massage?
A gentle massage might help. Not the usual deep friction and pressure point work you normally have to keep your legs healthy, but a light stroking of the surface in the direction of the heart. However, even a light massage may be too painful immediately following a race. A better time is 24–72 hours later.
Icing can be done every few hours after a marathon to good effect—it reduces pain because the cold deadens the nerve pain endings. An added benefit is that for awhile (about 10 minutes) it slows down the blood flow to the traumatized muscles. Continuing to ice longer than this dilates the arteries, increasing blood flow to the legs. This pumps out waste products and brings in nutrients and proteins to begin repair work. A cool shower may be helpful, or running cold tap water over your legs can be very refreshing.
But no matter how relaxing it seems, avoid hot tub parties after the marathon unless you want the post-race soreness to get worse. Heating adds to the micro trauma, contributing to swelling and inflammation.
Get Some Rest
Go home and take a nap, or at least lie down for an hour.
Research shows that glycogen in your muscle cells is severely depleted after a race, and complete repletion of glycogen stores requires a high-carb diet for at least 46 hours, and is most rapid during the first 10 hours of recovery.
Edward Coyle, Ph.D., exercise physiologist at the University of Texas, Austin, says the more glycogen you can get into your system within the first two hours of stopping are the most crucial, “The muscles absorb glycogen like a sponge,” he says, but, “four to six hours after the race the absorption rate starts to decline.” You need to carb-load again after the race.
Having participated in several marathons, and witnessed the shark-like feeding frenzy of marathon finishers, it’s clear that runners are ready almost immediately for solid foods. These should include fruit, such as bananas, to replace potassium. Choose fruits that contain iron, zinc, calcium, chromium, sodium and magnesium.
Nancy Clark, R.D., one of the foremost sports nutritionists in the country, recommends fruit or yogurt as superior to candy bars or cookies. But Costill says it’s ok to eat cookies and candy because the body doesn’t care where it gets the carbs from at this stage.
Four hours after the race you should be recovered enough to eat a full mixed meal, including some protein along with the usual carbs. It’s reported that marathoners have a craving for high-protein foods after the event. For several days after the race your overall carb intake should be 65% or more of your total calories.
Drink plenty of fruit juice, electrolyte- and mineral-replacement drinks, which are better than soft drinks because you’ll get vitamins and minerals, versus sugar and caffeine from soft drinks. And don’t forget water. Start drinking fluids immediately, but avoid alcohol because it’s a diuretic. You’ll know you’re rehydrating adequately when you start urinating again, which can be several hours after the event.
Aspirin, Painkillers, Anti-inflammatories?
Your quadriceps will be very sore, especially when going down stairs or a slope. Sports medicine physicians recommend avoiding painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs because muscle tissue repair actually takes longer when you take them.
There’s no evidence to show that stretching reduces post-exercise soreness after marathons. Sharp stretching is counterproductive, flaring up inflammation of the muscle tissues; slow, gentle stretching within your range may help temporarily reduce stiffness.
Studies have yet to show that post-race running benefits the recovery of the marathoner. Drs. Dave Costill and Frederick Hagerman looked at 10 male marathon runners. One group of marathoners, did short easy 20–45 minute treadmill running for five days post marathon (exercise-recovery group), while a second group rested completely for five days (rest-recovery group).
Both groups had identical glycogen restoration, suggesting that light exercise does not facilitate glycogen repletion. Indeed, the rest-recovery group had a greater recovery of leg extension strength and work capacity than the exercise-recovery group. These findings and many other studies since, raise doubts about the value of exercise during the days following an exhaustive event such as a marathon. Take a week off running—you’ve earned it!
After that, workouts should be kept short and easy on a flat, soft grass surface until you’re not sore anymore—somewhere from 12–21 days after the marathon. An alternative is to do non-impact activities such as swimming, pool running or cycling on a stationary exercise bike, giving your legs a chance to recover. Weight training exercises for the legs should be avoided.
When can you race again?
As a general guideline, waiting two months before your next marathon or race is recommended. Whenever you have regained your normal training “feel,” be warned—there may be a false recovery for a week or so, when you feel fine, but racing during this phase may put you back in limping mode—wait a week or two longer until you’re completely recovered. Be aware of the severe damage you’ve done to your body and when in doubt, it’s wiser to take it easy than push yourself.
Roy Stevenson has a master’s degree in coaching and exercise physiology from Ohio University. He’s had over 200 articles on running, fitness and health published in various regional, national and international magazines and newspapers in the U.S.A., Scotland, England, and Australia. Formerly from New Zealand, Roy competed in NZ Championships on track, road and cross-country.
Marathon Recovery Nutrition
By Kary Woodruff
TOSH-The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital
You just ran 26.2 miles. You’re elated and exhausted, accomplished and defeated. The thought of having to make decisions seems overwhelming, and with good reason, glucose—the fuel your brain needs to do its job—is probably depleted or quickly on its way there. Instead of feeling powerless after a race, go into the marathon with a plan for your recovery nutrition, and save yourself from the deliberation process.
Often runners know exactly what they’ll eat before the big race, but they tend to neglect their recovery nutrition, assuming the race is over and the hard work is done. Yet this post-race period is when the body begins working overtime. What and when you eat after this grueling workout determines how you’ll feel the next few days. Nutrition gives your body the building blocks it needs to return to homeostasis.
There are three main nutrients to focus on: carbohydrates, protein and fluids. One way to get these nutrients is by following the 3-in-4 Rule: three feedings within four hours. Right after the marathon, within 30–45 minutes, eat 45–65 grams of carbs and 10–20 grams of protein. Try a Clif Bar and yogurt, 12 ounces of low fat chocolate milk and a banana or a peanut butter and honey sandwich on whole-grain bread with a glass of milk. If your biggest challenge a race is lack of hunger, drink a nutrient-rich smoothie instead.
Your second feeding should be about two hours after the race, and is typically a full meal. It should be mostly carbohydrates (about 50–60%) in the form of whole grains, dairy products and fruits and vegetables, plus 10–20 grams of protein. If you’re on the go, stop by a sandwich shop and get a turkey sub on whole-grain bread with a piece of fruit. Or eat a pasta dish with some grilled chicken and a side salad. Craving Mexican food? Try a burrito with black beans on a whole-wheat tortilla. Remember to keep drinking water or an electrolyte-enhanced sports drink.
Finally, two hours after your meal, complete the recovery process with another carbohydrate and protein snack. Greek yogurt and mixed berries is a healthy choice, or try some graham crackers and peanut butter, even a bowl of cereal with milk works.
It can take days for the recovery process to be complete, so keep focusing on those three main nutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fluids. Most importantly, listen to your body! Rest assured though, if you show up on race day with your recovery nutrition planned out, you’ll have a much happier and quicker post-race recovery period.