Marathon Recovery

By Patti and Warren Finke

What you do the first few hours and days after a marathon is as important as what you do immediately preceding it. This period is critical to your recovery and your future running. The best aid to recovery is a good training program before the marathon. A training program with a good mileage base leads to faster recovery. If you run the marathon without adequate preparation you will suffer both during and after it. If you train well you can cope with the race and you will recover faster. How long should it take you to recover? Joe Henderson of Runners' World cites Jack Foster's rule of one day of recovery for each race mile. Our rule of thumb takes into account a runners mileage base. We recommend at least 10 easy training miles for every race mile. If you are training 40 miles a week it will take you nearly 7 weeks to recover. But these are rules of thumb and many years of coaching have taught us that individuals are all different. A marathoner should recognize what goes into recovery and treat him/herself accordingly after an event.

Immediately After the Marathon

A cool down after finishing is important. It may be difficult to do this depending on the finish area. Try an easy jog or a walk of 10 minutes or so. Remember that while you were running, your leg muscles were doing a significant amount of blood pumping through your body. Sudden stopping or lying down will cause a drop in blood pressure and perhaps fainting, leg cramps, and/or nausea.

DO NOT STRETCH. Your muscle are exhausted and you may activate a stretch reflex leading to cramping or injury. Take advantage of massage if offered. If anything hurts, visit the medical area and ask for ice in a plastic bag and an elastic bandage to wrap it against the sore area. Icee the area for 10-15 minutes.

Drink lots of fluids, especially ones rich in electrolytes such as orange juice or tomato juice, or best of all, glucose electrolyte replacement drinks. Try to drink at least one large glass of water every 1-2 hours. Only drink alcoholic beverages if they are less than 2% alcohol. You can drink beer, which is rich in electrolytes, but only if it is non-alcoholic or you drink equal amounts of water with it. If you do not urinate for 6 hours or more you may be severely dehydrated and experiencing renal shutdown, contact a physician.

Eat something as soon as you can. Research has shown that muscle glycogen is replaced twice as rapidly in the first hour or two following depletion. Many marathons provide "goodie" bags or meals for finishers, take advantage of these. A large balanced meal may be the best since it will probably contain some of everything you need to replace. If you have a craving for something eat it, your body is probably telling you something.

Avoid long soaks in hot water which may cause swelling and exacerbate muscle soreness. In the early stages of recovery you are better off to cool your legs off by soaking them in cold water which will reduce any inflammation.

Later in the day, if you feel like you need a nap, reward yourself with one. Try to take a 10 to 15 minute walk later in the afternoon to keep circulation going and repeat icing of any sore areas.

The First Days After the Marathon

After the glamour of finishing a marathon wears off, there is usually a price to pay. This can include muscle soreness, fatigue and feelings of depression.

Delayed onset muscle soreness after exercise has been described often. DOMS is a feeling of stiffness and soreness that begins 8 or more hours after exercise and may last 3-4 days, (sometimes a week). Researchers propose several causes:

  • Damage to the muscle tissue itself. May be due to depletion of energy reserves or actual degeneration of muscle fibers.
  • Accumulation of fluid and breakdown products in the muscle
  • Muscle spasm.
  • Over-stretching or tears of the connective tissue

The soreness may be a result of one or more of these causes depending on the individual, his state of training and the activity. The most likely causes after a marathon are depletion of energy reserves and the accumulation of fluid in the muscles. The degree of soreness often indicates the extent of muscle damage and the duration of recovery.

Pain relief can aided by icing, massage, light activity and slow gentle stretching. All of these things work by increasing the circulation to the area. The increased circulation takes away waste and extra fluid and brings new nutrients. Drinking fluids will help flush the waste products from the body.

Light activity will help you recover faster than inactivity. Any exercise you can do will promote circulation and aid healing and recovery. If you feel like you can run one or two days after the race, find a flat soft surface such as a track . Start slowly, you may be quite stiff. After running a short distance, your legs should loosen up and running will feel better. This sensation will persist until your muscles start to fatigue and then they will start to stiffen back up. When you feel this begin to happen or if something hurts, you've had enough. When in doubt, don't run any more than you did the day before the marathon (about 10 to 15 minutes). If you feel too sore or stiff to run, take a walk or ride your bike or go swimming for 20 to 30 minutes to get your blood flowing. If anything hurts, ice it after your workout. If you don't have any joint pain, the long soak in the tub may be OK to take the day after the race.

Post race depression is quite common. You usually feel a real "high" after finishing especially if you've done well and can talk to other runners and share experiences. The next morning the fatigue and soreness may make you wonder if the marathon was worth it. This letdown is a normal psychological response to meeting your goal and not having a new one. Some researchers have also suggested biochemical reasons for the depression as well. Don't make any plans or predictions until the end of the week. Take time to assess your performance, see if you followed your plan and write down both the good and the bad things that happened. Review your training diary to see what worked well for you and try to pick out any mistakes.

Eat anything that looks or sounds good to you. You probably need it and you certainly deserve it. Your whole body will feel fatigued, plan to take it easy and go to bed early.

The Week After the Marathon

You may experience a general lack of energy the following week. The reasons for fatigue are obvious. You have worked hard and deserve to rest. Plan on an early bedtime for at least a week to help you get over the fatigue. Eat well balanced meals with 50-60% complex carbohydrates to replenish the body's energy stores. Take in adequate protein to rebuild any tissue damage. Cravings for particular foods should be answered. This may be the body's way of telling you what it needs.

As the stiffness and soreness subside, slowly build up your runs. Think of it as a sort of reverse tapering process. As you dropped hard workouts, then reduced your mileage down to a minimum the day before the marathon, so should you increase your mileage from a minimum the day after, slowly building it until you are ready to do hard workouts again. The maximum should be the same mileage as the week before the marathon. The minimum should be whatever exercise feels good to you. Several days after the marathon you may feel very strong. This is because your post race lessened activity and eating well have carbohydrate loaded your body! Avoid the temptation to do a hard workout or worse yet, a race. Often we have the runners we coach take a day off when they start feeling like this, just to protect them from themselves. Unless you are incredibly fit, you have not recovered yet. Stick to your recovery plan.

The Month After the Marathon

If you are not an experienced marathoner, expect to have some long term fatigue during the month following the race. This fatigue usually shows up when you try to do hard or long runs. You will simply "run out of gas". Don't get depressed, it will go away and eventually you will emerge stronger than ever. Use the rule of thumb, (10 training miles for every race mile for a full recovery). When you are back doing regular training and have accumulated 260 training miles, you should be ready to race again. Now is the time to set some goals for your future racing and make plans for training.

If you are an experienced marathoner with a good training base, this 260 miles of recovery will happen soon. Running the marathon does not take away your fitness. You are in excellent shape, have peaked and may find that you can run some great races. If you plan to race, cut down on your training mileage and recover fully from each one. If you have not fully recovered from the marathon and try to race, you may run excellent times, but you are courting serious injury. Keep setting goals and planning your training so that you can achieve those goals.


Warren and Patti, an exercise physiologist, are two of the directors of the Portland Marathon Clinic. They provide year round corporate, group and individual fitness and coaching programs through Team Oregon. Visit their web site at

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