How to recover after running a marathon: experts give tips
Countless hours of training go into running races such as those taking place this weekend at the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon. But the work doesn't stop after you've crossed the finish line. The hours that follow, say experts, is when the makings of a stronger runner begin.
The high-intensity effort of racing places extra strain on our bodies compared to day-to-day running. Recovering properly after a race, whether it's 10 kilometres or a full marathon, will get you back on your feet running sooner and with less chance of injury.
What's more, recover right and you lay the foundations for better running. Yet recovery is one of the most overlooked areas of a runner's training plan, says elite runner and coach Clinton Mackevicius, founder of FitKinetics.
While all runners deserve some time off, if you want to maximise your racing experience and, most importantly, intend to race in the coming weeks or months, properly planning your recovery is something you should consider seriously," says Mackevicius, defending champion of the 10km event in the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon.
"I guarantee you'll feel your legs the second you cross the line, and for up to three to five days afterwards. But how you treat your body in the hours and days after will determine how long it takes you to recover."
Sports exercise physiologist from Joint Dynamics, Jessica Phillips, explains how the body takes a pounding when racing.
"First, your heart rate will increase to supply the muscles with more blood to support the increased oxygen demand. Next, your body temperature will increase, leading to blood vessel dilation to allow for heat loss through sweat. Through sweat loss, you will lose typically two to 10 per cent of your body weight," she says.
As extra demands are placed on your body, your metabolism speeds up, Phillips adds, because "your body increased its energy production".
While every runner is different, during a marathon, a typical runner who weighs 59kg will burn about 2,200 calories, while a 75kg runner will burn about 2,800 calories, she says.
Over the course of the race, your body's natural storage of energy, known as glycogen, will decrease - perhaps even be completely depleted - requiring the body to break down fat stores for energy. Your muscles also take a hammering.
"Running a marathon takes between 30,000 to 50,000 steps. Each step produces a stress of three to four times your body weight on your ankles, knees and hips. This stress will result in muscle damage in the form of microtears and inflammation, resulting in stiffness post-race."
Follow our guide to support your post-race recovery.
Up to 30 minutes after crossing the finish line
"As strange as it sounds, it's important to keep moving after you step over the finish line," says Mackevicius.
Luckily, the set-up at the finish is designed to force you into recovery mode as you have to collect your finisher medal, some drink and food, and also your gear bag that you checked in pre-race.
The first 30 minutes is an important window in which to restore your body's glycogen and replenish protein, says nutritionist Tanja Guigon-Rech from Nutrition Nation. "Picture the body as a house and protein as bricks. When an athlete participates in a marathon, the bricks become loose, get damaged or fall out. Following a marathon, a runner needs to repair or replace these bricks as soon as possible," she says.
She advises runners to drink two to three cups of water (around 750ml in total) and eat a small snack of between 100 and 400 calories, depending on your body weight, containing carbohydrates and proteins in a three-to-one or four-to-one ratio. Guigon-Rech says a great snack could be a banana with peanut butter.
30 minutes to three hours
Mackevicius suggests a cool down. "All elite runners cool down after racing with a light jog of approximately 15 minutes, followed by stretching. Non-elite athletes can substitute the jog with walking."
A 10-minute massage post-run will help, but Mackevicius recommends getting a full massage later that night or the next day. "In the meantime, get yourself into some compression gear like socks or tights as soon as you can, as this will increase blood flow to the damaged muscles."
It's also important to continue hydrating. "A good indicator that your body is hydrated is by using the pee test. Once your urine is close to clear, you know your body is rehydrated," he says.
For those who've run the half or full marathon, this is an important period for refuelling, says Guigon-Rech. "Runners should eat more protein of around 200 to 300 calories. Perfect snacks are plain yogurt, protein bars, protein shake or protein-based snacks such as those with chicken, fish, beef or eggs."
Day one to week one
Your immune system is vulnerable after a big race, and your nutrition during this time is vital, says Guigon-Rech. "Ideally, a runner will consume highly nutritious foods full of vitamins, complex carbohydrates and proteins. In order to avoid falling sick and ensuring quick muscle repair, it's imperative for runners to eat fresh fruits, vegetables and lean sources of protein, and to take vitamin supplements."
Although some suggest doing a recovery run the day after, Mackevicius says it's not necessary. "You actually do more damage than good if you run with a laboured gait."
He recommends taking three to five days off running altogether (depending on your race distance) and doing something low-impact, such as walking, cycling, swimming or a lightweight circuit in the gym.
More massage and regular stretching, focusing on the hamstrings, quadriceps, calves and hips, will aid recovery. "Use pressure point therapy with a tennis ball or fascia release with a foam roller to get into those tight spots," he says.
Week one to two
Some runners may feel fully recovered, while others may still feel like their muscles have been pulverised. Once you feel ready, Mackevicius suggests starting with a light run, gradually increasing the duration as your body recovers.
He cautions against running too hard, too early. "You may feel great after the first week, but it's the second week when the fatigue tends to hit the body."
He explains that even the elite athletes will only race two to three full marathons a year.
"They want to maximise the body's potential, and running any more than that may result in decreased performance. Running 42.2 kilometres demands a lot from your body - respect the distance and your body, and focus on recovery."
Two to four weeks
"The two to four weeks after a full or half marathon are about increasing the intensity and duration of running, to have you back to a normal training regime by week four," says Mackevicius.
How will you know you are fully recovered?
"When you can perform a full run without feeling as though you've been battered," says Mackevicius. "There's no given rule as to how many days it will take to recover. But I was always told that a good athlete is a smart athlete, therefore listening to your body is of utmost importance."