What Do I Do After the Marathon?
By Jimmy Williams, PT, DPT
You’ve completed your fall marathon! Months of training have accumulated to one special day and you are probably the most tired you’ve been over that entire time. First tip, go down stairs slowly, use the handrail and if your quads are really sore, then go down backwards to avoid falling down them (trust me, I’ve been there).
Now let’s chat about what to do for training now that the big race is over. As a general rule, you should not run for at least 7 days after a marathon race. There are very high levels of muscle damage that occur from running at that high of an intensity for that duration of time and returning to running too early can significantly increase your risk of injuries. Not to mention, there are several other organs that can be negatively affected by returning to running too soon with increasing hormone levels from such as the lungs, heart, liver, and kidneys which can cause illness.
The Week After The Marathon
The best thing you can do for your body in the week after the marathon is to focus on recovery and low intensity exercise. Walking is the best way to help activate muscle tissue without causing increased damage or increased hormone levels. I recommend taking frequent walks (especially if you have a job that requires sitting for extended of periods of time) for approximately 30 minutes, several times a day. This low load will help reduce DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) from the marathon and still get that itch to get moving. Low impact cycling is also another alternative (NOT A PELOTON CLASS) to help flush the legs out a bit but ensuring the heart rate does not get too high (above Zone 2) and you aren’t using much resistance.
Week Two Post Marathon
If you dealt with injuries in the lead up to this race then it isn’t a bad idea to take a full 2 weeks off from running. Trust me, it’s okay. The benefits from reducing the training load and addressing your injury with your physical therapist will allow you to return back to running without that nagging injury for the next cycle/race.
Now, if you do want to return to running after those initial 7 days off, then you’ll want to start with easy miles only and low volume throughout the week. I typically recommend starting with 20-30 minutes every other day for the first week to see how the body is feeling and work back into the groove of things. This is where you can check in with yourself or your physical therapist and see if it is appropriate to start performing strength training once again. I usually recommend light exercises, mostly body weight and focusing on mobility or stability rather than strength since there are still high levels of muscular damage in your body.
14 days post-marathon would be the time to slowly build back to your normal running volume and start to sprinkle in a little bit of higher intensity. I usually recommend this in the form of strides 1-2 times over that week towards the end of your run.
For those not familiar, strides are 20-30 second intervals where you slowly build up to 5k pace, hold for 5-10 seconds, and then slowly back down to a jog. Kind of in the form of a bell curve. Strides are NOT SPRINTS and should be done at 5k pace and no faster with a full 30 second rest in between.
Getting Back To It (slowly)
After the third week post-marathon, you can slowly resume building up to your normal paces and perhaps doing more intense efforts (tempo, threshold, track, fartlek) based on your goals and the timeframe until your next race.
This is general guidance for those who have just completed a marathon and have no other upcoming races. This can be adjust based on those individuals doing more than one marathon in a training cycle but I still strongly recommend trying to have as much time in between marathons as possible for optimal performance and health.