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How to recover from running a marathon – experts give us their tips

Erewash-Half-MarathonErewash Half Marathon

So much is written about how to actually train for, and run, a marathon but on the flip side, there is little out there that shows you how to recover from running a marathon. This is where we come in. We spoke to a load of experts from around the fitness industry who have been there, done that, or at the very least “studied that” in order to deliver the perfect “how to recover from running a marathon” guide. It turns out is is more than just wrapping yourself in silver foil and wolfing down a Mars bar.

Dr Richard Allison, Nutritionist at Herbalife Nutrition and Head of Performance Nutrition at Tottenham Hotspur’s Women’s team.

Nutrition post-race – using a recovery shake as quick, nutritional insurance: You’re going to want a post-race snack, ideally with protein, carbohydrates, and fluid as a recovery aid. The muscles, particularly in your legs, will have gone through a lot.

Dr Allison

You’ve been probably running for somewhere between three to six  hours, so you need that protein to aid recovery and replenish the carbohydrate (glycogen) that you’ve used. Taking a recovery shake shortly after completing your run, will tick all of those boxes.  I would also recommend Omega 3’s post run, to help reduce some of the inflammation and muscle soreness. Carbohydrates, protein, fluid and omega three is a perfect post-run combination.

Warm down: It’s very tempting when you finish a marathon to fall on the floor or to take it easy. But taking the time to warm down is important. It’s going to save you in the days afterwards from a lot of muscle soreness in the legs”.

Lucy MacDonald, Director from Octopus Clinic has been a Chartered Physiotherapist for over 20 years.

MOVE: As tempting as it is to be sedentary in the days following the marathon it is important to keep moving. This is because when you move your circulation increases enabling healing components to reach damaged tissues and by-products to be carried away. Go for a little walk regularly throughout the day or, if you are stuck in an office, do exercises at your chair like going up and down on your tiptoes under the desk, standing up and sitting down repetitively, marching on the spot, and straightening and bending your knees under the desk. 

STRETCH: Stretching has not been shown to reduce injury risk but can be a good way to keep the body moving so, if you like to stretch, make sure it is pain-free but if you prefer to go for a walk or have a little dance, then do that instead.  

EAT: You need to provide your body with the building blocks to create new cells to replace the ones that have been damaged. This means eating foods that contain all the nutrients required for this process including vegetables and fruit, good fats, lean protein, and complex carbohydrates. Unfortunately eating processed foods and other foods that contain sugar and salt are going to work against your recovery.  

DRINK: There is a popular myth that drinking lots of water helps recovery. As long as you listen to your body and drink water when you feel thirsty you do not need to constantly be downing water. Fizzy drinks and alcohol will slow your recovery because of their sugar content and remember fruit juice has lots of sugar in it too so stick to water and herbal tea if you can. 

MASSAGE AND FOAM ROLLERS: Sports massage has been shown to help muscle recovery and foam rolling is thought to work in a similar way. The idea is that you compress and then release your muscles to improve circulation. For techniques for using a foam roller on your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calf muscles you can go to www.octopusclinic.com.  

SLEEP: This is the most important aspect of your post-marathon recovery. For a week following the marathon, you need to prioritize sleep. The best thing for a good night’s sleep is to have a bedtime routine that trains your brain that by the time you close your eyes it is time to sleep. Also don’t forget that even one glass of wine will reduce the quality of your sleep, keep tabs on your caffeine intake during the day and no screens for two hours before bed. 

PureGym Loughborough Personal Trainer and Running Coach Ian Scarrott

“Ideally, try to eat the equivalent calories you’ve burned on the day (as well as your daily maintenance kcals) on marathon day – but don’t panic if you can’t, fill your boots over the following couple of days!

ian scarrott PT PureGym
Ian Scarrott

Try eating something a little more salty or sweet, and post-marathon any food goes – just try to take on as much as possible. If you’re worried that you’re taking on too much, use MyFitnessPal to track your kcals. It may be a struggle, so little and often is likely the way forward. My favourite post-race meal which is calorie heavy and contains a mix of carbs and protein is pizza or something from the local Chinese restaurant! Rehydrate too.

Recovery is key, so ideally enjoy a full week off and maybe include a couple of walks and a bath or two to loosen up. If you’re chomping at the bit, you can try some very light cross-training 7-10 days post-marathon to loosen up. Begin with a very light bike or swim for 15-30 mins, and then move back to easy running when ready, thereafter build back in volume/intensity as appropriate.

Finally, consider a post-race sports massage the Friday after the marathon to help flush the legs out”.

James Kwok, Physio and OOFOS Ambassador

“The body’s two primary energy sources for physical activity are carbohydrates and fat. Given the chance, it will burn the former option first. In order to start the race with optimal carbohydrate stores (glycogen), have a carbohydrate-rich diet 32-48 hours leading up to the race – also known as carb-loading.

James Kwok
James Kwok

After the race, these depleted glycogen stores need to be topped up. In addition to that, consuming high-quality protein is also recommended to repair damaged muscle tissues. The body’s ability to refuel usually is at its peak within 30-60 mins post-race.

Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) will develop within 12 hours post-marathon and can last for 5-10 days. You will feel aches from muscles you didn’t even know existed! Although it may feel like the last thing you want to do, try not to stay in bed or sit around for too long. Go for short 10-15 minute walks, bike rides or swim to improve blood circulation to tired muscles and joints. As you feel better, you may begin doing some easy jogs with walking intervals.

A recovery tool I have recently introduced post-training is sports recovery footwear by OOFOS. They have been proven to reduce compressive forces in the knees while also reducing energy exertion in the ankles by up to 20%”.

Andy Blow, leading sports scientist, former elite endurance athlete and CEO and co-founder of multinational sports nutrition brand Precision Fuel and Hydration

“During a marathon, you’ll lose fluid and sodium through sweating. The exact amounts vary considerably from person to person – and will depend on the variables such as conditions, but replacement of both fluid and sodium is required to restore fluid balance after exercise. With recovery and hydration, it largely comes back to timing.

Andy Blow

When you need to restore fluid balance rapidly, we recommend drinking 1 x PH 1500 mixed with 500ml (16oz) of water in the first few hours after completing a marathon if you’re aiming to perform again soon after.

Research also showed sodium-filled drinks enable better rehydration as it allows your body to hold onto more fluid. This prevents blood sodium levels from dropping too low, which prevents the kidneys from excessively ramping up urine production, which negates the effects of replenishing fluid. Many recovery methods – massage and compression garments to name a few – aid recovery by increasing blood flow”.

Andy Barr
the authorAndy Barr
Editorial Lead
Andy was late arriving into the world of fitness, running and training. He did not really take up regular gym going until he was in his late 30's. He lost over 7 stone in weight since starting and completed an olympic length triathlon in June 2018. He enjoys playing football, boxing and outdoor running.

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