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10 Ways To Recover From a Marathon

BY CARRIE MACMILLAN November 4, 2022

Sports medicine experts share advice on how to recover and avoid injury after the big race.

Marathon runners know the importance of a solid training plan, one marked with a steady buildup in distance and key periods of rest that take them to their goal of covering 26.2 miles. 

But not all runners know how to properly recover from this event, which is so physically and mentally challenging. While there are countless 12- and 16-week marathon training plans that runners can find online, in books, or from a personal coach, it’s hard to locate the same level of detailed outline for what to do in the days and weeks after the big event. 

Whether you've caught the running bug while training for your first marathon and plan to do another, or you’re a veteran who hopes to keep running for decades, it’s important to know some steps you can take post-race to recover properly and avoid injury

Even in the most well-trained runners, there is a trauma that happens to the body when you run for such a long distance, says Elizabeth Gardner, MD, a Yale Medicine orthopaedic sports surgeon. 

“There are many muscle breakdown byproducts in the blood that will certainly be elevated for at least a week and may still be higher than normal up to four weeks after an event like a marathon,” she says. “That’s a reason to take it easy. You want to flush all the chemical effects of that long race out of your body. That includes lactic acid, creatine kinase, and other things that are elevated after a marathon.” 

Put simply, your body is “out of whack” after a marathon, Dr. Gardner adds. 

“It’s compromised and needs time to get over that trauma. As your body is flushing these enzymes out, your muscles aren’t working as well as they normally would, and you therefore can’t recover from workouts as quickly, which puts you at risk for injury,” she says. 

We talked more with Dr. Gardner and her colleagues, who shared 10 tips on how to avoid injury in the days and weeks following a marathon. 

1. Refuel in the immediate aftermath.

Right after the race, it’s crucial that you begin to recover and restore “pretty much everything,” Dr. Gardner explains.

“First, there’s hydration, but you don’t fix that by drinking a gallon of water at the finish line. This is a continuous process over at least the next several days,” she says. “You also want to make sure you get a healthy mix of carbohydrates and protein as you will need both to repair your muscles.” 

Again, this isn’t just about the post-race celebration meal but something to keep in mind throughout the next few weeks, if not always, says Leigh Hanke, MD, MS, a Yale Medicine specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation (physiatry).

“After any big sporting activity, you need to replenish nutrients and hydrate properly. Pay attention to the fuel you put in your body,” she says. “Don’t be scared if you put on a little extra weight after a race. Concentrate on a well-balanced diet, which includes eating a ‘rainbow’ of foods with different colors, including fruits, vegetables, and carbs.”  

2. Take a break from running.

Some marathoners might feel like their bodies have been hit by a truck and aren’t interested in lacing up their sneakers any time soon, but others are creatures of habit who can’t wait to get back out there. 

Either way, many experts advise taking five to seven days off from running after the race. 

"A highly trained marathon runner may not need to take such a measured approach—even though it never hurts to be extra cautious," Dr. Hanke says. "But the average recreational runner should avoid high-impact and weight-bearing activities for about a week." 

Swimming is one option, Dr. Gardner adds. “There’s no impact because you are floating,” she says. “But you are contracting your muscles, which helps blood to circulate. Biking is another good activity.” 

3. Wait on the massage.

There's nothing like a good sports massage to ease tired muscles, but it might be best to wait a couple of days after the marathon, Dr. Gardner advises. 

"You want to get maximum benefit and not create more muscle damage," she says. 

Some marathon events, however, may offer gentle massages or stretching exercises from physical therapists after the race, and those may be beneficial.  

4. Don’t just sit on the couch.

While it’s important to let your body recover, you shouldn't simply lounge on the couch for days on end. 

“Doing absolutely nothing after a marathon isn’t the answer either,” Dr. Hanke says. “It’s a good idea to rest but also to do some low-impact cross-training. That could be an elliptical machine, a bike, swimming, stretching, or yoga. The idea is to find something that isn’t impacting your joints. When you run, your body weight rests entirely on your legs, which puts a lot of stress on your body.” 

5. Reintroduce running gradually.

When you start running again after five to seven days off, consider making the first three runs super easy and short, Dr. Gardner explains. If all goes well, the next three can be a little more intense.

“This is in service of getting your joints moving. Later in the week, you can take stock and see how you feel. There isn’t some formulaic plan. If the marathon took a great toll on your body, you need to pay attention to that and not rush to do too much,” she says.  

6. Don’t take up something new.

The weeks immediately after a marathon are not the time to start experimenting with an entirely new type of workout, says Samantha Smith, MD, a Yale Medicine primary care and sports medicine specialist. 

“Even if you feel you are at your peak fitness level, it does not translate to the same level of fitness in a different activity,” she says. “You want to build up gradually to any new exercise, just as you did with the marathon plan.” 

7. Return to strength training carefully.

If some gentle workouts go well in the first week or two after your race, you can consider adding in some weight lifting—but keep the weights light and do stationary lifts, Dr. Gardner advises.  

“This is about getting the muscles moving without impact and without serious cardiovascular work,” she says. 

8. Listen to your body.

If you can push through the pain of running 26.2 miles, chances are you can get through a tough workout. However, it’s important to listen to your body and make adaptations during the post-marathon time frame, the doctors say.

“If you do a workout after the race and it takes you a few extra days to recover from it, it’s a sign your body isn’t ready, and you need to back off,” Dr. Gardner says. “Give yourself that grace to take a break.” 

Dr. Hanke agrees. “The athlete’s mentality is often ‘no pain, no gain,’ and it can sometimes be difficult to determine what your body needs to recover,” she says. “Most of us are not meant to run 26 miles, so you need to assess what hurts and be mindful of those aches and pains you may have ignored during your training.”

9. Remember to sleep.

Take advantage of the fact that you no longer have to wake up early or stay up late to squeeze in marathon training sessions. Instead, use that time to get some extra sleep, the doctors say.

“You need to make sure sleep is one of your recovery tools. Deep sleep is when growth hormones are released, and muscle growth and repair are stimulated,” Dr. Gardner says. “It’s not an indulgence but a necessary building block to your workouts and recovery.” 

10. Accept post-race ‘blues’ and plan ahead.

Whether you achieved a personal best (even if that meant simply finishing the race) or crossed the finish line with a time you found disappointing, some marathoners experience a post-race letdown. After months of intense training and structure all leading up to one big day, it can be difficult to know where to channel your energy. 

“One approach would be to focus on your recovery as part of your marathon plan. The marathon doesn’t have to be the endpoint. You can think about what’s next and work toward it slowly while focusing on a healthy recovery,” Dr. Smith says. 

And that next thing doesn’t have to involve running, Dr. Gardner adds. “There are physical, emotional, and psychological aspects of running, and there can be a challenge in figuring out what to do after a marathon,” she says. “Think of some fun things you now have time to do because you aren’t running five days a week. Find something else to look forward to.” 

It’s also OK to rest on your laurels, Dr. Hanke adds. 

“You accomplished something big. Take time to enjoy it. As hard as it might be to give your body a chance to rest, you need it,” she says.