Payback Time: A two-week, scientific plan to optimize recovery after your marathon

By Greg McMillan, M.S.

As featured in the December 2007 issue of Running Times Magazine

It's at this time of the year that marathon recovery, not marathon training, takes center stage. The best recovery is one that optimizes your musculoskeletal recovery yet also maintains your conditioning. You've built superior fitness before the marathon and you don't want to lose all of it and then have to start from scratch.

Research indicates that the muscle damage from running a marathon can last up to two weeks. The research also indicates that soreness (or the lack thereof) is not a good indicator of muscular healing. In other words, just because you aren't sore anymore doesn't mean that you are fully healed. This is the danger for marathon runners: Post-marathon muscular soreness fades after a few days but submicroscopic damage within the muscle cells remains. If you return to full training too soon--running more and faster than the tissues are ready for--you risk delaying full recovery and the chance to get ready for your next goal.

The solution, it appears, is to recognize (and accept) that the muscles will take a while to heal and to be prepared to take it easy for the first couple of weeks (even longer if you're particularly sore after your marathon). While the research isn't very promising when it comes to things to do to relieve soreness and aid healing, a couple of concepts appear to help. First, providing gentle blood flow to the area helps bring healing nutrients into the muscles and also helps to remove waste products and damaged tissue. Walking and gentle massage can help, particularly in the first few days after a marathon. Once muscle soreness has significantly reduced (usually two to four days after the race), light jogging can commence. The recovery program above forces a runner to let muscles fully heal but also provides some light jogging to aid blood flow and "feed the need" that we all have for our daily runs. Just be mindful to run very slowly.

No runner wants to get super fit and then lose that during the recovery process. But since you must reduce your training load following your marathon, it can be tricky as to how much and how soon to insert running into your post-marathon training.

The bad news is that no matter what you do, you will lose race sharpness. But that's OK because your next big race is probably several months away. The good news is that most research indicates that as long as there is an aerobic stimulus once every two to three days, aerobic fitness will be maintained. In this recovery plan, you run at least once every other day (except for the first two days after the marathon) to minimize any loss of base fitness.

Many runners liken recovery training to a "reverse taper" without the fast workouts. Easy running is gradually increased over the weeks post-race. By the fourth week, your normal level of training is approached.

Recovery time is also the best chance to pay back your support system for the help provided during your build-up to and participation in the marathon. Use this time to help others with goals, whether running-related or not, and spend more time with family and friends.

Also use this opportunity to celebrate your success and recharge your systems. Determine what went right in training and in the race and what you would fix. If done correctly, you can come out of this period fully healed and ready to take your marathon fitness into the next training phase.
 
Optimal Marathon Recovery Program

Day: 0
Run: MARATHON
Notes: Congratulations!

Day: 1
Run: OFF
Notes: Can include gentle walking for 15 to 20 minutes. Eat well and stay hydrated to facilitate recovery. Ice baths are favored by many runners.

Day: 2
Run: OFF
Notes: Can include gentle walking for 15 to 20 minutes.

Day:  3
Run: 20 Mins Very Slow + Easy
Notes: The first run back is often very awkward so go slow and run on flat terrain.

Day: 4
Run: OFF
Notes: Don't forget to enjoy the accomplishment of your marathon.

Day: 5
Run: 20 Mins Very Slow + Easy
Notes: Muscle soreness should be subsiding

Day 6:OFF

Day: 7
Run: 30 Mins Very Slow + Easy
Notes: You may not feel like a runner but you are laying the groundwork for your next training cycle.

Day: 8
Run: 20 Mins Very Slow and Easy
Notes: The first back to back running day provides insight into how the recovery is going.

Day 9
Run: OFF

Day: 10
Run: 30 Mins Easy
Notes: The muscle soreness should be gone and you are finding your stride again.

Day: 11
Run: 30 to 45 Mins Easy
Notes: Depending on how your body feels, you should notice the     pace increasing and your body returning to its running rhythm.

Day: 12
Run: OFF

Day: 13
Run: 45 to 60 Mins Easy

Day: 14
Run: 30 to 45 Mins Easy
Easy: You should now start to feel like a runner again, just not a runner ready to race. Over the next two weeks, gradually increase your volume toward your normal training level.

 

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The information contained in the preceding story may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority of McMillan Running Company, Inc.
© 1999-2014 Greg McMillan

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