Marathon Recovery: Plan Your Recovery Before You Finish The Race

Paul trained for his first marathon.  He was smart about it going first to his doctor for a physical then having his feet and shoes checked in my office.  His training program included strength training, flexibility, and running.  Paul said the race was hard on his body, but he was happy to have finished.  About 3 weeks later I saw Paul again.  This time he was a wreck.  He was in pain from his low back to his toes.  Paul hadn’t been sleeping well and was just not as happy as he expected to be after completing his first marathon.

I asked about his recovery from the race.  I heard about the celebration that night soaking in a hot tub with friends drinking and eating whatever was there.  His wife had scheduled him for a massage the day after the race.  Paul said it hurt more than it felt good and had no lasting effect.  Stretching was impossible because of the pain and stiffness.  The tight muscles made it nearly impossible to run the few times he had tried.  When I asked if he was following any schedule or program he reminded me of his pre-race training program, but had nothing to follow for recovery.  Do you know what Paul did wrong?

What you do immediately after the race is as important as what you did to get there.  You know that running 26 miles is serious business, that’s why you were so careful in your training program.  After the race you will be exhausted mentally and physically.  Your recovery plan has to be set before you race so you won’t have to think about it.  Your muscles have worked hard for 26 miles and all nutrients in your body have been used.  When your body works hard for a long time you get inflammation.  Treat your body right and this will go away quickly so you’ll be running again in no time.  Ignore the inflammation and you’ll suffer.  I’m sure you’ve heard stories about people who ran a marathon and were never able to run again.  If you ask them about their post-race recovery I bet you’ll get a blank stare.


As soon as you finish the race:

You’re exhausted and legs feel weak, but this is the time you need to keep walking.  Don’t stop and get a chair massage, don’t chat at the booths.  Get your packet, medal, snack pack, and drink water as you walk around.  Make a mental note of what hurts.  I don’t mean big areas like your entire leg.  I mean specific areas like your calf muscle, front of your thigh, back of the thigh, front of your leg, arch, heel, toe.  Pay attention to any pains so that you can address these after a thorough cool down.

Your kidneys have been fighting to balance your hydration and electrolytes.  All the waist products coming from all that muscle action of running 26 miles is filtered by your kidneys.  They have worked overtime and need to recover.  Anti-inflammatory medications stress your kidney more.  This is not the time to take anti-inflammatory medications like Ibuprofen or Naproxen.  Refuel by drinking water, electrolyte drinks are OK, but water has to continue even if you’re drinking electrolytes.  Eat like you did while you were training.  Protein helps repair muscles and carbohydrates help with fuel.

I don’t know how to describe it, but there’s an excited feeling in your legs, some people tell me a throbbing, others say it’s like their legs are just revved up.  Don’t stretch until that feeling in your legs goes away.  You can ice the sore spots and gently stretch.  When you get home take a cool bath.  Use a foam roller or gently massage sore muscles.  If possible schedule a massage in the evening, at least 4 hours after the race.

Things to avoid:

  1. Sitting for more than 10-20 minutes
  2. Soaking in warm water or hot tub
  3. Sauna
  4. Anti-inflammatory medications

The first week:

Inflammation can last 24-72 hours.  You will have to pay close attention to your body. If you treat the inflammation right you’ll be running again after a few days.  Ignore the inflammation and it can become a repeating cycle that is difficult to break even with my treatment.  Have more massages, practice yoga, swim or bike.  Don’t be aggressive, your goal is to stay loose.

If you have no aches and pains by day 3 you can begin gentle-paced, low mileage runs.  Do not exceed the mileage you did the week before the marathon.  Begin every three days with light resistance training on off days.  Any aches and pains need to be addressed.  Don’t wait to see me for any pains that remain.  The sooner these are addressed the easier they are to treat.

The 2nd week and forward:

If you’ve made it this far without needing me you’re doing well.  Gradually increase run frequency and distance back to your training levels as tolerated.  You might find that you are more easily fatigued, but that is normal for the first month.  Anything more than that and you should seek medical attention.  Don’t forget to have your running shoes checked.  During this return to training period you will need to have new shoes.  At Desert Foot Surgeons we offer video gait analysis to see what the naked eye cannot.  Come have your gait analyzed in or out of shoes.

Congratulations, you did it!!

A note from Dr. GellerI know what you’re thinking;  Hey doc, you don’t say much about what you do during this recovery.  That’s because recovering from a marathon is all about you.  I’m very happy and proud that you were able to complete a marathon especially if I could help in the beginning.  I hope you don’t need me for this, but if you do, I’ll be there.
You did great!
Dr. Geller