4 Ways to Recover after a Marathon
There's no way around it—completing a marathon is tough. Professional runners and newbies scraping through their first 26.2 miles are guaranteed dead legs, aching joints, and lifeless muscles for what seems like weeks.
That’s because the stress of running a marathon causes significant damage to your muscles, and in response to this your body releases a surge of inflammatory agents in your blood. A recent study from Appalachian State University monitored the level of muscular soreness in 48 marathon runners. In each person, the researchers observed a massive spike in 11 markers of muscular damage and inflammation, including creatine kinase and myoglobin, which are basically broken-up bits of muscle fibers. This obviously was accompanied by a big increase in soreness following the marathon, as well as decreased leg strength.
Fortunately, there are strategies to help the weary runner speed up recovery and not wince at the sight of each impending staircase. Once you've crossed the finish line and reveled in your accomplishment, try these recovery methods to get back out on the road sooner rather than later.
After a marathon, your muscles are damaged, your body is dehydrated, and your energy stores are depleted. Michael Saunders, the director of James Madison University's Human Performance Laboratory, recommends refueling with a liquid mixture of carbohydrates and protein following a taxing effort like a marathon.
He’s found that a carbohydrate and protein mix drink can significantly help athletes after heavy exercise, keeping markers of muscular damage, like creatine kinase, in check. Though more research is needed, successful studies have used drinks or foods with around 20 percent protein and 80 percent carbs. For example, a 2012 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that fat-free chocolate milk—about 25 percent protein and 75 percent carbs—boosted muscular protein uptake and repair following a 45-minute run at a moderate pace.
Do This: The best time to refuel is 10 to 15 minutes after you finish, and some easy options are pre-mixed formulas like Endurox, Gatorade Recover, chocolate milk, or a protein shake.
Looking for an easy recovery tool? Then be like finishers of the Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, who wade into the chilly waters of Lake Superior following their run.
It’s not as crazy as it sounds. In a recent review, researchers looked at ice bathing after a strenuous workout and concluded that it can be effective for reducing muscle soreness after exercise. (It was especially true in studies involving runners.) The cold temperature tamps down inflammation and helps flush out waste from your muscles.
Another increasingly popular way to boost recovery for runners is by wearing compression gear. A new study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that donning a pair of full-length compression tights for 72 hours after finishing a marathon significantly decreased how sore your muscles feel, though it had no actual impact on the biological markers of inflammation and muscle damage.
Do This: Just pick up a 20-pound bag of ice on your way home or to your hotel, then dump it in the bathtub along with cold water and soothe your legs for just 15 minutes. The research on compression gear is mixed, but if it gives you the mental benefit of feeling better, then you can try a pair from companies like CW-X or 2XU.
There’s nothing better than a marathon that offers a free massage directly after the race. But if that’s not available, you can always go with the old standby—the foam roller.
Like compression gear, massage and foam rolling both have a few small studies supporting their use in decreasing muscle soreness and damage after a strenuous workout. One 2012 study found that post-exercise massage produced minor reductions in a few markers of inflammation, and a recent study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that foam rolling reduced soreness and improved muscular strength in the days following a tiring set of squat exercises.
Do This: It’s worth having a roller around in the weeks after your marathon to help out with your flexibility and mobility. Check out these foam roller moves from musclemorphosis.com.
Take it easy for the first few days—there's no need to return to running or do any strenuous exercise.
Do This: Start cross training three to four days after the marathon to get some blood flowing back into your muscles. Try jumping on a bike or in the pool. If you're feeling good one week after your marathon, do some normal runs every couple days. After another week, transition back into your regualr running schedule, but don't plan any races or push your mileage too high for at least another month.
John Davis is a writer, high school coach, and head of running research at musclemorphosis.com.