So we’ve all been there…just run a marathon, sore for a couple of days but then the nagging in the back of our head, ‘You will lose fitness’, ‘You will put on weight’, so you put on your trainers after just a few days rest, and it feels OK… but then. Two weeks later you feel awful, you get ill and running feels very, very hard. So how should you recover from a long distance event, including ultras and long distance triathlons ‘ironman’. The best recovery is one that optimizes your musculoskeletal recovery yet also maintains your conditioning. Yes, we know you 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, or completing a long distance triathlon can last up to two weeks. The research also indicates that soreness (or lack of soreness) is not a good indicator of muscular healing. This is the danger zone for marathon runners: Post-marathon muscular soreness fades after a few days but sub-microscopic damage within the muscle cells remains. If you return to full training too soon, you risk delaying full recovery, risk injury / illness and the chance to get ready for your next goal.
So what is the solution? Recognize that the muscles will take a while to heal and be prepared to take it easy for the first couple of weeks. A couple of steps do help with recovery: First, nutrition, get that pint of milk or protein recovery shake in within 20 minutes, followed by a cold bath, warm shower and good meal with carbs and protein; Second, provide 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, or myofascial release with a roller, can help, particularly in the first few days after a marathon. Once muscle soreness has significantly reduced (up to 7 days after the race), light cross training can commence. Following this recovery period some light running can be introduced, but not hard efforts.
The bad news is that no matter what you do, you will lose race sharpness, but what you gain in return is mind sharpness and the ‘hunger’ to train. Losing some peak fitness is fine as your next big race is probably several months away. Aerobic fitness and endurance is not lost with two weeks recovery, just some speed. Another way to look at your recovery is 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.
Also use this opportunity to celebrate your success and recharge your systems, eat cake, socialise, walk with family and friends, play football with the kids, catch up with housework, do all those jobs you put off! Analyse your training, chat with your coach, determine how you can learn from your experience. If you recover properly, you can come back to training fully healed, mentally refreshed and ready to take your endurance fitness into the next training phase and next big goal.