For most the busy marathon period is over. If you’ve tackled the 26.2 mile distance the few weeks post race are a critical time to recover and reset.

Whether driven by elation at a PB achieved or a goal met or disappointment at a race that didn’t go to plan it can be tempting to jump straight back into training and competition. An element of compulsion plays a role in most of our training, but in this delicate time it can be your undoing if you’re not careful!

The Impact

Esther Goldsmith, sports physiologist with Orreco and St Mary’s University explains that a hard marathon has a big physical toll – “our muscles have been working constantly for a long period of time, using up and building up an oxygen debt, which needs to be ‘repaid’. Inflammation levels will be increased and this inflammation must be reduced. Losses of electrolytes and water through sweating can cause an imbalance in fluid levels and pressure, so your body has to work hard to ameliorate these.”

“As the body tries to repair itself and re-obtain homeostasis, more energy must be used, further depleting glycogen stores. Marathons also stress your digestive systems, adrenal systems, and bones. This causes disruptions in digestion, alterations in hormone concentrations (particularly a raised cortisol level), and induces the breakdown of bone.”

Goldsmith also goes on to explain why its common to feel flat even after your muscles have recovered “the central nervous system is also under a lot of strain and this takes longer to return to normal than the rest of your body. This partly explains why, if you return too soon, your legs feel fine to run but the rest of you struggles.”

The impact of the marathon isn’t only felt in our muscles “you will likely have spent a long time focused on that specific date, been concentrating on your training and even if it all went perfectly to plan we can feel quite deflated and a little lost once it is all over. It happens so much it has a name: Post race blues” says Sport psychologist Dr Josephine Perry “expecting this and putting some plans in place will help us adjust better to the sudden change in focus”.

Your Best Recovery

So what can we do to recover? How can we get back into our next training cycle stronger and faster? Hayley Munn, coach and 2:37 marathoner states “the body and mind need time to recover in order to build to a higher level in the next training block.” “Failure to recover sufficiently from the marathon leads to burnout over time”. Here are a few tips to consider:

  1. Take some time: Munn says “I leave it two – three weeks before getting back into too much running as this is how long the muscles need to repair fully. The mind also needs a break from pushing hard”. Consider sticking to a period of easy and steady running or cross training as you refine your running legs and motivation

2. Mix it up: Cross training can be a perfect transition back to regular running. Munn says “I like to do alternative sports to maintain fitness. I love long walks but once a little recovered, think that non-running challenges like climbing mountains or cycling are great”. Easy bike, swimming aqua-jogging, elliptical and row sessions also give you a great cardiovascular stimulus whilst still allowing your muscles the break they need.

3. Shake off the blues: “Celebrate your success” says sports psychologist Josephine Perry “Even if the race didn’t go to plan then some time analysing the period building up to the marathon will offer some elements of success to celebrate. The analysis can help you recognise what you learnt from the process, reflecting on what has gone well and how to continue doing that, rather than getting caught up in our negativity bias of focusing on what went wrong.”

4. Get productive: Having a bit of extra time can allow you to set a new routine “many runners end up neglecting the ‘little things’ when caught up in marathon training” says UK Trail Running Champion and sports therapist Georgia Wood “as you start to feel more recovered perhaps it’s time to implement that regular S&C you’ve been meaning to start, focus on ironing out mechanical weaknesses or restarting the stretching routine you’ve neglected.” 

5. Track it: ” You can track your resting heart rate every morning. It may be higher for the first few days post-marathon, but as you recover, should return to what normal is for you” says Goldsmith “you also use a heart rate monitor in your first runs back to see whether the intensity is the zone that it would normally be in.”

6. Get to bed: “Sleep is so important for recovery” says Goldsmith “but if you’re not refuelling adequately post-marathon, sleep can be disrupted”. Stay off your smart phone in that final 60-90 minutes before bed and keep clear of caffeine late at night. Sports therapist, Georgia Wood, also suggests keeping a lid on the post marathon celebrations “a few drinks to celebrate is great, but alcohol will definitely limit your ability to recover quickly….so keep it in moderation.”

7. Take the pressure off: Jumping straight back into heavily structured and measurable sessions can be an unnecessary stress. Consider converting your sessions to time instead of distance, running them on mixed surfaces and including more loosely structured fartlek sessions until you start to find your legs again.

Getting back on track

The focus then shifts on channelling the fitness and mental energy from your marathon into further progression. Munn states “setting new goals is vital to stay motivated and on track with the training. It helps to focus the mind and to stay grounded irrespective of the result of the recent race.

Taking time is key though Josephine Perry highlights “we don’t want to immediately cross the line and start setting our next goal. We will set a better goal if we give ourselves time to reflect and analyse. Picking a goal which feels like the next stage of your journey helps you see the benefits of the marathon you have just done. Will you now go longer, or faster, or to try a variation of road running like a triathlon, cross country or some track events? It needs to get you excited, be realistic but also be a stretch so you don’t rest on your laurels.”

Perhaps it’s stepping back into speed and racing on the track, or getting faster for 5-10km on the road, for some it might be racing over different surfaces or tackling a longer ultra distance challenge. Check out our article on effective goal setting to get as specific as possible.

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