Marathon Recovery Plans: Running vs. No Running

Ice Bath
The Ice Bath Awaits! (Photo credit: JillOW)

Two weeks ago I completed the Seattle Marathon – and the race was tough. It was mostly uphill and cold so my quads and hamstrings were shredded by the time I finished (or by mile 18). Unlike past marathons, when the soreness really kicked in 24-48 hours post race, I was pretty beat up the rest of the day Sunday and had to stick to flats for Monday and Tuesday because my legs were so sore.

I know, I know. I just ran a marathon.  Why worry about running at all?  Why not just take a week off, relax and enjoy being a lump on the couch?

In my experience, it is critically important to get moving after the marathon; if I don’t, the soreness settles. Moving around speeds blood to the affected tissues, helping to speed recovery. For a normal marathon (i.e. Salt Lake City, run this summer), I follow a post-marathon recovery plan that incorporates running.

My SLC plan looked like this:
Race Day, ice bath after + 2 miles walking that night (key to recovery)
Day One: 3 miles, easy running
Day Two: 4 miles, walking (day two is often the most painful day because of DOMS)
Day Three: 4 miles, easy running
Day Four: 4 miles, walking or cross-training
Day Five: 4 miles, easy running
Day Six: Cross training
Day Seven: 6 miles, easy

A rule of thumb I’ve heard and use is to take a day of easy running for every mile in the race.  Usually I just take that to mean no speed or hill training and no runs over 12 miles. I also incorporate yoga, massage and protein-rich meals into my daily routine.

 

My method has always worked well for me before, but this time, since my legs were so shredded after the monster hills, I decided to follow a non-running post-marathon routine. I still did the ice bath and walking post-marathon, but my workouts have been low-impact and incorporated my arms and core. Last week’s recovery workouts have looked like this;

Race Day
Day One: 60 minutes, elliptical
Day Two: 60 minutes, elliptical (different one, to work different muscles) + 20 minutes rowing
Day Three: 60 minutes, stairs
Day Four: Barbell strength group fitness class (low weights)
Day Five: 60 minutes, elliptical
Day Six: Cycle group fitness class + hot yoga

My legs felt 100% better, but the next week I ran a lot less and incorporated hot yoga to maximize recovery. My goal is to build my core and arm strength in time to start training again in January.  From this experience, I think a no-running recovery plan is a great plan if you have a really tough race or just need to take a break.

 

No matter what your philosophy, post-marathon recovery should incorporate the following:

1. Ice (or contrast therapy, which alternating cold and heat)
2. Stretching (yoga)
3. Massage, including self-massage (foam rolling counts)
4. Easy workouts starting the day after race day
5. Protein-rich diet to aid recovery

And REST! As Mint said in What To Expect When Your Marathon Is Over it’s time to regroup, reflect, and make new goals!

What is your post-race recovery plan? Are you for running right away or for taking time off?

Ultrarunner, adventurer, academic, and feminist. Running Across the USA in 2021. I write about ultrarunning, adventuring, and the intersection of endurance athletics and life.

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7 comments

  1. This is a very interesting approach to post-marathon recovery. I don’t think I can sign on to it, though. I have to say I’m not a fan of working out the week after a marathon, unless you’re an ultra runner or planning to run back-to-back races or something. I think it does way more harm than good. I think this is especially true when you feel beat up by the race. I think it’s your body telling you it NEEDS a break. Not only does the race beat you up, but the weeks of hard training leading up to the race really take a toll and until you truly allow your body to recover you’re risking injury, burnout and overtraining by training through this necessary recovery time. On top of that, after a week+ of solid recovery you might find you get a huge fitness bounce. Adequate recovery is necessary, albeit hard to do sometimes, to make those big gains in fitness.

    Of course, we’re all different and some of us can get away with doing more after our marathons than others. I hope your plan works well for you! I personally think it’s a bit aggressive for most people, though.

  2. I absolutely think working out after a marathon is key to recovery. You have to break up the lactic acid that’s built up in your muscles it’s going to take longer to recover. You’re week should definitely be super easy and maybe include more time on the bike then on your feet, but moving after races is a must for me

  3. I am generally with Salty (take the first week off completely), but I also think it depends on how hard you race and no doubt how young you are. Like you, I was fine after my first couple of marathons and was not sore until the next 2 days. Now, if I race hard, I can barely walk after I cross the finish line and generally remain very sore for the next 2-3 days. If you are in the latter camp, it is not a good idea to get back to running too quickly. If you are in the former camp, maybe it isn’t as risky.

    On another note, I always find that I am WAY more mentally motivated after a successful marathon than I am physically. In my mind, I want to get back out there and race soon. But my legs always inevitably protest that effort. 🙂

  4. I think a huge part is level of experience, but for this past year, I’ve noticed I recover more quickly when I’m active immediately following the race. I bounce back so easily if I go to work the next day and walk around for eight hours or take a long walk rather than sitting on my butt.

    1. Agreed. Active recovery, such as walking, swimming and stretching are key from the moment you cross the finish line. What I questioned personally was such a quick comeback to active training. I know some can definitely pull it off. But being an *almost* masters runner, I can’t.

      That said, I certainly don’t advocate for anyone to be sedentary the week after a marathon (or ever really if they can help it).