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Marathon Recovery: How to Get Back to Your Best After 26.2

You’ve put in the hours and passed up on the social plans. Marathon day is finally here, and you’ve earned a lifetime of pride after making your way through those gruelling 26.2 miles.

But your journey doesn’t stop here. Post-marathon recovery is an essential part of the process – and can also be part of the fun!

In post-recovery and looking for your next marathon moment? Check out the best UK marathons out there and book your next one today.

What happens to your body after a marathon?

Whether you’re fit as a fiddle or a long-distance novice, marathon running puts an incredible strain on your body. First, your glycogen stores will be low, having put your muscles through their paces. The muscles themselves have also taken a hammering, as well as your tendons, ligaments and bones. 

You may even find you’re shorter than when you started! Spinal compression makes us lose up to 1.25cm in height. You’ll likely be dehydrated too, and have lost up to 5kg in fluid. The physical toll may cause hormonal imbalances, leading to a weakened immune system.

After such a wild ride, proper marathon recovery is essential. From muscle repair to a better immune response, you need the right balance of rest and nutrition.

What should runners do after finishing a marathon?

Recovery after marathons starts from the minute you cross the finish line. Scary as it might sound, keep moving – static stretching could make muscle damage worse. Walk calmly through to the post-race area and treat yourself to a carb-rich snack.

Try a 90-minute nap to encourage muscle repair through REM sleep. Save the post-run pints for a few days afterwards. Your body will already be dehydrated and susceptible to colds.

For the following few days, try low-impact exercise such as swimming. Keeping moderately active (not running) can help to increase strength. By day 4, you’ll be ready for a post-run massage

Within a week, you might want to try a light recovery run after a marathon – but listen to your body! Never run through the pain.

How much time should I take off after running a marathon?

Everybody’s marathon recovery time is different. It depends on your fitness, strength and experience – plus how much training you’ve gone through beforehand.

You may have heard the theory that you need 26 days for 26 miles. Some even recommend 42 days for 42km! If you’re fit and active, you’ll probably need far less time before you start feeling back to your old self. But the right marathon recovery plan will help.

Both studies and anecdotal evidence tell us that people start to feel better after around seven days. Here are ways you can speed up your post-marathon recovery:

Monitor your fluid intake

Keep an eye on your urine to make sure you’re not dehydrated. Ideally, you’re aiming for a light yellow, straw colour. If it’s consistently dark, you may need to up your fluids.

Maintain blood flow

Healthy blood flow is an essential part of your post-marathon recovery plan. This encourages healing by transporting oxygen, proteins and potassium around the body. Light exercise such as yoga and swimming will help, as well as warm baths and massages from day 4 onwards.

Refuel appropriately

The one time when it might be advisable to eat pizza is after a marathon! Your body will not only have lost water, but vital electrolytes. Replenishing your salts is as important as replenishing your carbohydrate stores. 

Of course, this isn’t a free pass for junk food forever. In the days afterwards, go for protein-rich foods and try anti-inflammatories such as berries, nuts and fish.

How to prioritise rest and recovery

The best recovery for runners involves a whole lot of sleep. Aim for eight hours each night, and wind yourself down a few hours before. Banish the blue lights and put yourself into a relaxed state – no devices in the bedroom!

For active marathon recovery, try a restorative walk in the woods. If you’re short on time, work it into social plans with friends or during a lunch break. Change up your gym routine in response to your body: weeks 1 and 2 should be stretching and low-impact exercise, while you can resume weightlifting from week 2.

Our bodies can take up to a month to heal completely from the stress of a marathon, so hold off on the harder training runs until then.

I feel fine after running a marathon. Do I really need a recovery break?

Even seasoned marathon runners need a post-marathon recovery plan. You may be itching to pound the pavement again, but your body is still undergoing stress, even if you don’t feel it. Scratch your exercise itch with low-impact activities and take this time to sleep.

Hang your medal up with pride and start thinking about your next goal. You will run again, but you do need a break – you deserve it!

Share the excitement!

York-based Katie grew up on fun runs and egg-and-spoon races. It wasn’t until age 27 that she decided to give herself the ultimate challenge: a marathon. After swearing never to do one again, she is now training for her sixth, having raced in York, Richmond and London. When she’s not running, you’ll find her jumping out of planes and seeking similar adrenaline kicks.

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