Marathon Recovery

Marathon Recovery

Marathon Recovery

by Pete Pfitzinger

Marathon Recovery

Part 1: Your Best Strategies to Minimize Injury and Down-time

After running a marathon, there are basically three options. You can: 1) vow never to run again; 2) take some time off and then gradually get back into training; or 3) jump into full training as quickly as possible. Option 1 is not recommended. Option 3 should be chosen with caution. Option 2 is almost always the wisest choice. This month I will present recommendations for physical recovery from the marathon; next month I will suggest workouts to regain fitness and motivation.

Your best strategy for future success after a marathon is to take a well-deserved break. Allow yourself at least three days completely off from running. There is little to gain by rushing back into training, and your risk of injury is exceptionally high after the marathon, owing to the reduced resiliency of your muscles and connective tissue. If your muscles are still sore, are tight enough to alter your running form, or, heaven forbid, you just do not feel like running, then you should take a few more days off. The nearly negligible benefits of a short run at this time are far outweighed by the risks. Taking several days off after the marathon may also prevent you from getting sick. After prolonged high-intensity exercise, your immune system is temporarily suppressed, creating an open window during which you are at increased risk of infection. After a marathon, your immune system can take up to 72 hours to return to full strength.

During the first few days you need to replace lost fluids and take in both carbohydrates, to replenish your muscles’ depleted glycogen stores, and adequate protein for muscle repair. For the first three days, eat approximately four grams of carbohydrate and 0.5 to 0.6 grams of protein per pound of body weight.

After a few days off, you should be ready to resume easy training. The recommendations below will help you recover quickly while minimizing your risk of injury:

Assessing Your Post-Marathon Muscle Soreness

Delayed-onset muscle-soreness (DOMS) is caused by microscopic muscle damage that occurs from eccentric (lengthening) muscle contractions. During downhill running, your quadriceps muscles contract eccentrically to resist the pull of gravity and keep your knees from buckling. The resulting muscle damage leads to inflammation, causing soreness. It takes 1-2 days for this process of muscle damage/inflammation/pain to reach a peak, and the effects can last for up to five days. While you are experiencing DOMS, your muscles need time to repair.

Use pain as your guide for when to start running after the marathon. If pain lasts more than five days, then you may have done more substantial damage, and should see a physical therapist.

  1. Fulfill your need to exercise by crosstraining: Alternative forms of exercise, such as swimming or cycling, are a great option because they increase blood flow through your muscles without subjecting them to the impact forces of running. Walking is also a reasonable (if slightly embarrassing) alternative for the first week or so after the marathon. Approximately 30 minutes of crosstraining per day will help speed your recovery.
  2. Train with a heart monitor:Training too hard after the marathon will ultimately slow your recovery and increase your risk of injury. It takes more discipline to hold yourself back and allow a full recovery than it does to mindlessly dive back into training. One way to ensure that you do not run too hard is to set an upper limit, using a heart rate monitor. During the first 2-3 weeks, keep your heart rate below 75 percent of your maximal heart rate or 70 percent of your heart rate reserve.

For example, say your resting heart rate is 50 beats per minute and your maximal heart rate is 185 beats per minute. Using the maximal heart rate method, you would keep your heart rate below 139 beats per minute (185 X .75). Heart rate reserve is your maximal heart rate minus your resting pulse. In this example, your heart rate reserve is 135 (185 – 50). Using the heart rate reserve method, you would keep your heart rate below 145 (resting heart rate of 50 + (135 X .70)) during your recovery.

  1. Avoid injury by minimizing pounding:Because your muscles and tendons are fatigued and stiff, it is critical not to stress them too soon. Running on soft surfaces will reduce the cumulative impact experienced by your legs and back. You should also avoid hills, not only because running uphill requires more effort than is optimal, but also because downhill running induces muscle damage.
  2. Get a deep massage:Most serious marathoners use sports massage to speed recovery and prevent injuries. The few studies that have been conducted on the benefits of massage have shown mixed results, but I would not discourage you from a massage (or several) after a marathon. An experienced massage therapist will find sore muscles you didn’t know you had. To be effective, sports massage should be “pleasantly uncomfortable.”

5. Be flexible: The time of recovery from a marathon depends on a variety of factors: diet, quantity and quality of sleep, general health, age (we tend to recover more slowly with age), etc. There is a large variation among runners in the amount of time required to rebound from a marathon, so you should not copy your training partner’s recovery program. Nor should you devise a rigid schedule based on how you recovered from your last marathon. During recovery, base your training strictly on how you feel.

Part 2: Getting Back in the Saddle

After months months of toil, you’ve accomplished your marathon goal, and are blissfully content. After a few days, however, the initial euphoria wears off, and post-partum depression sinks in. You ask yourself the terrible question, “What now?” Last month, we looked at ways to improve your recovery after running a marathon. This month, we look at the next stage: how to re-motivate yourself and safely resume training after the marathon. Specifically, which types of workouts to do, which to avoid and why.

The first step towards rebuilding your motivation for training is to give yourself some freedom by escaping the tyranny of a strict schedule. Cast aside discipline and indulge in forbidden pastimes, such as sleeping in. After a few days or weeks without structure, you will feel the need for a training program. This is the perfect time to begin the process of selecting new goals. The mind cannot generate much enthusiasm for vague notions of “getting back in shape.” To re-kindle your motivation, you need a well-defined goal, or you will likely find yourself ambivalent towards running. Be kind to yourself and set goals that are far enough down the road that you do not create pressure to jump into hard training too quickly.

The six-week post-marathon training schedule presented below is designed to provide a general framework for training after the marathon. This schedule is appropriate for runners who trained 40 to 70 miles per week during their marathon preparation. If your mileage was higher or lower, then scale the workouts up or down accordingly. Do not adhere rigidly to this schedule, but rather be prepared to alter your training based on how your body responds. There will be plenty of time for discipline in the months to come.

The first week after the marathon calls for five days of rest or gentle cross-training, and two easy runs. This is the most critical period for avoiding injury and illness. If anyone tries to talk you into doing more, just say NO. As we discussed last month, it is important to keep your training intensity in the low to moderate range, and there is no better way to ensure that you stay in the correct zone than to wear a heart rate monitor. You should keep your heart rate below 75 percent of your maximal heart rate or 70 percent of your heart rate reserve. How to calculate your heart rate reserve was explained in last month’s column.

Training during the second and third weeks should consist of a balance of rest days, cross-training, and easy runs. During this period, your training intensity should remain easy. Remember to do as much of your running as possible on soft surfaces throughout your recovery to minimize the likelihood of impact-related injury.

During the fourth week after the marathon, the volume of training increases moderately and two sessions of accelerations or strides are introduced. The reason for these specific workouts is that your marathon training, and the marathon itself, will have made you strong but slow, and strides are a simple way to improve your leg speed and form without too much effort. These sessions should be done after a thorough warm-up, with gentle stretching both before and after the run. Allow yourself plenty of rest between each repetition so that you can run each one with good technique.

During the fifth week post-marathon, it is time to re-introduce workouts to improve your lactate threshold. These “tempo runs” should be done at approximately your 15k to 1/2 marathon race pace. Tempo runs do not break down the body as much as intervals because they are not fast enough to cause substantial muscle damage, nor are they long enough to totally deplete your muscles of glycogen. Include a session of strides and a tempo run in your training for at least two weeks before re-introducing track work into your training program. Following this schedule, and fine-tuning based on how you feel, should leave you injury free and ready to resume serious training.

Weeks Post-
Six-Week Marathon Recovery Schedule
1RestRest or Swim/CycleRestRest or Swim/Cycle20-30 min. easySwim/Cycle20-30 min. easy
2Rest or Swim/Cycle20-30 min. easySwim/Cycle30-40 min. easySwim/Cycle20-30 min. easy30-40 min. easy
3Rest or Swim/Cycle30-40 min. easy40-50 min. easySwim/Cycle30-40 min. easy20-30 min. easy or Swim/Cycle50-60 min. easy
4Rest or Swim/Cycle30-40 min. plus 6x100m strides40-50 min. easySwim/Cycle40-50 min. easy30-40 min. easy plus 8x100m strides60-70 min. steady
5Swim/Cycle40-50 min. with 15 min. @ lactate threshold50-60 min. easySwim/Cycle40-50 min. steady30-40 min. easy plus 10x100m strides70-80 min. steady
6Swim/Cycle40-50 min. with 20 min. @ lactate threshold50-60 min. easy20-30 min. easy40-50 min. steady30-40 min. easy plus 10x100m strides80-90 min. steady



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