How Long Should You Recover After a Marathon?
Linda Wilson— If you ran a marathon this fall, you’re probably pretty fit. Logging all of those miles for four to five months means you have a huge aerobic base. So what next? Should you start your next marathon training plan soon or perhaps re-focus on racing shorter distances from 5K to the half marathon? Or should you just shut things down, take a long break and let your body fully recover?
“No matter what you do, you should listen to your body and make sure you’re recovered before you resume any kind of hard training,” says coach Brad Hudson, who trains both elite runners and age- groupers through Hudson Training Systems in Boulder, Colo. “That’s the time to get completely healthy if something has been nagging you. And it’s a good time to reflect on your recent training and racing and determine what you did right or wrong and what you can do better next time.”
It might also be smart to refocus on a sustainable core strength routine, fixing dietary flaws, revising training strategies and getting caught up on other areas of life that were sacrificed in the build-up to a marathon. But how much time away from running do you need?
Many elite runners follow the rule of taking roughly a day off of running for every mile in the race—that might mean taking 21-28 days off with little or no running after a marathon. Although that’s a conservative approach, taking enough time to fully recover can help you eliminate ongoing soreness, avoid overuse injuries and avoid trying to run through mental burnout, Hudson says.
But, Hudson admits, following that method will mean you’ll lose a lot of your hard-earned fitness and, in some ways, have to go back to square one before you start planning for your next race. If you recover quickly and take steps to promote recovery, it’s possible to take as few as seven to 14 days off and get right back into training for shorter distances, he says.
A lot of it has to do with how your body feels in the days and weeks after you’re race. Lingering soreness, dehydration and a general feeling of lethargy are common reactions after a marathon. You don’t want to jump back into training—especially for another marathon—until those symptoms have subsided.
“The first thing you have to consider is how beat up your body is from running the marathon and going through a long season of training,” says Pete Rea, head coach at the ZAP Fitness elite training program in Blowing Rock, N.C. “Some runners get really beat up from a marathon—especially larger runners—and definitely need a complete break. But then there are runners who are really light on their feet who recover very quickly who can crank things up again pretty soon.”
For example, Esther Erb, one of the runner’s Rea coaches, ran the Oct. 7 Twin Cities Marathon in a new PR of 2:36:24 but said afterward she felt like she just finished a typical long training run. That sensation isn’t exclusively reserved for elite athletes. Agile runners who are light on their feet often recover quicker and, as a result, are able to resume training soon and utilize the same fitness base that took them through the marathon.
In that case, Rea will typically have a runner take about 10-14 days off with minimal running, then return to about 80 percent of the pre-marathon mileage in just a few more weeks. That type of runner could presumably come off a fall marathon and be ready to peak for another one again by springtime and, depending on other variables, reasonably fit three marathons into a calendar year.
However, Rea recommends those runners who need more time to recover to take up to a full month off without any running, only walking and doing light cross-training for exercise. Then he’ll gradually work that runner back into shape by ramping up mileage and intensity over a six-week period.
“For that runner, you’re looking at 10 weeks from the marathon to the point where they’re ready to start training at a high level again,” Rea says. “It’s just a matter of knowing which type of runner you are and how you feel after your marathon.”
Rea, too, believes it’s possible for runners to take advantage of their fitness to step down and run fast over shorter distances not long after a marathon. But, Rea points out, while those runners might have a great aerobic base after running a marathon, they might lack physiological and biomechanical economy. In other words, their form has gone to mush, their stride cadence has slowed down and a lack of rhythm and efficiency means they’re working too hard to run any given pace or distance.
To maintain fitness and start preparing for shorter races after a sufficient recovery period, Rea recommends implementing intervals at 5K or 10K race pace once a week. A workout with a combination of 500m, 800m or 1,000m hard efforts followed by rest intervals of equal time will help sharpen a runner’s neurological timing and re-instill the quick turnover rhythm necessary for racing fast for short periods of time, Rea says.
No matter the length of the down period after a marathon, Rea has his runners start doing easy aerobic running with strides three times per week—usually 10-12 strides of 80 to 100 meters—as a means of getting some snap back in your legs.
“It’s different for every runner,” Rea says. “Keep in mind, too, that a lot of runners, no matter how quickly they recover physically, could be emotionally and mentally exhausted. So erring on the side of more time off is usually a good thing.”
Take more time to recover if …
- You’re still experiencing lingering soreness or swelling from your race.
- You tend to get dehydrated or can’t maintain your normal appetite.
- You feel fatigued during an easy 20- to 30-minute run or other light bouts of exercise.
- You’re feeling run-down and are experiencing restless sleep patterns.
- You feel mentally out of it from time to time or have negative thoughts about running.
It’s OK to start training again if …
- Your legs feel fresh and are full of snap, especially after cross-training or walking.
- You’re not experiencing any residual soreness or fatigue.
- You’re well-rested and feeling eager to get started again.
- You have a normal appetite and aren’t experiencing signs of dehydration.
- You have a good mental outlook about getting back into harder or higher-volume training weeks.
This piece first appeared in the November 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.