Just the idea of taking some time off after a marathon is enough to drive some runners crazy. And actually implementing a recovery plan that yes, involves a few days without any running at all, leaves many runners worrying about maintaining their hard earned fitness.
“About two weeks ‘off’ is a good length of time,” says Marty Beene, a Level 2 USA Track & Field certified coach and creator of Be the Runner, a personalized running coach and personal training service. “In fact, that's a good length of time to take off after any major goal race or racing season, not only the marathon.”
He recommends avoiding all activity for few days and then slowly implementing easy exercise like cycling, walking or swimming for the remainder of your two recovery weeks.
“It should be very light exercise, nothing intense at all,” Beene said.
For the most part, you don’t need to worry about “losing” the high level of fitness that you gained while training for the marathon during that recovery time.
In fact, Beene especially emphasized the importance of allowing your body to recover properly before throwing yourself back into a schedule with high-volume training.
“For runners who want to do some more racing, just keep in mind that we can't keep improving in perpetuity,” Beene explained. “We do have to have a period of ‘detraining’ from time to time, usually once or twice a year at least.”
That said, for those runners who feel healthy and strong enough to begin training again, Beene offered the following advice.
If you have your sights set on a shorter, faster race: “This is possible if you came through the marathon unscathed, but even then it is somewhat risky,” he said. “The two-week rule is still a good idea, but as soon as you start running again, try some faster tempo runs that first week back—nothing too long or intense, but just to gauge how your body is feeling. If everything feels OK, then go ahead.”
Beene said he implemented this type of plan after his second marathon in 1987 and set a PR in the 5k.
If you want to maintain your marathon fitness level: “Jump back up to [your] marathon mileage level fairly soon, but again, only do this if you made it through the initial marathon with no damage,” Beene said. “Any hint of persistent soreness may indicate additional healing is needed to avoid sustaining an actual injury. The last thing anyone wants is to develop an injury so that you miss a month or two or more.”
All in all, though, Beene highly recommends viewing the period after you’ve recovered from a marathon as the beginning of a new season.
“Yes, it's OK to ‘start over.’ Running should be mixed with running-specific strength training, such as core exercises, leg strength training—for example, two-leg and single-leg squats, toe-ups, step-ups, etc.—and simple upper-body work like push-ups,” he said. “I advise my clients to start like a beginner and work back up to a consistent 25 miles per week of running, as I've found that a training program for any type of race can easily be launched from that level of running.”
And his final pieces of expert advice: use your ‘rebuilding phase’ as a time to rekindle your excitement for running.
“[Try] something new, such as some new routes, or at least running the same routes in the reverse direction if you can, or a new adventure, like joining a running club or attending a running camp like my Mountain Running Retreat,” he said.
Also, when you get back to training, pay special attention to your running form and technique.
“Assume that you might be doing everything in a very inefficient way, and make a concerted effort to develop the best running form you've ever had,” Beene said. “It's likely you would need some professional expertise to help you with this, but doing this when you're starting up again from scratch is the perfect time to ditch your old bad habits.”