The Importance of Marathon Recovery

How to manage your time off to ensure a solid comeback
Staff Writer

Jeff Gaudette–One of the biggest mistakes marathon runners make is not taking enough recovery time after finishing the race. After 26.2 miles of hard running, and the months of dedicated training that went into that effort, the body needs a break.

Understandably, for a dedicated runner, taking an unforced day off (or worse, a full week off), is about as enjoyable as a trip to the dentist for a root canal. Most runners have an irrational fear that missing a few runs will dramatically diminish their hard-earned fitness.

Moreover, putting your training on pause seems counter-intuitive after a great race – you want to capitalize on your fitness and continue to set new personal bests, right? Likewise, after a disappointing race, the last thing on your mind is resting; rather, you want revenge and you’re anxious to get back on the starting line as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, not taking enough time to fully recover after a marathon often leads to overtraining and injuries. Not only does resting for seven to ten days have little negative impact on your current fitness, the long-term gains will outweigh any temporary reduction in fitness.

RELATED: Creating An Optimal Long-Term Training Plan

Over the following pages, we’ll look at two reasons why you should consider taking some serious downtime after your marathon and provide you with proven scientific evidence as well as examples from some of the best runners in the world that support the benefits of a proper recovery period. Finally, we’ll outline a typical marathon recovery protocol so you can begin planning your next training segment.

How The Marathon Damages Your Body

Muscles, tendons, ligaments, and almost every physiological system is challenged when running a marathon. It doesn’t matter if you crushed your goal or struggled to walk/jog to the finish, 26.2 miles is a long way to go and your body endures tremendous physical duress, even if you don’t feel sore immediately afterward. Here are some of the scientifically measured physiological systems that are impacted after running 26.2 miles.

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Skeletal Muscle

One scientific study looked at the damage done to the calf muscles during a marathon and concluded that both the “intensive training for, and the marathon itself, induce inflammation and muscle fiber necrosis that significantly impaired muscle power and durability.”

This study makes it clear that your muscles are undoubtedly weakened and need extensive recovery before returning to full training. Given this study also examined calf muscles during an extended training block, the need for downtime applies to any arduous training segment.

Cellular Damage

Cellular damage post-marathon is best measured by the presence and production of creatinine kinase (CK) — a marker that indicates damage to skeletal and myocardial tissue — and increased myoglobin levels in the blood stream.

One study concluded that CK damage persisted more than seven days post-marathon while another study discovered the presence of myoglobin in the bloodstream for 3-4 days post race. Both of these studies clearly indicate that the body needs rest after a marathon to fully recover from the cellular damage caused during the race.

Unlike muscle soreness, these markers of hard training and racing aren’t always noticeable. This is why you need to take downtime after a marathon, even if you don’t feel sore.

Immune System

Finally, studies have shown that the immune system is severely compromised after running 26.2 miles, which increases the risk of contracting colds and the flu.

A suppressed immune system is one of the major causes of overtraining. Therefore, skipping a much-needed rest period could lead to interrupted training down the road, which could significantly derail your long-term goals.

Anecdotal Evidence From Elite runners

While scientific evidence helps support training assumptions, perhaps the most obvious example of the importance of taking downtime is exhibited by elite runners. Elite runners are advised by the best coaches in the world and their livelihood depends on consistent training and racing.

Professional runners who make their living running races still take downtime after marathons and long training segments. Olympian Desiree Davila, and all members of the successful Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, take a fairly significant rest period after marathons. In a recent interview, Davila mentioned that she took two weeks off and then two weeks very easy after finishing second at the Olympic Trials.

RELATED: Bouncing Back From A Rough Workout

Time Off Won’t Negatively Impact Your Fitness

It’s not hard to persuade a runner that a marathon is difficult on the body. However, it’s quite another to convince the same runner that taking 7 to 10 days off to rest up and recover from their effort won’t hurt their fitness.

The Science Of Rest

Because VO2 max is one of the best measurements of a runner’s physical fitness, it’s the most useful baseline to compare the effect of detraining on your aerobic system. To be brief, VO2 max is an individual’s maximum ability to transport and use oxygen during exercise.

Recent studies show that there is little reduction in VO2max (1-3 percent) in the first 6-7 days following inactivity in well-trained runners. Furthermore, even after two weeks of not running, studies show that VO2 max decreases by only six percent.

While percentages are fantastic, what do those numbers really mean for runners? Let’s use an example of a 20-minute 5K runner. A 20-minute 5K runner has a VO2max of roughly 49.81 ml/kg/min. After 7-10 days of no running, the hypothetical 5K runner would lose about 3% of his or her VO2 max. Accordingly, after downtime, his or her new VO2max would be 48.49 and he or she would now be in 20:30 shape. While no one wants to drop 30 seconds, after a week of not running a single step, it’s certainly not a big loss and fitness that can be regained very quickly.

Anecdotal Evidence From Elite runners

Luckily, this slight reduction in fitness is easy to gain back. After a marathon, it only takes three to four weeks to return to hard training and near peak racing shape.

Meb Keflezighi might be the best example to illustrate how quickly a runner can return to peak fitness. After the 2012 New York City Marathon, Meb was forced to rest for three weeks due to an untimely foot infection. With just 70 days to prepare for one of the biggest races of his life — the 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials — Meb regained his fitness quickly to dispatch one of the most heralded fields in U.S. history and punch his ticket to the London Olympics.

Going further, another injury derailed Meb’s training for two weeks in preparation for the Olympic Games. However, Meb took the needed recovery time to heal and still finished fourth in the 2012 Olympic Marathon.

How long should you plan to rest?

Most coaches and elite runners suggest you should take off one week off after a marathon, with a few very light jogs or even easy walks if you get too antsy. After a week off, training should be very light for two weeks post-race. It might sound like you would be holding yourself back by being so cautious, but your long-term progression will actually benefit as you allow your body to recover and get fully rested for your next training segment.

Here is a sample schedule I suggest to runners following a marathon:

Monday

Off – hot tub and stretch

Tuesday

2 miles easy shakeout run (slow and easy)

Wednesday

Off – hot tub and stretch

Thursday

Off

Friday

Off or cross training – easy

Saturday

2-3 miles easy

Sunday

Off or cross training – easy

   

Total

 
   

Monday

3-4 miles easy

Tuesday

Off or cross training – easy

Wednesday

3-4 miles easy w/4 x 20 sec strides

Thursday

Off or cross training – medium

Friday

Off or cross training – easy

Saturday

6 miles easy – no strides

Sunday

Off or cross training – long (90 minutes)

   

Total

 
   

Monday

4 miles easy

Tuesday

5 miles easy w/4 x 20 sec strides

Wednesday

Off or cross training – hard

Thursday

Off or cross training – medium

Friday

5 miles easy w/4 x 20 sec strides

Saturday

8 miles easy – no strides

Sunday

Off – recovery

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