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The Long Road to Marathon Recovery

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IMAGE Most marathoners agree that the last 6.2 miles of the race are just as difficult as the first 20. It is during that last, seemingly endless stretch that calves tighten, quads burn, and joints you did not know existed start to ache. But all that becomes a blur as sheer force of will drives you toward the finish line. Unfortunately, crossing the finish line does not make the pain go away. Just as marathon training takes a long time, so does marathon recovery. However, you can start the recovery process right after you cross the finish line.

The First Few Hours

Keep Moving

The temptation to collapse and lie down when you cross the finish line might be overwhelming, but don't. Instead, walk around slowly while you start to rehydrate. Try cooling down gradually for 5-10 minutes. Also, change clothes to stay warm and dry.


You will need fluid after the race, no matter how much you drank during the race. However, water alone will not do the trick. After a marathon, you will have a low concentration of sodium and electrolytes. You can rehydrate with a variety of fluids, including water, smoothies, recovery drinks, and juice.


You should begin eating soon after completing your marathon. Eating is important because it helps restore hydration levels. Consider consuming a shake high in proteins and carbohydrates within 15 minutes after the marathon. This will give you a quick burst of fluid, protein, and carbohydrates. How much carbohydrate and protein feedings you should have are based on body weight. Talk with your nutritionist to find out what is best for you.

Take Care of Your Body

Other than eating and drinking, there are a few things to keep in mind in the hours following the race. Try to do what makes you feel better. If stretching feels good, stretch. If walking keeps you from getting tight, keep walking slowly. If you feel a throbbing injury, ice it.

Use Ice, Not Heat

Heat is one thing you should avoid during the first few days after the race. A Jacuzzi or hot tub, or even a heating pad, might seem like the perfect remedy for aching legs, but heat can actually increase swelling and muscle soreness. It seems less soothing, but you should ice your aching muscles and joints instead or take a very short bath in ice water.

The First Week or Two

The recovery continues in the weeks following the race.


You will be sore. Climbing and descending stairs presents quite a challenge. Pay attention to your body and its need for rest. In a few days, the soreness will begin to subside.

You may want to schedule a massage after your race. Ask a fellow runner to recommend a masseuse. You'll want to work with someone who is familiar with massaging people who run long distances.


Light walking and stretching will help you regain some flexibility and decrease muscle soreness. Just remember to stretch gently. Excessive stretching may trigger spasms in damaged muscles.

Lay Off the Running

Training for a marathon gets you in the habit of running a lot. After a few days of rest, you may start itching to hit the road again. Try not to do that. Recovery time is just as important as the hill and tempo runs you included in your training plan.

Try to abstain completely from running for at least one week, preferably two. When you return to running, take it very easy. Run at a pace that would allow you to carry on a conversation.

The Weeks Following

Do not worry; your body will not ache for the six weeks following the marathon. But just because the pain is not acute does not mean you are back to full strength. Use the time to try other fitness activities that do not stress your body as much as running, and ease up on your running mileage and intensity.

Remember, the key to recovery is to do so gradually. Here is a guideline to consider in the weeks following the marathon:

  • Week 2—Aim for 25%-50% of pre-marathon weekly mileage. Limit training to 3-4 times, allowing at least three rest days.
  • Week 3—Aim for 50%-70% of pre-marathon weekly mileage. Limit training to 3-4 times, allowing at least three rest days.
  • Week 4—Aim for 60%-80% of pre-marathon weekly mileage. Limit training to 4-5 times, allowing two rest days.
  • After the first month—Increase your training by 10%-15% a week until you are back to your normal routine.

Many marathoners experience a feeling of letdown after the end of many months of training. The best way to stay motivated is choose a post-marathon goal and begin training for your next event.

Finishing a marathon is an incredible athletic feat. Enjoy it for a while, and give your body the time it needs and deserves to make a complete recovery.

  • American College of Sports Medicine

  • American Running Association

  • Canadian Academy of Sport and Exercise Medicine

  • Health Canada

  • After the marathon. American Council on Exercise website. Available at: Accessed February 27, 2103.

  • Four nutrition tips for post-marathon recovery. Indiana University website. Available at: Updated February 22, 2013. Accessed February 27, 2013.

  • Maschi R. Marathon recovery tips: Getting back on the road safely. Drexel University website. Available at: Published November 20, 2012. Accessed February 27, 2013.