Marathon recovery: Returning to strength training after a marathon

There is always a lot of talk about how to train for a marathon, about fuelling your way round a marathon and nutrition strategies but what happens after you cross the finish line, how do you help your body recover from the 26.2 miles? 

Marathon training is a serious undertaking and runners set aside months, or even years to train for one, so the recovery must be taken seriously as well. Running a marathon puts serious toll on the muscles and body and results in some “damage” that extends beyond just sore muscles. This includes: 

  • Suppressed immune function – it is going to make it more difficult for your body to fight off bugs and infections in the weeks following a marathon.
  • Muscular strength is reduced – inflammation and cell damage are increased in the two weeks following a marathon so be mindful of this when returning to training (more on this to come).
  • Muscle memory and coordination are both compromised which means that repetitive stress injuries are more likely when running hard or fast in the two to three weeks post race.

Prioritising your marathon recovery is key to long term training and staying injury free. So, here are my top tips for returning to running and strength training after a marathon.

Step 1: When you cross the finish line

Don’t just sit down or stop, walk around and stay moving (even if you feel like you have jelly legs!). This will keep the blood moving around the body, delivering nutrients and removing waste product from the muscles. Usually, there will be food and fluids available as you cross that finish line, take advantage of these and as soon as you can start rehydrating and refuelling – your body will definitely thank you for it. You will definitely be dehydrated after 26.2 miles so get some fluids in asap and then focus on carbohydrate right foods (yes you can start with jelly babies!), then think about some protein to help rebuild those damaged muscles. 

Step 2: In the hours following the race

Here food is the key! As soon as you can stomach it, try to have a substantial, balanced meal – most marathon runners will swear by a burger and a pint at this point but whatever you fancy, you should go for it! Important things to note here are:

  • Try not to celebrate too hard – your body needs some rest and relaxation and lots of rehydration so too many alcoholic drinks aren’t wise! 
  • Wait a couple of days before having a massage as muscle damage can be increased if this is done too soon. 
  • An ice bath can really help your legs recover (followed by a nice warm shower!).
  • Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
  • Your next meal should be nutrient dense meal – fruit, veg, healthy meat, whole grains etc.
  • I also strongly recommend supplements to help with inflammation,  muscle recovery & joint support such as magnesium, turmeric and ashwaghandha.
  • Get an early night – sleep is vital to help your body repair.

Step 3: The next day

Get out and walk. Running isn’t recommended the day after the marathon but a gentle walk will help get the blood flowing. The goal here is to move not to workout! A gentle foam rolling session is a good idea on the day after the race – but be gentle!

Step 4: The week after

Be patient! 5-6 days off running is generally recommended following a marathon. This is a great window to do some non-impact cross training such as gentle swimming or cycling – remember your body is in recovery mode. Some light strength exercises and mobility work can be useful here to aid recovery but I am definitely not talking heavy weights! Some gentle core work, glute and ITB rehab work and light band exercises would be beneficial. 

The most important thing in the week post marathon is sleep to help your body and mind get back into the running zone. After 5 or so days you can head out for a 20-30 minute tester run to make sure there aren’t any aches and pains and see how your legs are feeling. You can then apply the reverse taper rule and gradually build back up to normal mileage and strength training over the next few weeks. 

Once you’re back to it post-marathon you can try one of the Caroline’s Circuits classes for free here or read more about the platform here.

If you have any questions please do get in touch.

For more workout ideas and to find out a bit more about me check out my Instagram.

Caroline x