You did it. Congrats. You got the nervous feet at the start and forgot to fuel at mile seven and saw your family at 16 and felt great at 21 and like you wanted to curl up on the side of the road and fall asleep, for good, at 23, but didn’t. Instead you kicked down the chute, arms up/head back, and were rewarded with a medal and a very large piece of tinfoil and let yourself breathe in, if just for a moment, the perma-grins of your tribe of fellow finishers before going off in search of some kind of meal that doesn’t come in a powder or easy-to-squeeze pouch form.
Recovery from a marathon is never a one-size-fits all plan. In the immediate wake of my last marathon, I stumbled three blocks over to an Irish pub and ordered a Guinness and a basket of onion rings and that pretty much did the trick. I was out on a recovery run the next afternoon and didn’t miss a single workout the next week and on. Unfortunately, I can’t really say a nitrogen-infused adult beverage and breaded and deep-fried bulb is the panacea for a quick and full recovery. Instead, I do have a few field-tested tricks which have helped me get back on those pounded-to-sore arches quickly.
- Plan a fun and different recovery day activity. Some say it’s all about the morning-after run and while it’s beyond important to get blood flowing to all the parts that feel like rigor mortis is imminent, I don’t always recommend a run. In fact, my best recovery days were spent: mountain biking, swimming and surfing in the ocean, hiking and even on a cycling brewpub tour (don’t worry, we stopped riding after about the third stop). You definitely need to get rid of the lactic acid and start moving blood through damaged tissue but the reality is running might be the last thing your broken body and mind might be telling you to do. So, use those recovery days to do something a little different in the name of movement.
- Take that dreaded ice bath. Hey, it works. Swelling goes down, oxygen gets circulated and the selfie from the hotel bath filled with hotel all red-legged and shivering is a must. I usually take a brew into the ice bath and stay till it’s done and that’s my time to get out. After the Mid-Mountain Marathon in Park City a handful of falls ago I went ice bath straight to the hot tub. Um, I can show you the black eye photos of when I fell on the concrete. Extreme cold to heat not recommended even (especially) if you’re buzzed.
- Recovery wear: That means you compression. Unfortunately, marathons are also synonymous with destination race travel. That’s why I like to carry at least two different kinds of compression. Feetures Graduated Compression for before/during/after and Theraputic Compression crew for, you know, just getting from hotel to hot tub and back. Compression and flip-flops is an amazing look, I know. But post-race it’s totally OK to make that fashion statement (and will probably prevent you from falling!)
- Don’t go too crazy with the post-race meal, but don’t deprive yourself either. I’ll be the first to admit I dream of pizza/burritos/burgers awaiting me at the finish and usually (see: beer and onion rings) reward myself with a meal that’s not exactly on the responsible end of the spectrum. What you’re supposed to do is grab some whole wheat bread, peanut butter, bananas, beans, soy etc. and maybe do it up with a baked potato or a salmon filet. Hmmm...OK, here’s my rule of thumb: Eat anything you want after the race but, please, promise promise promise you’ll get back on the good side of grocery store the next day. Your body definitely can’t rebuild on Double-doubles alone...but oh, what a glorious reward a guilty-pleasure meal can be.
- Take it easy for a bit and listen to your body: A lot of runners have deferred to the recovery-day-per-mile plan (26 miles = 26 easy days easy runs) but I definitely think sometimes that can be too much (or too little) rest. The week after a marathon I try to make my runs short but meaningful, being aware of how I’m running as well as how everything actually feels (am I overcompensating for a knee, a pulled calf, are my achilles swollen etc). If it’s been seven to 10 days and nothing’s setting off any alarms and I’m back to normal/not-faking-it stride, then I’ll resume regular training at regular pace. If something is still feeling bad or more than just a hitch, don’t be afraid to get it massaged out and if it persists, go see your trusty sports medicine doc. The thing about long races is they can lead to long-term ailments if not diagnosed and treated properly.
And most importantly, set a new goal before or shortly after your big race. I’ve often felt unmoored in the wake of some of my bigger and better marathons and that’s simply a byproduct of the fact that I didn’t plan past race day. You should always have something on the calendar post-marathon. Not saying you shouldn’t enjoy the moment and definitely revel in it. But nothing cures those post-race doldrums...like another big red circle on the calendar.