Life after a marathon

Finish line So you train and then you train some more. You eat, sleep and breath marathon. It motivates you on your long runs and it’s the intention of your yoga practice. You’ve read all the books and bought all of the kit and then, suddenly, it’s all over.

From my (albeit limited) experience, people respond to this situation in one of two ways: on the one hand there are those who spend the lead up to the race longing for the training to finish. They look forward to regaining their freedom (and their Sunday morning lie-in) and when race day comes along they complete the race, tick the box marked ‘marathon’ with a flourish, file it and move on.

On the other hand, there are those for whom training becomes more than an means to an end, but an end in itself. For these people, when the marathon is over, and when the requirement to run 20 miles on a Sunday morning is no longer there, they feel suddenly bereft. In the absence of training, the structure and purpose of their week seems to fall away and a new goal is required, another race to fill the void and return the order.

I fall into this latter category. I loved my marathon but I’ve also enjoyed the road leading up to it and now I feel suddenly lost without my training schedule to order the days. You may not be surprised to read therefore, that this recent bereavement has seen me researching post-marathon exercise advice.

So what comes next? What should you do in the immediate weeks post-marathon?

1. Avoid the marathon sniffles

Well, first off, I was struck down, as many are, by what Runner’s World terms the ‘marathon sniffles’. One minute you are at the peak of physical fitness, the next you are harbouring a sore throat, runny nose, and struggling with coughing and sneezing fits.

According to Runner’s World many long-distance runners report developing colds and other upper-respiratory tract infections in the two weeks following a race. This is because, while 30 to 45 minutes of moderate exercise stimulates the immune system, the rigours of running longer distances can temporarily weaken it. During a long run such as a marathon, the body produces the stress hormone cortisol, which serves to suppress the immune system, and the more intense the run, the higher the cortisol levels. And what is more, cortisol levels can become high enough to impair the immune system for anything up to three days following a race.

While your immune system is vulnerable, the environment of a marathon leaves you even more exposed, surrounded by sweaty runners high-fiving each other, along with spectators kissing finishers in congratulation, makes the transmission of cold and flu viruses almost inevitable.

While I took muscular fatigue and potential injury as a given post-race, I hadn’t anticipated fighting off the worst cold I’ve had in a long while (NB those racing in the London Marathon this weekend), so in the first instance I’ve been working to build up my immune system again.

2. Rest

Relaxing in the sunshine
Relaxing in the sunshine

While advice varies on how long you leave before you run again post marathon, most of the articles I’ve read recommend that you rest completely for a minimum of 4-7 days.

You may go for a leisurely walk during this time, or do some yoga or stretches, but generally it seems that the consensus is to take some time out and relax.

3. Reverse taper

After the initial 4-7 days however, you can start to add low intensity exercise. I took my marathon training plan from Hal Higdon and he also has a plan for post-marathon recovery too. Having trusted him to get me this far I also trust him to take me beyond my 26 miles.

Hal says that it takes a minimum of two to three weeks for the body to recover from the strain of running a marathon and cautions against returning to training too quickly, as this can lead to an increased risk of injury. He recommends a ‘reverse taper’, mirroring the training you did in the three weeks leading up to the marathon in the three weeks afterwards. He also suggests that your diet should mirror your diet pre-marathon, aiming to take on plenty of carbohydrates to help refuel your muscles.

If your race is on a Sunday, you shouldn’t run again until Thursday at the earliest, (I waited until Friday), when you should look to run around 2 miles at a gentle pace. I ran slightly more on Friday, around 6 km, but I made sure to take it nice and easy and listen to my body.

The view on my first post-marathon run
The view on my first post-marathon run

On the Friday you should look to do some cross-training, I enjoyed a yoga class in the evening, but swimming, cycling or even just going for a walk can help work out the tension in the muscles.

By the weekend most of the muscle soreness should be gone so you can look to run another 2 miles on Saturday and even up to 6 miles on Sunday, but only if your body is feeling ready.

Hal has a full programme for recovery which can be viewed here and which I will be using in the coming weeks.

4. Get on your mat 

Yoga with Adriene
Yoga with Adriene

I’ve discovered a new passion for yoga since I started marathon training. I find it really helps me to reset and realign my body, opening up my hips and stretching out my hamstrings. I love my Rocket Yoga class at Yogarise in the Bussey Building here in London, but I’ve also discovered Yoga with Adriene on YouTube which is great for an early morning 20 minute session before work or, as I enjoyed today, mid-run in the park at lunchtime. I feel like the yoga is helping to mend my muscles post-race and prepare my body for the next.

5. Enter the next race 

Talking of which, I’ve spotted lots of races that I want to enter now I have a marathon under my belt and I’m feeling fit (cold and cough aside). I’ve already got a trail run lined up for June which I’m doing with my running buddies Anna, Lucy and Sandra. It is part of the Runner’s World Festival of Trail and is only 10 km and really relaxed, but I think it will be just what I need to get back into racing post-marathon, lots of fun running with my lovely friends!

Further advice can be found by following the links below:

Wishing lots of luck to everyone running London this weekend.

Happy running!

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