Marathon recovery is a tricky game. Feels a bit like being the rookie player at the table, carefully watching the other players to see what they do and how they win, or not, as the case may be. It’s a bloody game. A game of blood. A blood sport, if you will. All about getting the blood flowing around your legs to remove old bloody waste products and get new blood flowing through. If you run, you’ll probably already know more about blood, blood products and running than I do, so I won’t prolong the gore.
I’ve done 6 marathons since taking up running 9 years ago (ish) and how I’ve behaved afterwards has been very different on each occasion. The first year, I did absolutely NOTHING for months after the marathon. I was a very new runner and had trained and done the race for the challenge just to see if I could. I was a “once off” marathon runner (though it now appears that I am a repeat offender…) I knew nothing about marathon recovery nor was I even aware there was such a thing and in any event, I injured my knee a month after the race so I was prevented from doing anything for over a year afterwards. Likewise, for marathons 2 & 3, I was happy to take a big break from running after each race and do other activities over the course of the winter, before recommencing running in February/March.
The aftermath of last year’s marathon was different. I did a lot of reading about the science of running and the benefits of an active recovery from recovery, as opposed to 100% rest. I was interested to try out the theory in practice and I was also motivated by the desire to minimise post-marathon muscle soreness. I was also keen to get back to running as soon as possible, which was a new experience for me. Almost as if the addiction was getting more serious…
Some of the running literature suggested implementing your 2/3 week taper schedule in reverse, before building weekly mileage back up again. I thought this might be too much too soon and the last thing I wanted was to end up injured. Other recovery plans suggested a 2/2 gentle short runs or cross-training sessions in the first 7 days following marathon day, interspersed with lots of baths, foam-rolling and rest. Then, 3-4 short runs in days 7-14. After that, the idea is to gradually build up the number of days you run on, in addition to the daily mileage.
As I said, my primary concern was not to cause an injury so I played it very much by feel and was very cautious with doing too much. I did no running at all until 10 days after the marathon but I did do a few gentle cycles and a few pool swims. The following week I did three gentle 3 mile runs and after that I SLOWLY built the miles up week by week. I didn’t get injured, muscle soreness was less than previous years post-marathon AND shorter, and I was back up and running decent mileage within a respectable amount of time. Result.
My running year was different this year in that I ran 2 marathons within 12 months. Usually, I do just the one. But I lived dangerously this year 😉 The flipside, however, was that it meant I had to be diligent with recovery from marathon no.1 in mid-july to be back up and running in time for marathon no.2 in October, which was unchartered territory for this rookie. I took the active recovery route again, having no choice this time around, opting for 2 cycles and a swim in the first 7 days after the race and 3 short runs the following week. In days 7-14, I did 4 runs, increasing the mileage for two of these and in the weeks after that, I again gradually added a fifth day of running, while lengthening the distance of each run.
I bounced back quicker than I’ve ever done after running a marathon and while I cannot positively prove that this was down to a more active recovery than usual, what I do know is that I felt so much better in the 2 weeks following the marathon than I’ve ever done. Muscle soreness dissipated much quicker and I felt able for my cycling, swimming and running sessions. In previous years, it’s been nothing short of horrible, dragging myself out the door to bounce about on limbs that feel like doorposts – stiff, uncoordinated and utterly alien to me and to each other. Not the case this time.
I’m following a similar active recovery plan at the moment. I didn’t run at all for 7 full days after the Dublin marathon. I went for 2 gentle cycles, which I thoroughly enjoyed out there in all the beautiful autumn goodness… and I did lots of baths and foam-rolling. Lovely. On day 8, I ran 3 gentle miles, which felt okay, and I repeated this again yesterday (day 10). This morning I went for a swim in the local pool and spent a generous amount of time in the sauna and steam-room. Not sure if this is recommended but it relaxes me no end so I’m gonna get some 😀
Tomorrow morning, the Remembrance Run 5km will take place in the Phoenix Park in Dublin, which I’ll be doing alongside my auntie in remembrance of my Gran. Funnily enough, this is a run that’s not really about running, rather the running is somewhat incidental to the remembering. It looks set to be a dry, sunny November morning, which would be perfect for the many runners and walkers hoping to spend tomorrow morning reflecting on their lost loved ones as they make their way through the leafy Phoenix Park trail.
Tomorrow will round off my 2 week recovery period and after that my plan is to slowly build up the mileage again. As ever, my primary goal is not to rush back and pick up an injury, but in terms of other goals for the next while… a Christmas Day long run (13-16 miles) and Paris in the Spring.. perhaps… 😉
I can’t conclude that the best way to recover from a marathon is active recovery rather than 100% rest. I’m not a scientist, I have no lab and I haven’t ran tests. I am, however, a lawyer and proofs are what I work with. Thus far, the proofs from my own personal experience have been to the effect that gentle activity, such as cycling or swimming, has resulted in less stiffness of the joints, reduced muscle soreness and a greater desire to return to running. I can’t tell you that this is due to the increased activity or whether it’s because I just wasn’t as sore after some races than others. But in any event, the evidence would suggest that active recovery contributes to making you feel better in the weeks immediately after a big race like a marathon, or at the very least, that it doesn’t make you feel any worse. For me, it’s a keeper.