By Sarah Correa
This morning I went for an easy jog, my first run since completing the California International Marathon (“CIM”) last Sunday. This local, but world-class marathon, starting in Folsom, California, served up perfect weather conditions for first time marathoners and elite athletes alike. Six days later, the final vestiges of soreness leaving my body, I felt like this would be a nice, easy 10k to get back into the swing of things.
Dare to dream? Although my pace was easy (or what I considered easy prior to the marathon), the run was not. I felt a deep fatigue awakened by moving faster than a brisk walk, and the shin splint that pestered my right leg intermittently in October and November voiced its complaint. In the past, I have rushed my recovery after big runs, so I vowed to be conservative. However, my definition of “conservative” clearly didn’t match what my body needs this time around.
So, what is really happening in your body after an extreme effort like a marathon? After the worst of the soreness fades, how is your body continuing to work overtime to heal? Lastly (and I would argue this is the question us runners care most about), how do you help your body heal to get back to running sooner and safely?
Studies show that muscle damage occurs during the marathon training cycle, as our bodies tear and rebuild to adapt to the increase in workload, as well as during the event. One week later, there is still evidence of damaged tissue (in the form of the enzyme creatinine kinase (CK) and increased myoglobin levels in the bloodstream) in the bloodstream. Other studies have recorded elevated CK levels four weeks post marathon. In other words – one-week post-CIM your body is still in the early days of its recovery, even if you may be feeling (relative to the immediate days after the race) a lot better.
Most surprisingly, an article published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that there is no significant relationship between race-day VO_2 max, a general indicator of endurance fitness, and post-marathon soreness two or more days after the event: no matter our relative fitness levels, our bodies all feel the effects of the run.
In addition to acute soreness, in the 72 hours after a marathon your immune system is compromised and your body retains water (inflammation) to aid with healing. Beyond 72 hours, your cardiac muscles, musculoskeletal system, and even kidneys continue working to repair themselves.
So what is the timeline for recovery and what are ways you can aid this process? Here are some things you can do to get your body back to health.
1. Don’t run
I know it’s hard to hear, but the best way to get back to running sooner is not to run at all. It’s recommended to take at least a full week off running post-marathon, and when you do begin again, start with no more than 50% of your pre-race volume and continue this for at least a few weeks. A return to regular training is not recommended until at least five weeks post-race. Running too soon after the race increases your chance of injury and running when your muscles are still damaged provides no training benefit.
2. Keep moving
While running may be off the table, staying active keeps the blood moving and aids in muscle recovery. Exercises like cycling, swimming, and walking at a relaxed pace are encouraged. When walking, select footwear with the support and cushioning necessary to protect fatigued muscles and joints. The Hoka Bondi 8, New Balance 1080, Brooks Glycerin, and Altra Paradigm are just a few examples of such footwear.
3. Stretch/Foam Roll
Ah runners and stretching, a strained relationship if there ever was one. Runners seem to hate stretching, the comedy being that we head out on a 2-3 hour training run, but can’t seem to find the patience for a 10-minute stretching session when we get back. However, stretching is critical to recovery. Beginning two days after the race, focus on 10-15 minutes of stretching (particularly in the evening when the body is warm) targeting the hamstrings, hip flexors, quadriceps, calves, and on opening the upper body (core, chest, obliques). In addition to stretching, roll out all the forementioned areas to break up fascial tissue. If you do not own a foam roller – make the investment and be prepared – it will hurt! But, it will go far in expediting your recovery.
4. Massage/Apply Topicals
Massage is a way to penetrate deep into and between muscles, beneath the fascial layer, to release tightness and decrease soreness. Self-massage at home with CBD (cannabidiol) topicals such as CBDmd can be administered to reduce joint and muscle inflammation. And tools like Therabody and Hyperice massage guns can assist in hitting those hard to reaching to spots, and will save your arms some strain as well!
Other than avoiding running itself (at least for a little while!), sleep is the most critical tool in your recovery arsenal. In deep REM cycle sleep, growth hormone is released which stimulates muscle growth and repair. Not getting enough sleep can result in slower muscle recovery, increased levels of stress hormones, and increased perception of exercise difficulty. Additionally, studies show that athletes who sleep on average less than 8 hours per night have 1.7 times greater risk for injury than those who sleep at least 8 hours.
6. Avoid alcohol immediately after the race
While it may be tempting to party hard and celebrate your race efforts, studies resoundingly show that alcohol inhibits protein synthesis in muscles, acts as a diuretic causing further dehydration, and causes temporary (but misleading) decreases in pain signals to the brain. As a result, the next day you can wake up feeling significantly worse than you had if you had abstained. However, if you are going to drink, try to wait at least four hours after the race and make sure to hydrate completely before you do. Pack electrolyte tabs or mixes like Nuun, Skratch, or Superieur in your gear bag to have with you at the race finish, and drink up!
So, how are you feeling one-week post CIM? Hopefully, pretty great! You have accomplished something that only 0.05% of the US population achieves: completing a marathon. However, if you are like me and try to rush the recovery process – remember that although most of your soreness has faded, and your body may feel almost “back to normal,” there is still a lot of work occurring within your body to get you back to pre-race form. Trust and aid this process and be patient! The roads will still be there a few weeks down the line.