Get to the finish line of a marathon, and a few runners might vow to never run again. But when all’s said (and run), many competitors end up catching the running bug—and can’t wait to train for that next big race.
But before they can race again, marathoners have to allow their bodies to recover from the tremendous physical accomplishment of running 26.2 miles. Here's how long to it takes a body to recover from running, plus tips for improving recovery and getting back to peak performance, stat.
What's the Deal?
While the hard work might appear to be behind us, the body is still struggling to keep on truckin’ and tend to damaged muscles.
So what’s the right formula for R&R? While myths like “take one day of rest for each mile raced” persist, there’s no science to back them up. Some experts do, however, recommend resting for three to seven days after a marathon to allow muscles to recover, before gradually easing back into running. The reason for the range? Muscle recovery is highly variable between individuals, because how muscles react to stress differs from person to person.
For the most part, individuals can expect soreness from the rebuilding cycle to set in about 24 to 48 hours post-race, peaking after 72 hours before tapering off. The key: allowing the muscles to fully recover, properly tending to any new or nagging injuries (doctor’s orders!), and, once the body’s good and ready, starting in again with good running form.
Your Action Plan
It may be tempting to veg out for a while after completing a marathon—and of course, you've earned the right to! But for those who can't wait to run again (or at least walk normally instead of hobbling), there are more than a few scientifically proven ways to speed recovery:
1. Train wisely. The better the preparation, the smoother the recovery. If the distance and pace of the race is comparable to what’s done in training, the muscles will have likely already adapted to that level of stress—minimizing tearing and soreness.
2. Roll out. For some inexpensive DIY relief, try foam rolling to help alleviate built-up muscle tension and increase flexibility The effects of active release technique on hamstring flexibility: a pilot study. George, JW, Tunstall, AC, Tepe, RE, et al. Department of Research, Logan College of Chiropractic, St. Louis, MO. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, 2006 Mar-Apr;29(3):224-7.. A golf or tennis ball should also do the trick on tough spots!
3. Eat right (Not that we'll need any encouragement to chow down post-race!). To help the muscles recover as quickly as possible, seek out protein-rich foods. Research also suggests chocolate milk can work surprisingly well as a recovery drink due to its optimal ratio of carbs to protein The effects of low fat chocolate milk on postexercise recovery in collegiate athletes. Spaccarotella, KJ, Andzel, WD. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2011 Dec;25(12):3456-60.. Of course, don't forget some good old-fashioned H2O as well to stay hydrated!
4. Ice, ice, baby. The pros do it—why shouldn’t you? It may sound brutal, but immersing the legs in a chilly ice bath has been proven to significantly reduce muscle soreness and help maintain strength and flexibility Effect of water immersion methods on post-exercise recovery from simulated team sport exercise. Ingram, J., Dawson, B., Goodman, C., et al. The University of Western Australia, Human Movement and Exercise Science. Journal of Science in Medicine and Sport, 2009 May;12(3):417-21. Epub 2008 Jun 11..
5. Compress yourself. Many distance runners these days wear compression gear before, after, and even during a race. No, the 80s aren't back—those neon-colored knee socks are actually one form of compression garments, which may reduce soreness and inflammation Do compression garments enhance the active recovery process after high-intensity running? Lowvell, D.I., Mason, D.G., Delphinus, E.M., et al. School of Health and Sport Sciences, Faculty of Science, Health and Education, University of the Sunshine Coast. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2011 Dec;25(12):3264-8..
6. Get low—impact, that is. Whenever you ease back into physical activity, seek out low impact options to start. Greatist Expert Andrew Kalley puts swimming at the top of his post-race regimen since there’s “no impact on the body and the water is soothing on the muscles.” Another way to get on the road to recovery: an easy ride on the exercise bike. “It’ll get the legs moving again, and draws new blood to the area, which will speed up recovery,” Kalley says.
As with training, the trick to full muscle recovery is finding what works for you. Each person's body is unique and may react differently to various post-race routines. It’s up to you to find that winning combination—and run with it!
What are your favorite recovery tips and tricks? Let us know in the comments below, or get in touch with us on Twitter!
Originally posted July 2012, updated April 2014