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How to recover from a marathon, according to the experts

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After months of training, you’ve finally crossed the finished line. What you do next could mean the difference between recovery and injury

Whether you’ve just completed your first race or you’re a seasoned professional, how you recover from a marathon is just as important as how you train for it. We spoke to some experts to find out what steps you need to take to avoid injury and get you back on the track in no time.

Woman finishing marathon drinking water
Hydration is key to recovery

What to do immediately after running a marathon

At the end of the race your muscles may be depleted of fuel, according to Dr Leon Creaney, Sport & Exercise Medicine doctor at Wilmslow Hospital (part of HCA UK).

“Even if you don’t feel hungry, it’s important to take in carbohydrates in the first hour after you’ve finished the marathon to restore the glycogen and glucose used up by the body,” he says. “This could be in the form of glucose and fructose sport drinks or carbohydrate-rich foods like bread, rice, pasta and potatoes.”

Stay hydrated all day

It seems obvious, but it’s crucial to maintain proper hydration both during and after the race.

For Dr Creaney, water and electrolytes are key. He recommends drinking sports drinks to reap the benefits of the bonus minerals — sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium.

You may be tempted to nip to the pub for a celebratory drink, but Dr Creaney advises: “It’s best to avoid any alcohol or caffeine directly after a race, as it could counteract your efforts to rehydrate.”

Read more: The founder of Myprotein reveals the truth about supplements
water bottle
Hydration is essential for recovery
Look after your muscles

Unsurprisingly, the stress of a 26-and-a-half-mile run on your body will require more than some food and water for your muscles to recover.

“Massage can often help sore muscles with recovery,” says Dr Creaney. If you don’t have access to a specialist sports doctor there will often be medical professionals on hand at the finish line to assess what shape your muscles are in post-race.

Jade Imani, running coach and PT with Insure4Sport, recommends using a compression boot after long runs to help increase blood flow and reduce inflammation and pain.

Take a bath (hot or cold)

Don’t have the luxury of a masseuse or compression boot? Elite athletes often use cold-water immersion (CWI) to recover quickly if they’re competing in races in rapid succession.

“Taking a cold bath after a race helps to reduce muscle inflammation and stiffness and decreases pain and fatigue, resulting in better overall recovery,” says Dr Creaney. But this isn’t for the faint-hearted. CWI is extremely unpleasant, so he suggests first-time runners only give this a go under expert supervision.

 

Two-time Badwater Ultramarathon winner and iFIT trainer Ashley Paulson likes to hop in a toasty bath with the water at around 42 degrees for a few minutes — just enough time to prevent cramping and benefit from the relaxation and pain-relieving effects of a warm soak.

 

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A post shared by Ashley Paulson (@ashkickn)

Do some exercise (yes, seriously)

Though it may seem counterintuitive, light exercise is a great way to ease post-marathon muscle tension.

“Staying active can prevent stiffness and soreness,” says Ashley. “Engaging in low-impact, fun-filled activities with friends or family is a great way to get your body moving and have some post-race fun.”

Read more: How to start running as a beginner 
woman engaging in light exercise in field
Light exercise and stretching is needed after a marathon
Get some rest

“Sleep is the cornerstone to recovery,” says Dr Creaney. After putting such a huge amount of stress on your body, he emphasises proper sleep is the most effective way to repair your muscles and bring you back to full strength.

After a sufficient rest period post-marathon, Ashley gets back to training slowly, focusing on mobility and letting strength and endurance take a backseat for a few weeks. “When it comes to our health and fitness, there are no shortcuts, we must prioritise looking after our bodies,” she says. “This is the way I approach both my training and recovery.”

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