When Should I Return to Training After a Marathon?

Mike asks: I am running my first marathon this weekend. My question is what to do after my race? Do I need to take some time off from running? If so, how long?

You are smart to think ahead and plan the next phase of your training. Recovery will be next in your training cycle, and it’s best to plan it before the race rather than wait and “see how you feel.”

All too often, runners who are excited by a good marathon performance make the mistake of returning to training too soon. They then regret it later when their training becomes flat. Conversely, a poor marathon performance also leads some to return to training too soon in hope of redemption. Planning a recovery phase before your race will help you avoid these pitfalls.

There is no exact formula to follow for post-marathon recovery. How long it takes to recover from your race depends upon how well prepared you were going in.

A general guideline is one day of rest for every 1.6km raced, or about 26 days of rest. Note that “rest” here means a break from intense training—like speedwork and races—not avoiding running altogether.

I suggest dividing your recovery into two phases in the days following your race. The first three days after a marathon are crucial to adequate recovery, so it’s important not to do too much. Give yourself permission to sleep in, eat, and pamper yourself. Runners also need to recover mentally, so this downtime is essential for complete recovery.

A long walk back to your car or hotel room following a race is not a bad thing. In fact, it may even help you. Walking provides a nice cooldown and helps prevent muscle soreness by preventing blood from pooling in your legs. Once back home or at your hotel room, take a cool bath or an ice bath to minimise soft tissue inflammation and aid recovery. Avoid a hot bath or the hot tub for 48 hours after the race. Fill the tub with cool water and hop in, then slowly add ice to the water to minimise the cold shock factor.

Gentle stretching and walking will help relieve muscle soreness by increasing the body’s circulation. Increased circulation removes waste products and replenishes muscle tissue with nutrients and oxygen. Drinking lots of fluids is also helpful in relieving soreness.

You next phase in recovery begins about four days after the marathon and includes light exercise and even some running. Light exercise will help you recover faster than no exercise, so there is no reason to become a couch potato after your marathon.

Walking, easy running, easy spinning, riding a bike, swimming, or stretching for 30 to 45 minutes will promote circulation and facilitate recovery. The key is keeping the exercise intensity level in the easy range. Include some short easy runs at conversational pace and to ensure the run pace stays easy, incorporate some run/walk intervals.

Most marathon training plans follow a three-week taper plan before the race, so one very simple way to return to training is to follow a similar taper plan in reverse. Suggested mileage for the first weekend run post-marathon would be three to four miles at an easy pace. The second weekend run might be four to six miles, and for the third weekend run try five to eight miles.

Heart rate monitoring can also be a valuable, objective indicator of when to resume training. Runners that measure their resting heart rate (RHR) during training on a regular basis will know their baseline. An RHR that is 10 beats per minute or more above your normal resting heart rate is a good indication of fatigue and incomplete recovery. When your RHR returns to normal you will know that you are ready to resume training.

Regardless of finish time, completing a marathon is a significant accomplishment, and all runners need an adequate recovery period.

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