After 42.2 kilometres of battling unseasonably warm temperatures, cramping quads from traversing the steep downhills of the marathon, and a post-race trip to the medical tent, American distance runner Sara Hall did not look good.
It was a tough debut at the distance and the last thing we were thinking about was a trip to the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in China in less than two weeks. Before the marathon, I had discussed with Hall (as her coach) the possibility of attempting the double; now, in her condition, it seemed like a pipe dream.
Yet 13 days later, Hall laced up her spikes again in China, moved her way up throughout the race, and finished as the top American in 20th place.
How did she go from completely gassed to racing in top form in less than two weeks? A lot of self-belief and grit, along with a well-thought-out recovery plan, gave her a shot at competing to the best of her ability.
For most of us, the marathon is the ultimate goal, and we put little thought into how we are going to bounce back. Still, even if you’re not shooting for the ideal short-term recovery, these tips Hall used will help you get back to normal much sooner.
Take a dip. Find your nearest pool and splash around. This simple but neglected tip is one I initially took from my high school coach, Gerald Stewart. The combination of movement, low pounding, and hydrostatic pressure does wonders to loosen up achy muscles and joints. Go through your normal warmup drills in the water. That means some combination of butt kicks, leg swings, and skips to take your legs through a nice range of motion. Add this into your routine once or twice a day to maximize the benefits.
Get protein and sleep. Following the marathon, your muscles are full of tiny microtears; these need to be repaired before your muscles can function at max capacity. To accelerate this repair, we need to keep protein synthesis elevated in the muscles. The more we can keep this going throughout the day, the quicker these tears will get repaired. Research has shown that this can be accomplished through frequent “hits” of protein. My rule of thumb is to have five servings of 15 grams or more of protein spread evenly throughout the day. Then we end it with a large dose of protein (30 or more grams) right before bed to take advantage of the higher rate of synthesis and repair during sleep. It also boosts some recovery hormones overnight. Any protein will do the trick, ranging from meat to milk.
Keep it moving. After a marathon, most of us want to find the nearest couch and stay on it for a week. While this might be appropriate the first day, after that it’s time to get moving. Start with a short shuffle of 10 to 20 minutes. If this doesn’t seem possible, go for a walk with brief periods of jogging throughout. As the week goes on, slowly increase the length to 30 or 40 minutes of total moving. Hall did her first workout, which consisted of some shorter segments that were essentially glorified strides, a week after the marathon. The purpose isn’t to gain fitness, but to take your body through a bigger range of motion for a longer period of time. It’s all about loosening up your muscles and getting those dead quads to fire again.
Few, if any, of us will ever try to tackle a marathon and a world championship in the span of two weeks, but Hall’s experiences show us that a specific recovery strategy can have us back on our feet and feeling strong sooner than we think.