THE 2023 SYDNEY MARATHON has come to a close. More than 17,000 people took part in the event, and it’s fair to say the conditions couldn’t have been worse. As if the gruelling long-distance effort wasn’t enough of an undertaking, unseasonably high temperatures provided another challenge for the runners, 26 of whom were hospitalised. Under such conditions, recovery becomes all the more important.
Taking part in a marathon, let alone in scorching heat, is worthy of immense praise. Cut your colleague that won’t stop banging on about the race some slack, they’ve earned it. And if you are the guy currently treating everyone you encounter with a retelling of your journey, we’ve got bad news, the hard work isn’t over, you’ve just entered a new phase: recovery.
To those that took part in the Sydney marathon over the weekend, and really to anyone that’s achieved their goals recently, congratulations. All those painstaking training sessions have paid off, and now it’s time to reward yourself with some TLC. Before the reality of post marathon syndrome (believe us, it’s real) kicks in, this is everything you should—and shouldn’t—do once you’ve crossed the finish line.
How do you recover after a marathon?
Running a marathon is a colossal physical undertaking. You can’t expect to cross the finish line, snap a quick photo for Instagram, and carry on with your day expecting your ailing body to be none the wiser. Whether you’re a marathon first timer or a seasoned veteran, before you return to normalcy, there are a series of recovery steps you need to follow. And they being as soon as the race ends.
First up, once you’ve finished a marathon, you’re going to be sore. Very sore. But if you’re reading this once you’ve already completed the race, you certainly don’t need us to tell you that. To ease the pain on your muscles and joints, and to prevent future soreness, stretching is essential. Dynamic stretches, which prioritise control and eliminate force, are ideal. Avoid static stretching, which can strain your body and make any damage sustained during your run far worse.
The next step in marathon recovery is regaining energy. Let’s be honest, no matter how easy you say it was, running 42km is always going to leave you exhausted. Besides carbo-loading (which we’ll get to shortly), sleep is the most effective method of revitalisation and muscle repair. Try a brief 90-minute nap, that’s the optimal time to experience the fast-acting benefits of sleep. Settling in for an afternoon siesta might be difficult if it’s not part of your regular schedule, but it’s not like you run a marathon every day either.
Ice baths are another helpful way to ensure you’re recovering to the best of your abilities. Ice baths are a crucial pillar of active recovery by assisting blood circulation and reducing pain and inflammation. While the temptation to submerge yourself in sub-zero temperatures for days on end after a marathon will be hard to resist, it’s important that you fight the urge, as hot baths will be far more effective after the initial freeze. As the dilation of blood vessels initiated by warmer climes is critical in aiding muscle recovery and easing muscle tension.
What should you eat after a marathon?
After running a marathon, there’s very little chance you’ll climb out of a caloric deficit, but you have to try. Replacing the carbohydrates burned during prolonged physical activity is a necessary evil, and despite long distance runners frequently saying that eating is the last thing they want to do after a race, it’s the quickest way to get back on top of your game.
A carb-heavy snack (or drink) shortly after crossing the finish line will put you well on your way to recovery. Endure one or two hearty, balanced meals consisting of carbs, protein and vegetables throughout the rest of the day and you will have eaten your way back into your body’s good books.
A marathon is going to make you sweat—a lot. To prevent dehydration, you’ll need to refuel with plenty of fluids—and water should be the priority. It may be tempting to head straight to the pub for a celebratory pint, and while a lone triumphant beer will do no harm, excessive alcohol consumption can cause further dehydration and set back the recovery process even further.
When can you train again after a marathon?
Can’t you just give your body a rest for a little while? If not, you need to at least consider a fairly important factor that should dictate your return to training: safety. It generally isn’t safe to perform any high intensity physical activities on the same day that you’ve completed a marathon. But how long until you could, say, run another marathon? Well, there’s no surefire answer there. It depends on how hard you pushed yourself and how you feel. Everyone recovers at different speeds, but a common formula is to have one day of rest for every three kilometres you ran. So, a 42km outing equates to 14 days’ rest. Enjoy a fortnight length break before getting back into the grind.
It’s best to give high intensity training a miss in the days immediately following a marathon, but active recovery is still better than being confined to your bed in agony. Easing into physical activity with gentle swimming is a great way to reactivate your muscles and get back into training. After a week, a light run will be a good indicator of where your body is at in regard to performance.
If you simply cannot wait to get back into training and burning off excess energy becomes necessary, at least attempt to keep it low-impact. Instead of running, try cross-training, swimming, cycling or an elliptical machine. If you experience any pain, it’ll mean you’ve pushed too hard, too early, and should’ve listened to us. Take a few more days to rest.
What’s the next hurdle after a marathon?
If the first thing that comes to mind after completing a marathon is ‘what can I do next’, you have our respect, but also our sympathy. You may actually be exhibiting symptoms of post marathon syndrome—the acronym for which is apparently PMS, which we believe is already taken, so perhaps we can call it the post marathon blues instead? Anyway, post marathon blues are a real struggle. It can be difficult to switch from focusing all of your attention on achieving a single lofty goal, to finally achieving that goal and having nothing left to strive for, and can often result in depression.
After being devoted to a single goal for days, weeks, months, or even years, there’s no guaranteed measure of preventing the post marathon blues. Rather than immediately jumping into another challenge, take some time away from training and practice some good old-fashioned self-gratification. Wear your finisher’s medal with pride, drop your experience into conversations—even when no one asked—and go on a social media blitz flaunting your accomplishment. It’s most definitely justified.
If you’re confident that your hunger for another challenge is not symptomatic of post marathon blues, we’d kindly direct you towards ultra-marathons. By definition, an ultra-marathon is any race that’s longer than a traditional 42km marathon, but they’re rarely so simple. Ultra-marathons can range in distance anywhere from 50km to 5000km—as is the case with the world’s longest certified race, the ‘Self Transcendence’—and they’re usually held off-road on hiking trails, in national parks and throughout vast wilderness. A fair warning though, once you’ve finished the Self Transcendence, there may not be any challenges left.
If you’re new to marathon running, where do you start?
There’s a chance you’re reading this before having completed a marathon and, in an act of harmless wishful thinking, want to see what it’ll be like once you’ve reached the milestone. Some would say you’re jumping the gun, but we’ll say you’re simply gathering all the necessary evidence to make an informed decision.
We will say this: there’s no easy way to run a marathon. If you’re going to commit to the task, where you begin will depend on your current fitness level. In any case, the key to achieving your goals, however lofty, is progression. Don’t expect to run 42km with no prior experience. Start small, and as you improve, add a few extra kilometres every week and eventually, you’ll be capable. Remember, it all starts with a single step.