It's marathon season again! We've followed many of you as you've run Steamtown, Chicago, Berlin, and more. Congratulations!
One question we get asked often is how much time you should take off for marathon recovery. The simple answer is about 7-10 days. Here's why.
What happens to our body when we run a marathon
The marathon challenges all systems and tissues in our body, from muscles and tendons to the immune system. Here are the two major things you can expect after running a marathon:
There is muscle inflammation and injury. By injury, we don't mean large tears or muscle strains, but there will be micro-tearing and some muscle fiber/cell necrosis (cellular death). This results in inflammation and elevated creatine kinase and myoglobin, which can be seen in blood work. CK and myoglobin are markers for both skeletal AND cardiac muscle damage. Studies have shown that CK remains elevated for seven days or more, and myoglobin stays elevated for about 4 to 5 days. This is seen even in the absence of muscle soreness. So, even if you start feeling good, take those days off!
The immune system is weakened. When the immune system is weakened for prolonged periods, it is similar to having an elevated stress response (elevated cortisol) for prolonged periods. This can lead to overtraining syndrome, which can take a very long time to recover from. This is becoming more common in elite athletes who train hard all the time. Not only is it recommended to take 7-10 days off after a marathon, but breaks are recommended about every six months of training.
Will I lose my Fitness?
We know from several studies that very little fitness is lost in 7-10 days. And if you need more time off than that, your body will be rested and recovered, allowing you to come back stronger. You can maintain about 50% of your volume and maintain the same fitness level, but realize it is OK if you lose fitness. It will give you something to build upon during your next training cycle.
This makes me think of a blog post I read that compared constant high-intensity training to the structure of a house. Constant training is like adding levels and additions to a house. If you never take a break, you are neglecting the foundation of the house. Sometimes, you need to go back to the basics and take care of the foundation. Read the article here.
Is there anything I can do to speed up recovery?
The short answer is no. We're really going to need you to accept our limitations and take those days off! Short walks and REALLY EASY short runs are acceptable if you are too antsy.
This is where I like to add my bit about mental health. If you find you are unable to take this recovery time, I highly recommend you explore that with a professional mental health provider, a friend, your coach, etc. We'd be happy to have that conversation with you, as well.
For a longer answer, there are some things that might help you feel better more quickly. There are many recovery tools out there such as rollers, recovery pumps, electric stim, and more. Some runners also may also rely on more hands-on things like massage and stretching. Ultimately, there is no strong evidence to show that any of these physiologically speed up recovery. However, if they feel good, go for it. Just keep in mind that this does not mean you are ready to run sooner than the 7-10 days.
Take the time off and you'll be much better in the long run! (pun intended 😉)