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marathon, recovery, post-marathon, muscle

Post-Marathon Recovery: Tips and Tricks According To Science

Written by: Natasha Edwards



Time to read 5 min

Keywords: marathon, recovery, post-marathon, muscle

How are you supposed to start your post-marathon recovery, according to science? What are the most optimal techniques, and are massages and ice baths really as important for recovery? How do you effectively deal with the lactic acid buildup, and what should be your immediate steps after you finish your marathon?

Here’s a deeper look at the post-marathon recovery techniques you can use.

1. Optimal Nutrient Intake for Post-Marathon Recovery

After a marathon, your body needs to rebuild, refuel, and rehydrate.

This process begins as soon as you cross the finish line.

To replenish muscle glycogen stores, it's recommended to consume 1.5 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight after completing the race.

High-quality protein sources, such as animal-based or soy proteins, are also essential for post-exercise protein synthesis  due to their high biological value and complete amino acid content.

If you prefer plant-based proteins, combining sources like brown rice with beans can provide the necessary essential amino acids.

Your recovery meals should also include quality carb sources like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

These nutrient-rich foods provide fibre, antioxidants, and a variety of vitamins and minerals needed for optimal recovery. Additionally, it's important to weigh yourself before and after the race to determine how much fluid needs to be replenished.

marathon, recovery, post-marathon, muscle

2. Recommended Physical Activity for Post-Marathon Recovery

Physical activity is a crucial part of post-marathon recovery. In fact, immediately after finishing a marathon, it's vital to keep moving at a slow pace past the finish line – when you run, your blood vessels dilate, muscles in your legs contract and your heart rate increases. Not only does all this push you forward in your run, but those muscle contractions also help push the blood back to your heart.

If you stop suddenly (even for a short period), blood will start to pool in your legs due to gravity disrupting that cycle – and you could faint . Keep moving! Recovery of the cardiovascular system occurs after a period of minutes to hours , so it’ll take some time to feel back to normal.

It's important to consider sex and age differences when you think about how you’ll recover over the next few hours and days, as they can impact recovery.

According to a study published in the International NIH, trained women’s pulse and breathing recover slower in comparison to trained men .

The study also suggests possible differences in recovery processes between male and female athletes of different age groups.

Gentle workouts, such as swimming , may be suitable to pick up 5 to 7 days after a marathon run. It is recommended to take a break from running in the first week or two (or three!) after, as the body needs to recover from the trauma that the marathon may have caused. If you feel like you are ready, a slow, easy run after the first week can be helpful to suss out stiffness and any potential injuries you may have picked up during the race, but brings no real health benefits – and you just may not be up to it.

Stiffness and fatigue is normal. Gentle activities can help restore balance in the body without causing further stress or injury. It's also advisable to avoid trying entirely new types of workouts during this period.

Instead, focus on activities that are familiar and comfortable to your body. Stretching, and yoga, can help release tension and allow your body to gently recover. Remember, the goal is to aid recovery, not to push your limits. 

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3. The Role of Massage in Post-Marathon Recovery

Massage therapy is a commonly used recovery strategy among marathon runners, but does it really help with lactic acid buildup?

According to a study published in the Journal of Athletic Training, massage therapy can indeed help reduce lactic acid levels in the muscles  after intense physical activity, but it is recommended to wait until a few days after  the marathon to get one.

This is because massage improves circulation, which in turn facilitates the removal of waste products, including lactic acid, from the muscles.

Moreover, massage therapy can help reduce muscle tension and soreness, which are common post-marathon complaints. Sports massage is often best if you feel specific pain or tightness in your legs, as they can target areas of your body and have knowledge of how to treat bodies post-exercise.

However, it's important to note that massage therapy should not be the only recovery strategy you rely on.

Consuming fluids and carbs is also essential to replenish lost electrolytes and restore glycogen stores. So, while massage therapy can be a beneficial part of your post-marathon recovery plan, it should be used alongside other strategies for optimal results. 

marathon, recovery, post-marathon, muscle

4. The Science Behind Ice Baths in Post-Marathon Recovery

Ice baths, or cold water immersions, have been used by athletes for years as a means to speed up recovery after intense physical activity.

The science behind the effectiveness of ice baths is mixed, according to Dr. Dominic King, a sports medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic.

On one hand, research shows that ice baths can provide some benefit for people who engage in high-intensity exercise, aiding in muscle soreness relief, swelling reduction, and overall recovery .

The mental health effects of ice baths , such as improving focus and mood, are less studied and understood.

As with any recovery strategy, ice baths come with potential risks, such as hypothermia  if the body temperature drops below 35 degrees celsius. Use ice baths responsibly and in conjunction with other recovery strategies for optimal results. No matter what the studies say – if it helps you, feel free to utilise it. 

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