How to Recover After a Marathon (According to Science)

How to Recover After a Marathon (According to Science)

So you're ready to complete your first (or next) marathon. Congrats – it's a huge achievement that demands months of rigorous physical and mental training.

However, the race isn't truly over when you cross the finish line. Effective recovery is crucial to repair your muscles, rehydrate your body, and restore your energy levels.

In this All-Season Guide, we take a look at some of the scientifically-supported strategies to ensure a smooth and swift recovery post-marathon. 

Immediate Post-Race Actions

Keep Moving
The temptation to collapse after crossing the finish line is strong, but it's crucial to keep moving. Walking for 10-15 minutes post-race helps flush out metabolic byproducts from your muscles, reducing the severity of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This light movement encourages blood flow, which aids in the removal of waste products like lactic acid and delivers essential nutrients to tired muscles.

The Science: A 2012 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that active recovery, such as walking, can significantly reduce blood lactate concentration and muscle soreness compared to passive recovery (Doma, K., Deakin, G. B., & Sealey, R. M., 2012). 



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Refuel and Rehydrate

Within 30 minutes of completing the marathon, it's vital to consume a mix of carbohydrates and proteins, ideally in a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio. This combination helps replenish glycogen stores depleted during the race and kickstarts muscle repair. Hydration is equally important; drink fluids that contain electrolytes to restore the balance lost through sweat.

The Science: Research in the Journal of Applied Physiology indicates that consuming carbohydrates and proteins immediately post-exercise enhances muscle glycogen synthesis (Ivy, J. L., Goforth, H. W., Damon, B. M., McCauley, T. R., Parsons, E. C., & Price, T. B., 2002). Read the study here.



The Next Day and Beyond

Adequate Rest

Your body needs time to heal. Taking at least 3-7 days off from running can significantly aid recovery. During this period, prioritize sleep, as it is during deep sleep that the body repairs and regenerates muscle tissue. Aim for at least 8 hours per night, and take naps if possible.

The Science:  A study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that sleep plays a critical role in muscle recovery and repair, with sleep deprivation significantly impairing muscle recovery (Dattilo, M., Antunes, H. K. M., Medeiros, A., Mônico-Neto, M., Souza, H. S., Tufik, S., & de Mello, M. T., 2011). Read the study here.

Active Recovery

Engaging in low-impact activities such as walking, swimming, or cycling can be beneficial. These activities help maintain blood flow and aid muscle recovery without putting additional strain on your body. Gentle movement can alleviate stiffness and keep you feeling active without overexerting your recovering muscles.

The Science:  According to research done in 2019 and published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, active recovery for just 6-10 minutes can help reduce muscle soreness and inflammation, promoting quicker recovery (Ortiz, Robert O. Jr; Sinclair Elder, Amanda J.2; Elder, Craig L.; Dawes, J. Jay). 

Gentle Stretching and Foam Rolling

Incorporate gentle stretching into your recovery routine to improve flexibility and alleviate muscle tightness. Avoid static stretching immediately post-race as your muscles are still in a state of stress. Instead, opt for dynamic stretches initially and gradually include static stretches in the following days.
Using a foam roller can be incredibly effective in breaking down knots and tight spots in your muscles. It increases blood flow to the muscles and helps in quicker recovery by enhancing nutrient delivery and waste removal.

The Science:  A study in the Journal of Athletic Training demonstrated that "foam rolling effectively reduced DOMS and associated decrements in most dynamic performance measures. (Gregory E. P. Pearcey, MSc, David J. Bradbury-Squires, MSc, Jon-Erik Kawamoto, MSc,Eric J. Drinkwater, PhD, David G. Behm, PhD, and Duane C. Button, PhD). Read their study here.

Massage and Compression

A few days post-race, consider getting a sports massage. It can help in reducing muscle tension, alleviating soreness, and enhancing blood flow. However, getting a massage too soon can further damage already stressed muscles, so it's best to wait at least 48 hours.
Wearing compression garments can also aid recovery by facilitating blood flow, reducing inflammation, and decreasing muscle soreness.

The Science:   Research in the British Journal of Sports Medicine supports the use of compression garments for reducing muscle soreness and improving recovery following intense exercise (Hill, J. A., Howatson, G., van Someren, K. A., Leeder, J., & Pedlar, C. R., 2014). 

Contrast Baths

Alternating between hot and cold water baths, known as contrast baths, can be an effective way to reduce inflammation and promote circulation. This method is particularly beneficial 24-48 hours post-race, as it helps in reducing muscle stiffness and swelling.

The Science:  A meta-analysis in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that contrast water therapy can be effective in reducing muscle soreness and improving recovery following exercise (Hing, W. A., White, S. G., Bouaaphone, A., & Lee, P., 2008). Read more here.



Comprehensive Post-Marathon Recovery Plan

To summarize, here is a step-by-step guide to post-marathon recovery:

Immediately Post-Race:

  • Walk for 10-15 minutes.
  • Consume a carbohydrate and protein-rich snack.
  • Hydrate with electrolyte-containing fluids.

First 24-48 Hours:

  • Rest and prioritize sleep.
  • Engage in gentle activities like walking.
  • Start foam rolling and dynamic stretches.

48 Hours to One Week:

  • Continue with low-impact activities.
  • Get a sports massage if possible.
  • Wear compression garments if available.
  • Begin contrast baths (hot and cold water therapy).

One to Two Weeks:

  • Gradually reintroduce light running or other preferred physical activities.
  • Maintain hydration and a balanced diet rich in nutrients.
  • Focus on sleep and overall rest.


Finally - and this can't be overstated - perhaps the most important aspect of post-race recovery is listening to your body. Pay attention to signs of fatigue and soreness. If you are still feeling the effects of the marathon, continue to rest and avoid high-intensity activities until you feel fully recovered. Overtraining can lead to injuries and prolonged recovery periods.

Beyond that, following the above guidelines can make for a comprehensive and effective recovery after running a marathon. Your body has just accomplished an incredible feat. Treat it with the care and respect (and pizza?) it deserves to bounce back stronger and ready for your next challenge.

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