A fellow runner recently asked, “Anybody find the mental recovery part harder than the physical recovery after a marathon?”
After months of training and racing 26.2 miles, recovery is necessary for your physical and mental health. Not only does the body need a break from running but the mind needs a break, too.
Runners know that recovery is critical but still many struggle with taking more than a few days off. And it may be more from the emotional and mental aspect that make it difficult to follow rest guidelines.
Whether you ran a great race, used the race as a training run, or just had a really bad day, the post-marathon recovery time is a necessary component of your training plan. Over the next few paragraphs, we’ll look at reasons why you need downtime and provide you with 4 marathon recovery tips.
Marathon Effects On Your Body
Marathons are physically hard on your body. It doesn’t matter at what level you are running, there is still physical damage that occurs to your muscles, tendons, and cells. It is during the repair process that makes you stronger.
Running requires continuous muscle activation. And if you’re running a marathon, depending on your level, your muscles are working for 2 to 6 hours. Thus, causing severe short-term muscle damage. The inflammation and muscle fiber necrosis (death of cells in an organ due to injury) impairs muscle power. The breakdown makes your muscles weak for a short period of time.
Cellular damage is measured by the amount of creatinine kinase (CK), a necessary enzyme, in your body. Levels rise after strenuous exercise, skeletal muscle injury, and even after a heart attack. And higher levels of this enzyme can cause the kidneys to work harder, causing electrolyte imbalances and in extreme cases can lead to acute renal failure. One study concluded that CK levels remain higher than normal for seven days post-marathon.
Physical damage is short-term. And our bodies adapt but you have to give the muscles and cells that time after you’ve ran. Researchers from Ball State University compared two groups after a marathon. One group ran easily for 20 to 40 minutes a day. The other group did not run at all. After 10 days, the non-runners scored better in muscle strength and muscle endurance.
Psychological Effects of Running a Marathon
It took a lot of psychological strength to prepare and complete a marathon. Whether it was your very first marathon or your 15th marathon, you accomplished something very difficult. It doesn’t come without any stress. A group of researchers studied the athlete’s perception of stress and recovery states following a marathon race. And the athletes confirmed that running a marathon is a very demanding event. The study highlights the importance of monitoring psychological states during training and after the race. They also suggest a rest period of 2 weeks for mental recovery.
Boston Marathon’s lead psychologist, Dr. Jeff Brown said, “Having a feeling of being let down, or even a short wave of depression, following a well-prepared race can be a normal experience.” Not only has your training program been a big part of your day for several months, but your brain is used to structure and meeting specific goals. After a big race, it is perfectly normal to feel a loss of energy and motivation.
But Won’t I Lose My Fitness?
Understandably, taking time off can create the fear of losing the fitness level that you earned through training and completing a marathon. Studies are highly interested in what occurs during rest periods and have given valuable insights.
Because VO2 max (how much oxygen you can use during exercise) is one of the best measurements of physical fitness levels, researchers use it to compare the effect of rest on aerobic fitness. One study showed that after two weeks of complete rest, 24% of the increase in VO2 max gained during the training program was retained.
Another study showed that the reason for a decline in cardiovascular fitness following 2-4 weeks of complete rest is largely due to a reduction in blood volume.
Another measurement that is associated with fitness levels is lactate thresholds. Lactate is a substance that gets used for energy when your body doesn’t have enough oxygen to use glucose for energy. A study published the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise suggests that even after four weeks without training, a trained athlete’s lactate threshold is lowered but it remains higher than untrained values.
Likely what you’ll notice after you return from a short break of 1 to 2 weeks is you’ll feel stronger, not less fit.
4 Tips to Mentally Recover After A Marathon
Take Time Off
Leave the running shoes in the closet for one to two weeks. It’s important to give your body and your mind this time to heal. If this gives you a little bit of anxiety, write down two reasons why you personally need to rest. Remind yourself of those reasons or think of new reasons during your rest period. These are not excuses, yet legitimate reasons.
After three to seven days of complete rest and recovery, begin an active recovery program. Active recovery includes other forms of light exercise for no more than 60 minutes and at a low-intensity level. Walking, riding a bike, yoga, or swimming are just a few activities to include in your active recovery period.
Don’t Compare Yourself to Others
Theodore Roosevelt said “Comparison is the thief of joy.” The tendency to compare ourselves to others is as human as any other emotion. And apps like Strava make it even easier for runners to see how we stack up against each other. The negative effects of comparing can be really damaging to our mental psyche, especially during the recovery period.
A few tips on helping reduce comparison thoughts:
- Take this time to be grateful for your physical abilities to complete the marathon. Write down why you enjoyed your marathon training and race.
- Think about how your physical abilities helped you finish the race. And what you’ll need to do physically to reach the next finish line.
- It’s normal to feel jealousy and it can be healthy to increase your awareness of emotions that you feel. Accept the emotion and work on not letting it dictate negative reactions.
Keep Your Training Buddies Close
I bet many of your training buddies are having some of the same emotions that you’re having. In the same way you’ve helped each other train for the race, help each other get through the rest period.
This may be a perfect time to take a running friendship to a different level. Maybe grab drinks, go see a movie, or do something else during your normal run time. There’s nothing quite like a buddy who’s help you get through mile after mile. Marathon recover together.
Decide What to Do Next
Planning for what you want to run next is a great way to use your recovery time. There are so many race options that maybe it’s another marathon or maybe it’s a different distance. Give yourself a new challenge to work towards.
This tip only works if you recognize that rest and recovery is a necessary component of a training plan. If you avoid the rest period, you’re setting yourself up for risk of injury or burnout. Once you’ve taken time to rest, taking on a new training program is perfectly healthy and normal. It’s also normal to not plan anything and decide you want to do something else.
What are some things you have learned when it comes to mentally recovering from a marathon?
These are great tips. I will have to pass along to my runner friends. Thanks for sharing!
I have not done a full marathon myself but I think these are great tips that can apply to any distance race or event. We need to give ourselves permission to recover from them and not worry about losing fitness
It is the same with strength training. It’s the hardest part of training I have because I love to lift and stopping is stressful. Maybe stressful isn’t the right word. Life lacks a little joy when I don’t lift.
Great post! This post made me miss college–for one of my majors, we did a lab to measure one of our fellow student’s VO2 max, hehe. I wonder what mine would be! I’ve never run a marathon but remembering to get adequtae rest afterward is definitely important!
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