There is one unavoidable tradition marathon runners practice the morning after the race: The waddle. It’s the Tin-Man-without-his-oil walk of a person so sore they can’t bend their legs enough to move forward more than a few inches each step.
Congrats! This is what you’ve earned for completing 26.2 miles.
MORE: Marathon Tips From the Pros
Soreness is unavoidable. It will last anywhere from three days to a week, depending on how experienced a marathoner you are and how many miles you put in during the training cycle (more miles with a proper taper means less soreness).
Fortunately, there are several steps you can take (or waddle through) to ease your pain and get back to training without injury. Here, Jonathan Cane, the co-founder of the New York City-based training group City Coach, offers his advice on the best ways to recover.
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Lactic Acid is Not Making You Sore. Don’t Focus on “Flushing” It
The idea that in order to reduce soreness after a marathon, you have to flush out all the lactic acid in your system is, as Cane bluntly states, “horeshit.”
Lactic acid is a by-product your muscles produce during intense exercise. Yes, it’s the painful stuff you feel in the middle of a hard-effort creeping in to your legs as you push to the end of the workout. But, according to Cane, even if you lie down at right at the end of a marathon and don’t move, studies show the lactic acid disappears or is greatly reduced within a few hours.
Which means stretching won’t help. And, in fact, might make things worse. The next-morning soreness keeping you stuck in bed is from “micro-traumas” in the tissue, ones that need to heal before the pain goes away, Cane says. The best way to heal them is time. Stretching the damaged muscles may just aggravate the healing tissue more.
“I’m not saying stretching is always bad,” Can says. He encourages it if you need to improve your range of motion during training. “But in terms of it’s effectiveness in reducing post-marathon soreness, there is no evidence.”
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Move Around… A Little
So, stretching’s out, but that does not mean you should become a log for the next few days. Right after the race, Cane recommends walking a little—whether that’s to the hotel, the shower, or the bar. Movement prevents one major issue that can slow down recovery—blood pooling in your legs.
“An active recovery is to your benefit,” Cane says. This is especially true if you are getting on a plane the evening or morning after the race. “Be that guy that walks up and down the aisles.” You want the blood to circulate through to all of the damaged muscles, and being stationary for too long can prevent that.
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One of the best ways to prevent blood pooling is to elevate your legs. The simplest way is to throw a few pillows under your calves to get your feet higher than your heart.
Marathoners though, from elites down to first-timers, swear by the legs-up-the-wall yoga pose as one of the most effective recovery methods to keep blood circulating.
Start by lying down adjacent to a wall. Slowly lift your legs along the wall, pivoting your body 90 degrees until your legs are fully elevated and you are facing the wall. Hold the position for 10 to 15 minutes the evening of the race, and then once each day for the following week.
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Ice Will (Probably) Help
There is very limited evidence proving that ice baths during training boost recovery. But Cane says it’s still an effective tool after a marathon. The idea is to use the chilly temperature to reduce the natural muscle inflammation that comes with the hard effort.
“Ice is your friend in the short term,” Cane says. “It helps heal the micro-traumas in your muscle and gets rid of the blood pooling.”
Which is why, even though it is not the most comfortable thing in the world, Cane tells his athletes to take an ice bath for 15 to 20 minutes the evening after the race.
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A Few Beers Won’t Kill You, But Celebrate With Caution
“I am not going to be the one to tell people not to have a beer or two after the race,” Cane says. “But you aren’t doing yourself any favors by going overboard with the adult beverages.”
Your body is already maxing out its efforts on healing your sore and damaged muscles. Adding copious amounts of booze aggravates the process. So during the evening of the race, and the following days, Cane says to have some fun—but be wary that one too many will just make things worse the next morning.
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Don’t Get Ambitious
Without fail, the Monday morning after every marathon Cane receives two types of emails from his athletes. “In one, they say ‘Coach, I am so pissed off, I know I can do better. Can we find a new marathon and get back to it?’” he says. “In the other, they say ‘Man I am so psyched with that result, let’s get back to work.’”
Both emails fall in to the same trap: Runners wanting to jump back in to training too soon.
There is no hard and fast formula for how long it takes before your body will feel normal again after a marathon, Cane says. “Typically, the older, heavier, less experienced runners take longer.”
But, the general rule of thumb is that you should wait one day per mile of the race to get back to normal running. For a marathon, that means 26 days. Which means, even if your head is telling you to get back out the door and test your legs, you have to be patient.
Cane recommends walking for 20 minutes or so the day after the race. The week after, he says you can start to slowly jog, though if you feel any pain, you should slow back down to a walk.“Someone who goes out and does a marathon has a lot of ambition,” Cane says. “But that ambition can work against them during the recovery. Resist that temptation to get back to training.”
Instead, take it easy and relax. You've earned it.
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