I just finished my first marathon Sunday, and I'm wondering what to do for recovery. How much should I be running in the next few weeks, and how long before I can schedule marathon number two? –Jamie D.
Congratulations on your new marathoner status! The recovery process varies every bit as much as the marathon experience itself. Sometimes the post-race healing happens very efficiently and you are back to running 100% in a matter of weeks, while other times it can take much longer. Some variables that affect the length of recovery time needed include the quality of the training season, lingering aches and pains, how you navigate the return to running, nutrition, stress in your life, sleep, how hard you pushed on race day, the course and terrain, the weather, your age, your marathon experience, and more.
Celebrate with a few Spa weeks. Since this was your first marathon, going the distance can be a little more demanding on the body and mind than marathons in your future. For this reason, it is wise to invest in some solid tender loving care (TLC) the week after the marathon. Don't get me wrong, this doesn't mean lying on the couch watching Dancing with the Stars. It simply means being gentle with your activity and nurturing as you heal. Things that can improve the quality and speed of recovery include getting a massage, moving lightly with walking or easy effort cross-training for 20 to 30 minutes, flexibility exercises (foam rolling, stretching), rest days, quality sleep, and high-quality nutrition.
Start back with short, easy runs. After several days of TLC, assess how your body feels. If there aren't any lingering aches and pains, dedicate the next week to short, easy-paced runs for 30 to 40 minutes followed by flexibility work. If you experience leftover aches or pains, give yourself more active rest time to heal. Again, this process varies after every marathon. If you listen to how your body is responding, you'll have a direct line to what you need to do to recover. There isn't a cookie-cutter recovery plan, but all should gently return to running, first with TLC, then easy paced runs, followed by a return to your normal running regimen.
Keep it easy and build the mileage back. Continue to build the total time of your runs while keeping the effort level easy. Giving yourself a solid three weeks of easy effort will help the recovery process. Again, this varies, but I always err on the conservative side. I'd rather give myself time to heal and feel good during the runs than to push the envelope and risk an injury, poor performance, or burnout. Typically, runners can get back into the quality workouts (speed, endurance) after three or four weeks of easy-paced running.
The marathon world is your oyster. After a few weeks of quality recovery time, assess how you feel and what you want to do next. There isn't one right answer for when to run your next marathon. The key is to go with what excites you, give yourself time to train, and be realistic as you develop your inner marathoner. Some people love running marathons very often and travel to explore the world, while others dig running one or two a year to improve their time. Go with what motivates you and stay mindful to how your body is adapting to the demands of the training. That is one of the greatest parts of the running world–you can choose what you want to accomplish and tailor it to your marathoning life.