Scroll through social media in the few days after a major marathon and it looks like runners can go straight from #medalmonday to #tracktuesday with barely any time to recover. But if you’re still walking sideways down stairs, don’t feel like you have to jump back into running just because everyone else is.
You just ran a marathon.
It doesn’t matter how many marathons you’ve run, or how hard you ran this one, because running 26.2 is a BFD for your body. And after all the work you’ve done leading up to race day, your body (and brain) needs a break. Deciding to not take any time to chill after a big race can actually do more damage in the long run than if you were to lose any fitness over the course of a few weeks without running.
If you’re the kind of person who gets antsy just thinking about going a week (the horror!) without running, here’s what happens to your body over the course of a marathon, how long you need to recover from running 26.2 miles, and why it’s so important to give your body enough time to recover post-race.
What Happens to Your Body Over the Course of a Marathon?
If you’ve already run a marathon, you know how sore your body is in the following days. I’m not just talking struggling to walk down stairs, but literally bracing yourself against two walls to lower yourself onto the toilet.
That soreness is the result of microtrauma in your muscle cells from the repetitive stress of intense exercise, says Todd McGrath, M.D., a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, and it generally peaks around 48 hours after the event.
A marathon—and the training leading up to it—induced “inflammation and muscle fiber necrosis that significantly impaired muscle power and durability,” in an older study published in the Journal of the Neurological Sciences. (FYI: Necrosis means death.)
“It doesn’t matter how fit you are or how fast you go or how hard your effort is relative to your fitness, everyone experiences some degree of muscle damage and breakdown over the course of a marathon,” explains McGrath—and repairing that damage takes time.
Muscle breakdown leads to elevated levels of certain biomarkers that require time to come back to homeostasis, adds Holley Samuel, a registered dietitian, certified personal trainer, and running coach. Creatine kinase, a biomarker of skeletal and myocardial tissue, was present for more than seven days post-marathon, according to research published in Free Radical Biology and Medicine, and myoglobin, another sign of muscle damage, was present in the bloodstream for three to four days after a race, a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine determined. Cortisol—the stress hormone—levels can also be high, along with C-reactive protein, a general market for inflammation, says McGrath.
Plus, you’ve significantly taxed your energy resources. “Even the best nutrition plan can’t keep the tank full,” says McGrath.
Sure, you may start the marathon carb-loaded. Sure, you may fuel properly throughout the race. But by the end, there’s just about no glycogen left in your muscles. Therefore, post-race, “you need carbs to quickly fill those reserves back up and protein to start repairing your muscles,” says Samuel. The longer you wait to prioritize nutrition, the longer it’s going to take to feel back to normal.
How Long Do You Need to Recover After a Marathon?
Recovery is different for everyone, so for some runners, getting back to it three days post-race might be fine. But it’s also totally fine if that’s not OK for you. There’s an old guideline that recommends one day of recovery for every mile raced, or 26 days post-marathon. That may be reasonable for you, or entirely unrealistic.
“For most recreational runners, I recommend at least one full week off,” says Samuel. “During that week, it’s all about light walking, stretching, some mobility, whatever your body needs.” You may need two weeks, and that’s cool, too!
“A week or 10 days out, you could certainly start to return to some regular running—nothing to make you too sore, no efforts that are too hard, just loosening up,” says McGrath. After two weeks, consider introducing the idea of a “reverse taper,” in which you match what your week before the race looked like, essentially working backwards, says Samuel.
In that sense, you are embracing the 26 days of recovery—because recovery can include low-intensity aerobic work. Cross training on a bike or in a pool can help you maintain your aerobic fitness without putting too much stress on your body, while restorative and mobility-minded workouts can help loosen up your muscles.
“Recovery,” as a whole, doesn’t mean zero exercise. Rather, it’s about taking a break from intense training. There’s really no need to do any speed workouts or runs over 90 minutes in the three-plus weeks post marathon. Adding that kind of intensity while your body is still recovering is only going to drag out the recovery process further.
Are You Going to Lose Fitness If You Take Time Off?
Yes, you will lose a little bit of fitness if you stop running for a few weeks. But that doesn’t stop the pros from doing it—Des Linden has been open on Twitter about not running for a full month—and it shouldn’t stop you, either.
Adults who took a month off after performing regular cardio for four straight months lost almost all their aerobic gains in that month, states older research published in Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases. And your heart shows significant signs of detraining after a few weeks of little to no exercise, according to a study on marathoners published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
“You certainly do lose a little bit of fitness, but it comes back fairly quickly,” says McGrath. “You don’t lose the long-term gains and the huge aerobic base that you get from months of training.”
Training—from a macro perspective—isn’t like an upwards diagonal line on a graph, says Samuel. “It’s a more cyclical thing, where you build to a peak and then come down into taper and recovery periods so you can build back up a little higher for the next peak, and so on and so on.” You have to have that downswing in order to have a consistent upswing.
“We’re not meant to maintain peak fitness year round,” says McGrath—that’s a recipe for burnout and overtraining. Stress (i.e. exercise) requires adequate rest for growth. When you think about taking time off after a big race, instead of focusing on all that you might be losing, think about what you might gain from a rested, healthy body (and brain) after that time off. That’s what’s going to make you a stronger athlete in the long run.