Why Recovery is a Vital Part of Marathon Training

Here’s a basic three-week recovery schedule – and a look at why you need it.

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Recovery is a key piece of half marathon and marathon training, yet it's one of the most overlooked parts of training. Many people confuse recovery, especially post-race, with easy runs or workouts. Matt Dixon, a recovery coach based in San Francisco, explains that "recovery is the thing that enables hard training." He says athletes are able to push themselves more in training workouts and increase their overall fitness when they are well rested and fueled correctly. If you don't let yourself recover, you'll have to back off your workouts when it matters. Don't worry about losing running fitness during your recovery period. Muscle memory will kick in when you start running again, and cross-training workouts will help you maintain your cardiovascular fitness.

Your body will recover faster than your hormones or your emotional state. After three to five days, you won't be sore and you'll feel like running because that's what you're used to doing. That is the time to stick to your recovery plan and not run until the time that you and your coach have agreed upon.

The emotional recovery from a marathon is typically the hardest for many runners. You might feel antsy, out of shape and pretty grumpy. Part of this emotional let down (even if you ran well) occurs because running a marathon has been shown to decrease choline production by 40 percent. Choline is the precursor for the mood-regulating neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. With decreased production comes a higher likelihood to feel depressed and sad after a race. Plus, you have a higher chance of getting sick because the stress hormones released during a longer race suppress the immune system.

[Read: How to Prepare for a Marathon Race.]

How much recovery do you need?

Your recovery period will depend on the length of the race and how you approached it. If you raced, you will need more recovery; if you took it easy, you won't need as much recovery time. It can be hard to know exactly how to approach the recovery period especially when you feel out of sync physically and emotionally.

The general rule of thumb is to take as many days to recover as miles you ran. So for a marathon, you'd take 26 days, or three weeks, for recovery. In some cases, you'll need more time (if you have an injury, for example), and other times you'll feel like you can run a week later. In both scenarios, the important thing to remember is to listen to your body and not force a run. Proper recovery time allows you to train even harder for your next race and remain injury-free. The most important time post race is the week after. Below is a basic three-week recovery schedule:

[Read: How to Get the Most Out of Long Runs.]

Week One (days one to seven post race)

During this week, focus on promoting blood flow to the legs, not building fitness. Do two or three days of low-impact activities such as yoga, swimming, walking and low-resistance biking. Do not run during this week. Eat lots of fruits and veggies (like kale and spinach), carbohydrates and protein. The carbs and protein will help repair muscle damage, while the fruits will give you a boost of vitamin C and antioxidants to help combat free radical damage and boost your immune system. Schedule a light massage two to four days after to help promote blood flow and repair your muscles. 

Week Two (days eight to 14)

While you might feel like running, resist the urge. Up your cross-training to two or three 45-minute sessions of medium effort. Do one or two easy effort sessions of walking or light yoga.

Week Three (days 14 to 21)

Toward the end of week three, you can begin to add running back into your weekly routine. Begin slowly with three days of two to three miles at a very easy effort, and at least one day off in between each run. If you feel pain during your run, and especially if it increases, stop and wait another few days before running. After four weeks, return to your regular running routine.

[Read: What to Eat After Running.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns and feedback. 

Meghan Reynolds, a USATF-Certified Running Coach, NASM-Certified Personal Trainer and Yoga Instructor, is a runner, yogi and fitness enthusiast. After working in the business world for years, she decided to make fitness a full time job and founded Hot Bird Running, a run coaching business, in May 2011. She has run 11 marathons, numerous half marathons and sprint triathlons. In addition to coaching runners, Meghan is a yoga instructor. She received her 200-hour level certification in 2004. Her yoga teachings focus on alignment and creating space in the body, which she finds vital for runners and athletes whose repetitive motions create blocks and stress in the body. Meghan credits her running accomplishments over the last 6 years to her dedication to cross-training, yoga and allowing herself and her body to recover properly after her rigorous running schedules. Find her on Twitter and Google+.