Reaching the finish line of a marathon takes planning, discipline, and a whole lot of sacrifice. For most runners, the race has been on their minds for months. But what about a plan for the moment after you cross the finish line? Besides a splurge meal and a cold adult beverage, most people don’t give much thought to what they should (and shouldn’t) do in the hours, days, and weeks after a big race. What’s the best route to healing yourself and bouncing back as quickly and completely as possible?
We asked two top running coaches—Brad Hudson of Hudson Elite, in Boulder, Colorado, and Drew Wartenburg, of the NorCal Distance Project, in Sacramento, California—for advice.
Immediately After the Race
For the vast majority of people running a marathon, this is a maximal effort; you will be tired and very thirsty. The first thing to do is attend to your immediate needs. “First and foremost is to get liquids in you,” Hudson says. “Get a sports drink, Coke, it could be anything. And carbs—sugars, sweet stuff, fruit—because your body’s going to absorb anything it can right away. So whatever you can get in and is palatable to you, I would take immediately after the race.”
According to Wartenburg, it’s also important to get comfortable as soon as you can. Most marathons are well equipped for recovery zones. “If you’re cold, get warm,” he says. “If you’re wearing sweaty race clothes, get out of those. Then take a warm shower. Get clean and into comfortable clothes.”
If you feel like soaking, Hudson says science suggests that hot and ice baths are both healthy, so do whichever sounds good to you.
A bit later, you will be really hungry. For that first meal, many runners crave something indulgent, like a giant burger, or they want to make good on a promise to themselves to splurge. That’s OK. In fact, a burger isn’t a bad idea. It gives you vital protein and plenty of other calories, so go for it if that’s appetizing. “You want to be good to your body as soon as you can after you finish,” Wartenburg says. “But part of the trick is balancing what is ideal with a little bit of listening to what your body’s asking for.” In other words: if it sounds good, contains lots of protein, and is packed with calories, go ahead and enjoy it.
If you want to celebrate (or forget about) your race with a drink or two, that’s fine, although Hudson says it’s better to wait a day if you can. Be sure to include plenty of water along with any beer, wine, or cocktails. And don’t stay out too late—just because it’s liquid doesn’t mean it’ll hydrate you. In fact, alcohol will do the opposite, which is precisely what your body doesn’t need to be dealing with right now.
This is a good time to mention that, with the race still so fresh, resist the urge to make big decisions—wait a bit before declaring you’ll run another marathon or before swearing off the distance for good. “A cardinal rule is wait till you wake up the next day before you agree to anything,” Wartenburg says.
Finally, if you can get away with sleeping in the next morning, turn off the alarm before you go to bed. In the coming days, sleep and rest are incredibly important, so get as much as you can.
The Next Day
First things first: no running today. For many people, it’s the last thing they’ll want to do, but others, especially those with a great race, may want to get back out there. Don’t.
“Do not do any impact exercise for five days,” Hudson says. “You can get in the pool the next day, but I would not run. I know some people think running’s going to help recovery, but because the marathon is an impact thing and there are microtears in your muscles, you don’t need to run to get rid of lactate or anything like that. It’s not very smart to pound the body at all. So, really, I would take at least five days off. I usually have my athletes take seven to ten [days off].”
Wartenburg agrees. He suggests a walk, cycling, or a bit of pool jogging. “If you’ve done a destination marathon and you’re in a hotel with a pool, maybe do some water running,” he says. “If you want to go for a swim, go for a swim. Move the body the day after the marathon just so you’re moving the blood and working out some kinks.”
Along with not running, don’t do anything else intense. “I think it’s just common sense—don’t do crazy stuff,” Hudson says. “A lot of people, because it’s their time off, all of a sudden go hiking for three hours. Don’t do anything too out-of-the-ordinary strenuous.”
Now could also be a good time to get a massage. Wartenburg recommends getting one within 24 hours of running to help flush muscles and repair the damage you’ve done. Plus, it feels great.
Like on race day, be mindful of what you eat today. “Just like you preload with carbs, you want to post-load with carbs,” Hudson says. And again, sleep as much as you can.
The Next 5 Days
Nope, still no running yet. If you feel like moving around, stay low impact. An even better idea: do something different. “This is a time when you can do other restorative things, like take a yoga class,” Wartenburg says. “Post-marathon is a great time to explore things that may not fit into the day when someone is in the throes of marathon training.”
This week following the marathon is also the perfect time to tune up your body. Seek professional help in repairing the things that could keep you from resuming your running routine when you’re ready.
“A lot of people deal with little injuries or physical issues that pop up during training for a marathon,” Wartenburg says. “Once it’s over, it’s a great time to use some sort of restorative therapy—massage, straight physical therapy, or active-release therapy. Things that are going to allow you to come back restored or a better version of yourself. Time off is a great time to replace training time with appointments and just some general TLC for the body.”
Enjoy the mental break, too. “For most people, the marathon is going to represent a peak emotional effort,” Wartenburg says. “Training for a marathon is not easy, and the event itself is demanding, so taking a step back from having to get up every day and run can relieve pressure when it’s time to start back up again.”
As for eating, remember that you’re no longer burning lots of calories like you were in the weeks and months before your marathon. Try to get back to being sensible. Don’t panic if you put on a couple pounds—that’s totally normal.
“Look at what elite athletes do,” Wartenburg says. “In a recovery period, a lot of them let themselves go a little and put on a few pounds. You can’t be at racing weight year-round. As you begin to train again and get serious, you will get back to peak fitness, so I think it’s OK to say, ‘I’m going to get a little softer, but I’m going to do it eating healthily.’”
7 to 10 Days After the Race
Are you ready to run again? OK, go ahead. But ease back into it slowly—no long runs, according to Hudson. Wait at least two weeks after your race before going long. In the meantime, run casually or do speedwork. Listen to your body and enjoy the feeling of getting back into running with your marathon behind you now that you’re rested and rejuvenated. Just as training is an essential part of running a marathon, so too is the recovery process—and it should be taken every bit as seriously.