Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Wed, 16 Feb 2000 08:46:15 -0500

After Thoughts

(from RC 292)

Races don't end at the finish line. Training for the next one can't start right after the last one ends, but only after recovery is complete. This takes longer than many of us realize -- especially when the race was a marathon.

Two letter-writers reminded me this fall that not every marathoner yet knows of the lows that almost inevitably follow the highs of the event. The first e-mailed note, unsigned, came from a runner concerned about "slow" recovery from Chicago.

"Nine days ago I ran my first marathon, an experience I really enjoyed," the note began. "Since then my aches and pains have left.

"However, I don't seem to have my energy back in spite of staying well hydrated and carbo re-loading. What has surprised me the most is, I don't feel motivated to run like I use to. I would be interested in your thoughts on recovery, what I can do to help the process, and what would be a reasonable amount of time before starting to train for another marathon."

A second correspondent, identifying herself only as Candy, wrote that her fall marathon had made her sick. "What can I do in my next marathon to keep from getting so rundown for a month afterwards?" she asked. "After running Portland, I came down with the flu and took a long time to recover. I almost lost my love of running for about a month."

The first runner's post-marathon reactions were textbook-normal. Every symptom described is what we're supposed to feel for a few weeks after an accomplishment this big.

We want to eat more, drink more, sleep more and run less. The syndrome is sometimes called the "post-marathon blues." Accept it as part of the experience.

I told the second marathoner that rundown-ness is the body and mind's way of protecting us against further damage. If we push too hard during the time when we should be taking it very easy, the body rebels with an injury or illness.

A common rule of thumb is to allow at least one day per mile of the race for these doldrums to pass. That's a month or so after a marathon. During that time, don't even think about running anything hard.

The first runner responded by asking for specifics: "How many easy miles should I be running each day during marathon recovery? I would hate to lose my fitness after all these months of training."

My practice, honed by dozens of marathons and many post-marathon mistakes, is to rest completely the next three or four days afterward. Then for the next week or so, run no longer than a half-hour.

For the remainder of the following month, go no more than an hour -- with no speedwork or races. Little or no fitness is lost on such a routine, and it drastically cuts the risk of breakdowns.

Recovery goes through three stages, each taking longer than the one before. The first is recovery from acute muscle soreness, which takes no more than a few days to ease.

Then you still have to deal with overall weariness, felt mostly as dead legs, which takes longer to wane. Finally there's psychological recovery, that don't-want-to-go-hard-again feeling that is slowest to leave you after a hard effort. You know you're recovered fully when the legs feel pain-free and lively again -- and when you've forgotten how hard the last race felt and want to try another.

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