Posted by: Dean Hebert | October 16, 2008

Training: How soon can I return to running after a marathon?

Coach Dean Hebert

Coach Dean Hebert

A reader writes in with the following question:

I recently ran a marathon at the end of September, and felt “mildly trashed.” I have been running a long time and I am in good shape, but I am having trouble figuring out how long until I do another long-distance (1/2 marathon) again? I live in AZ so our racing/running season is just gearing up, so I don’t want to get an injury right out of the gate. Any recommendations?

No doubt this is the time down here in Arizona to get some good running and racing in. The last thing we want to do is lose time or conditioning now. You do not mention where you are in your return to running in general versus wanting to race again. So, I’ll address both issues.

Everyone recovers at a different rate. A rule of thumb is not to race sooner than one day per mile of race. So, a marathon would dictate a minimum of about four weeks recovery time. I have had runners who recover far faster because they were in exceptional condition and/or did not “trash” themselves in the race. I’ve had runners run marathons only a month after a marathon. I have also had runners who did not feel themselves for six months! And those are runners who I would describe as having “trashed” themselves. They put it all on the line and it really fried them. If you approached this state, you need to be very patient… VERY patient.

The absolute first line of defense is to read your body and know how you have recovered in the past. Anytime someone feels “mildly trashed” after a marathon it means you really extended your limits. This without a doubt will extend recovery times. Here is food for thought to guide you. You are not ready to return if:

  • You have lingering aches and pains from the race.
  • Your daily runs are an effort.
  • You ache after easy daily runs you never ached from previously.
  • You have new unaccounted for aches and pains.
  • You do not have a refreshed positive outlook towards your running & racing.
  • You have issues with sleep, eating or feelings of stress (all signs of over-training as well as lack of recovery).

If all that seems OK then you are probably ready to get back into training. Return gradually over a few weeks. I advocate doing some faster very short repeats on the track to replace full longer run workouts early in the recovery. It does a couple things. It maintains conditioning more effectively and efficiently – without all the pounding of “more miles.” It will put bounce back in your legs. It will work a fuller range of motion in your legs. A sample workout is 12×200 @ mile race pace with a walking recovery 200 between – twice a week. Your mileage should gradually increase so that 5-8 weeks post-marathon you are able to comfortably run your previous usual training mileage.

Continue to read your body. It may be a few weeks to a few months before you will feel good enough to race again. One other consideration in running your next race is to do it without having in mind “racing” all out. You may be able to run a modest race effort much sooner. In the end, if you are feeling great without any lingering side effects then you are not a very high risk to return to normal levels of running and racing. And, if you do have lingering issues, you are at a higher risk for injuries… regardless of how long it has been since the marathon.

I’m also glad you asked this question for another reason. There are indeed some runners who are capable of running a marathon per week for the year or whatever. It appears that they don’t even need to have a “recovery” period. In general, though admirable to some, this is strongly ill-advised for the other 99.99% of the runners and should not be seen as a role model. My point is you should never use what others do to establish what is “normal” recovery for you.

Coach Dean Hebert, Tempe Arizona, USA
Contributing Editor, Running Advice and News
http://www.running-advice.com

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