Marathon recovery: How to get back to your best, fast

Marathon Recovery

Hands up if you find it impossible to focus on one race a year? Me too. Every year I start out saying I’ll put 100 per cent into this one marathon or that one ultra. And I mean it. Then the invites come from friends, races and even Facebook’s algorithm gets in on the act teasing me with crazy challenges it knows I can’t say no to. Before I know it I’ve signed up for another ten races, the head and heart are happy but the calves, glutes and quads aren’t so sure.

Over the years, to cope with the onslaught, recovery is something I’ve become increasingly obsessed with. The question I’m always asking is ‘How do I best help my body bounce back in time to go again, perform well and avoid injury?’

This has never been more important than back in 2015 when I ran the equivalent of eight marathons on three continents in 20 days, including the Marathon des Sables, London and Boston. In the desert leg of this alone, I asked my body to handle between 30km and 95km on consecutive days. To give me the best chance of success, I put together a recovery plan with half a dozen things I stuck to religiously to ensure I could run as freely as possible the following day.

Recovery Checklist

While I’m not running 8 marathons in 20 days this year, with the Brighton Marathon with 2XU and my first 100-mile ultra just 20 days apart, recovery is as important as ever.

There are a lot of techniques and, just like training for a marathon, there’s no one size fits when it comes to marathon recovery but here are a few of the things that have helped me get back up and running.

Recovery starts before you stop

One of the best tips I’ve ever been given came from Barefoot Ted, the ultra runner made famous by Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. He told me that during every run his aim is to come out feeling stronger than when he started. Sounds crazy right? But self preservation rules when you’re running as much as someone like Ted.

During the Marathon des Sables I took this advice on board and for the last 5km of every stage I eased off the pace and used it as active recovery. This approach cost me a few minutes on the day but I was always ready to run harder the following day and I made up those minutes and more feeling fresh when it mattered most.

Granted this isn’t always possible, particularly if you’re out and out racing at a one-day event, but for multi-day stage races or training races leading up to target race, this is a smart option.

The joy of socks

On longer ultras or at times when I’ve got bigger-distance races stacked closely on the calendar, I reach for the compression socks or calf sleeves from specialist brands like 2XU. The theory behind in-race compression sleeves, socks and tights is that they help blood flow, reduce lactate concentration, and limit the amount of muscle oscillation you experience during running, all of which affect your recovery as much as your run. And there are studies to back it up too

The right kind of compression can also help your muscles fire more effectively by maintaining a better position during your stride. But you need to make sure you’ve got compression gear that actually compresses. One thing that makes 2XU stand out for me is that they’re the only people willing to put their compression stats on the box.

Recovery Shake

Shake it up

Recovery shakes aren’t just for the people picking up heavy things in the gym. After every long run and race I’ll get some liquid replenishment in. Now there’s nothing stopping you getting your nutrients from solid foods but I find shakes are easy to get down and practical. I go for my own mix of a 33Shake with added pea protein, L glutamine, chia seeds, acai powder and some quadricarbs in a 600ml water bottle, ideally within 20 minutes of my race or run session. There’s lots of bad protein out there so go for something well-sourced.

Knees up mother brown

I swore by this during the Marathon des Sables. As soon as I got back to my tent I took off calf sleeves and socks, stuck my legs up a pole and left them there for a good 20 minutes. The scientific theory behind this is that it helps to drain the lactic acid from your battered muscles. For multi-stage races where keeping your feet is top condition is a big priority, it’s also a chance to get plenty of air to your soggy, sweaty feet.

The ice bath

A favourite of professional sports teams – or at least the coaches of professional sports teams – plunging your weary limbs into ice cold water directly after your run has been thought to have a number of positive benefits which include flushing lactic acid from the muscles, and reducing swelling and tissue breakdown. However, there are obvious practical drawbacks to this and the science on its effectiveness is actually quite mixed. In fact, there’s current thinking that suggests immersion in cold, rather than ice water, could be just as effective. So submerging your legs in a swimming pool, the sea or any cold water could be enough.

2XU Compression

Make a good first compression

Wearing compression on course is one thing but you can also apply compression principles to your post-race recovery on the day. Studies have shown that effective compression can be as effective for muscle recovery as the torturous ice bath. To optimise your recovery you want to get your compression tops and tights on as soon as you can after a run and then keep it on for as long as you’re comfortable. You can even sleep in it.

Keep on moving, don’t stop

When you run a marathon or longer distance you tend to make a bargain with your body that goes something like this: “Get me to the finish line and then I’ll let you stop.” Consequently the moment you cross that line you come to an instant halt. It’s then very tempting to keep your movement to a minimum, after all you’ve smashed your steps target for the day right? Well that’s probably not the best approach.

I know from experience that when I spend the remainder of my race day staying mobile and walking slowly (aka active recovery), my legs feel much better the following day. That goes for the days immediately after the race, too. The more you move (at a sensible pace) the quicker your legs get back to normal.

Roll up

In the days following any race, as soon as the soreness in my muscles subsides enough to take it, I indulge in some personal myofascial massage otherwise known as hurting yourself with a knobbly foam cylinder. If you don’t own a foam roller a filled 2-litre water bottle, a tennis ball or golf ball can work as well. I tend to focus on the calves, quads and ITB.

Rub down

If you’re fast, you might be lucky and get one of the post-race massages on offer at many marathons but if not a trip to a decent sports massage therapist is always a good idea. It might not seem like it at the time when they’re making you cry with their thumbs in your calf, but easing out all those knots and tight spots can speed recovery. Plus lying face down one of those massage tables is about the most comfortable place on the planet in my book.

Load up on sleep 

One of the most important aspects of recovery but one that’s often overlooked is sleep. Adequate levels of sleep help to provide mental health, hormonal balance, and muscular recovery. One study from the University of California proved that injury rates in young athletes increased for those who played after fewer than 6 hours sleep. 

Other studies have shown that sleep hours banked before 12am can be more effective than those after which is great news as it comes quite naturally to me at about 3pm on the sofa on race-day afternoon.

Restock the right way

Replenishing nutrients immediately after the race is important but so is what you eat over the days after your race. There’s always a strong temptation to grab the nearest pizza menu and sink a few celebratory beers but you do need to make sure you’re giving your body the essentials it needs to rebuild. With your immune system weakened, fail to get the good, vitamin-rich sources of food in and you’re on a fast ticket to a cold.