Having taken an average of 10,000 steps an hour during the race, the chances are you’ll want to do nothing once you cross that finish line. Don’t. At least, not straight away. “Try to maintain a slow, gentle walk to prevent muscles stiffening and to facilitate removal of waste products,” says Bud Baldaro, UK Athletics marathon coach. Post-exercise stretching, however, is not advisable: “Muscle breakdown continues long after a race has finished, causing swelling and pain,” says Greg Whyte, director of science and research at the English Institute of Sport, “so avoid putting further stress on muscle fibres.” Most runners will suffer from delayed-onset muscle soreness (Doms), which tends to peak 24 to 72 hours after the race. “Expect to feel worse on Tuesday than you do on Sunday,” Whyte says. “Rest, ice and anti-inflammatories will help minimise the effects.”
How about one of Paula Radcliffe’s famed ice baths? “If you can cope with it, seven to 10 minutes in a hip-deep ice bath helps the recovery process by constricting the blood vessels,” Baldaro says. But what if a hot bath is calling? “You have to weigh up the pros and cons, psychologically and physically,” he adds. Physiologically, a hot bath won’t enhance recovery, but it will alleviate the symptoms of Doms – at least while the muscles stay warm. If you have specific sore bits, icing those is worthwhile: ice (not applied directly on to your skin) for 15 minutes every hour for the first few hours, then 15 minutes every two hours or, if that isn’t practical, as often as you can.
Pop some pills
One thing you might consider taking tomorrow is an antioxidant supplement. “Studies have shown that vitamins C and E can reduce the damage from the stresses of the race,” says Whyte. “While pre-loading [supplementing in the weeks before the race] is ideal, taking antioxidants post-race will make a difference.” You may also need a painkilling anti-inflammatory. Research at the University of California found that non-steroidal anti-inflammatories applied topically worked well and, Whyte says, are a better option than pills when your stomach is likely to be feeling delicate. Arnica, a homeopathic anti-inflammatory, may also help, taken orally or applied topically.
The average runner will burn 2,500-3,500 calories during a marathon. “Immediately after the race, start replenishing fluid losses and refilling depleted glycogen stores,” says Anita Bean, sports nutritionist and author of The Complete Guide To Sports Nutrition (£15.99, A&C Black). “Try to drink around 500ml in the first 30 minutes, and keep sipping fluid every 10 minutes thereafter.” Passing only a small amount of dark yellow urine is a sign of dehydration, but if your celebrations involve alcohol and you start producing lots of paler-coloured urine, don’t be fooled into thinking you’re rehydrated – this is one of the diuretic effects of alcohol. As for food, aim to consume a high-carbohydrate snack (and a little protein) within 30 minutes of the race ending, to maximise glycogen repletion. “Take on board 1g of carbohydrate for every kilogram of bodyweight – that is, 70g for a 70kg runner,” Bean says. “Eat a similar-sized snack every two hours until the next meal.”
“Rest is possibly the most important component of the recovery strategy,” Whyte says. “It’s common for runners to come down with a cold after a race,” Bean says, “but sufficient rest helps alleviate the stress to your immune system, making a cold less likely.” And don’t even think about running for the next week – studies have shown that those who rest for a full week after a marathon recover better than those who run that week. “Gentle swimming, walking or easy cycling, however, will promote blood flow and help remove waste products from the muscles,” Baldaro says.
Get a massage
A study from Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada found that 30-minute massages following a half-marathon had no effect on the physiological recovery of muscles. However, questionnaires revealed that seven of the 12 participants “felt better” after the massage. Of course, after all your efforts, you deserve a massage – the question is when. Sports massage therapist Jane Cain “wouldn’t recommend anything but the very lightest of massages at the finish line – you’ll feel too sore. It’s best to wait two or three days before having a more remedial massage.”
Expect a comedown
Runners often feel depressed after a race, regardless of whether or not they met their finish target. “You’ve had this massive goal dominating your life for months, and suddenly there’s a great big hole,” Baldaro says. “Simply knowing that you might feel melancholy helps,” Whyte says. “You should expect to feel sore and flat for anything up to a week.” And then? Time to plan how you’re going to smash that personal best next year.
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