Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Recovery & Active Rest

I got an e-mail a couple of weeks ago from a reader about when to start training again after a marathon.   That is a pretty broad based question and the answer depends on all sorts of things including the training background and goals of the athlete, the course he or she just ran, and just how sore and tired the runner was after the race.   Here are a few things to think about.


Delayed Muscle Soreness

After a period of exercise, especially trying something new, people frequently experience so-called delayed muscle soreness  that usually peaks about 48-72 hours after the bout of exercise.   This can also happen after something like a marathon and downhill running is a notorious way to generate delayed muscle soreness.  The idea is that microdamage to muscle and inflammation lead to the soreness and pain.   Going down stairs is particularly uncomfortable but going downstairs backwards typically is much easier.   What is interesting is that things like stretching and cold water immersion post-exercise don’t seem to help that much.  Drugs like ibuprofen can help with the soreness but may not improve muscle function either.   The best way to avoid delayed muscle soreness is to start a new program slowly.  One key for running races with a lot of downhill is to actually do some training going downhill.


Training After a Marathon

The rule of thumb is that it takes about 1 day per mile to recover from a race.   So 6 days for a 10k and 20 plus days for a marathon.   I am not sure where these rules of thumb came from and again they would depend on how trained the runner is and a lot of the individual factors mentioned at the start of this post.   However, there is some research on what happens when people do run in the days right after a marathon and whether it speeds recovery.   In a classic study from the 1980s, scientists at Ball State University studied 10 young male runners who ran a marathon on average in less than 3 hours.   Half of the runners ran for 30-45 minutes per day the next week, and half rested.   The authors concluded that:

“Seven days rest postmarathon did not allow complete recovery of maximum peak torque (MPT) nor did exercise facilitate recovery of work capacity. To prevent impairment of the normal course of recovery postmarathon, exercise intensity and duration must be judiciously selected.”


Active Rest

So what to do?  After something like a marathon give yourself at least a week or two to recover.  One idea is to use something called active rest.   This might include things like cycling, swimming, or deep water running for a few days at 50% effort for about 30 minutes until the delayed muscle soreness has passed.   Then slowly add a bit of running.  Daily training is a part of the routine for most people who do marathons so there is no need to get out of your routine.  However, there is nothing magical about “running the next day”, so give it some time and substitute other activities.  One of the nice things about both biking and swimming is that they seem to generate much less of the soreness associated with running.




One Response to “Recovery & Active Rest”

  1. January 29th, 2013 at 10:56 am

    Matt Laye says:

    So from my personal experience of downhill running.

    In 2011 I ran the CCC trail race De Monte Blanc in the French/Swiss/Italian Alps. The race is 98k with about 18,000ft of climbing/descending. As the time I was living in Copenhagen, which is as flat as it gets. I was not worried about the climbing, but frightened to death about the descending.

    Luckily we had a treadmill that could do -5% grade in the lab. The first time I ran 35k, the entire time at -5% grade. I could “feel” that in my quads for nearly 2 weeks. The next time (about 3 weeks later) I did the same run and was only sore for 7 days. After another 2 weeks or so I did one last downhill effort and was sore for only 2-3 days.

    I was able to make it through the race and never had a point where I could not run the flats because my quads were trashed from the downs. Still, the 18k of descending did leave me sore for weeks after and my guess is that nothing I did in the recovery phase would have prevented that.

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