After a marathon, collapsing onto the ground with some water and snacks (and maybe a beer) is totally warranted. But don’t forget about the “active” in active recovery.
One of the best ways you can help your body recover from any exercise is by going for a walk. Marathons are an especially intense form of exertion, but the same needs and methods still apply.
“The underlying process of damage and recovery are the same for different activities,” says endurance coach Paul Kinney, who helps people train for events like marathons, Ironmans, triathlons, and ultramarathons. “The main difference is how much damage was caused, which ultimately determines the total recovery time from that activity.”
When you’re running 26.2 miles, a whole lot of damage occurs. Your glycogen stores (fuel for your muscles from carbohydrates) get depleted and your muscles and connective tissue even get damaged at the cellular level. The act of running particularly puts strain on your quadriceps, caused by “eccentric loading,” or putting them under pressure (the act of striking the ground) while the muscle is elongated, which causes the most amount of damage. This is why navigating the stairs after a big run, let alone after a marathon, can be torturous.
Sleep and proper nutrition are ground zero for repairing the damage. But you can help that process along by engaging in a light cardiovascular activity, like walking. Which is why Kinney recommends marathoners schedule a stroll for the day after a marathon.
“Walking and light hiking are great, low-stress and low-impact ways to get the blood flowing and accelerate recovery,” he says. Getting that nutrient-rich blood circulating to the damaged muscles helps bring the cells what they need to repair—and build back even stronger. “Walking also aids in reducing the inflammation and keeps the muscles more pliable,” he adds. “This keeps the body from stiffening up in the hours and days following the big event.”
There are mental benefits to post-marathon walks, too. Running a marathon puts both your body and mind under stress. And, whether or not you hit your goals for the race, crossing a finish line after months of structured, dedicated training can leave many runners feeling a bit lost. Walking, especially in nature, can help your whole being recover and find a sense of calm. Kinney recommends using an app like AllTrails to filter for something that’s not too strenuous, for a distance and time that seems manageable to you, and without any steep inclines.
“Taking a hike in nature brings about a part of recovery that many neglect: the mental recovery from a big event,” Kinney says. “Being in nature helps to calm the mind and improve one’s psychological well-being.”
After your next marathon, he suggests planning a couple weeks of unstructured training that involves getting back to nature with several walks and hikes “to stimulate recovery, both physically and mentally.” Even most professional runners take a week or two entirely off from running after finishing a marathon. Taking it easy with some gentle strolls will help your body and mind feel their best again.