I saw a post on r/AdvancedRunning recently, in which the OP asked, essentially, “When can I run after a marathon?”
It’s a common question. Any race requires some recovery – and a marathon is a race unlike any other (except of course the even more demanding ultra-marathons). Perhaps because of the daunting nature of the task, the advice on recovery can vary widely.
Some advise that you take a substantial time completely off from running. The OP asking the question had read somewhere that he needed to wait a full year before training again. But others jump right back in – and I’ve heard of some people getting back to more or less normal mileage the first week after a marathon.
So how much recovery should you take? And what’s the right approach for you?
Ultimately, it’s going to vary a bit. But let me share some thoughts from what I’ve read and from my own experience.
What the Post-Marathon Weeks Feel Like
Before we get into specific strategies, let me describe what the weeks following a marathon feel like – in my own experience.
To some extent, this will vary with your level of training. The more mileage you run, and the more marathons you’ve completed, the faster you’ll recover. To an extent. But if you ran that last marathon hard, you’ll be feeling it for a while … and there is a certain universality to the need for recovery.
In the first week following a marathon, you will be tired, sore, and fatigued. What hurts, and how it hurts, will depend. One time it was my quads, another time it was my calves.
Regardless of where it hurts, running will be a struggle for a few days. Your heart rate will be elevated, your pace will be much slower than usual, and you’ll struggle to put in more than a minimal amount of miles. A limited amount of light exercise is ok, but don’t push it.
In the second week, you should be able to move normally again. But running will still feel like a chore. Your heart rate will still be slightly elevated, and you’ll be slower than usual. But you should be able to go for an easy run without too much trouble.
By the third week, you should be close to normal. As long as you don’t push it. I find that at this point, my easy runs are feeling the way they should. But running fast is no bueno. Short spurts of speed, at whatever pace feels comfortable, are ok. But don’t push your luck and try for a real workout.
Somewhere around weeks four and five, you should start to feel normal again. It’s unwise to jump back into serious training too soon, but you can start to build back your mileage and even throw in a few easy workouts. Strides or light tempos are best. Just don’t push the pace too hard, and limit the volume of anything faster than easy running.
By week six, you should be good to go to start training. Ideally, you’d give it a few more weeks before committing to a hard training cycle. But sometimes your schedule is dictated by when a race is – so you can get back to it if you need to.
What the Experts Say About Marathon Recovery
The authors of popular training plans have certainly come up with some advice about when you can run again after finishing a marathon.
In Advanced Marathoning, Pfitz includes a 5 week recovery plan with each of his marathon plans. The specifics vary with the peak mileage, but there are some general similarities.
He advises you take two full days off on Monday and Tuesday, and then go for easy runs on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. From there, the rest of the plan involves five days of running and two days off. Mileage slowly increases to about 50-60% of peak mileage by week five, and some short strides are incorporated starting in the third week.
If you want a cookie cutter plan to follow, this is one option.
In Hanson’s Marathon Method, a generic beginner and advanced recovery plan is included. In both cases, they advise taking a full two weeks off from running. Then, they include two weeks of limited, easy runs. Finally, the suggest two weeks of increasing mileage – putting you back on track to resume training after six weeks or so. Above all, though, they recommend listening to your body and erring on the side of caution.
Interestingly, Jack Daniels, another author of popular marathon plans, doesn’t have anything to say about the weeks following your marathon. It’s seems like a major oversight in his book, Running Formula, and I’m not sure why he hasn’t added anything at all in the newer editions.
What the Research Says
In terms of academic research, there’s not a whole lot out there to support one method (active recovery) over another (full rest). At least not conclusively.
One study, “The Week After Running a Marathon”, by Navarro-Martinez et al (2021), compared the effects of complete rest, elliptical training, and running on recovery. In the study, all participants rested for the first 48 hours, and then two groups resumed training with either running or an elliptical. They looked at blood markers for muscle damage, and they found no difference. But when they compared the results of squat jumps, they found that the runners recovered significantly faster. Notably, this was a fairly large sample for an exercise study (64 runners). Notch one for active recovery.
An older study “Effect of a 42.2km footrace and subsequent rest or exercise on muscular strength and capacity”, by Sherman et al (1984), looked at how a group of ten male runners recovered. They compared the effects of slow walking (but no running) to a regular short run (20-45 minutes) in the week following a race. The study focused on the recovery of muscle strength (through a leg extension) and work capacity (through repeated, low intensity leg extensions), as well as perceived ratings of muscle soreness. After a week, the rest (walking group) had recovered greater strength and work capacity – but there was no difference in the groups’ perceived soreness. Notch one for rest – although there was still some active recovery.
How I Approach the Return to Running After a Marathon
After my first marathon, I followed the Pfitz return to running plan. But ultimately, I found it a bit too conservative for me. I like running every day, and so I decided to go a different route.
Here’s my general approach to returning to running following a marathon.
In the first week, I plan to go out every day for about thirty minutes. This doesn’t have to be a continuous run. Usually, I take my dog with me. We’ll go for a run/walk of about three miles, and I let my body dictate the duration and pace. The first day may be extremely slow (10+ min/mi) with short intervals (half mile running), but after a couple of days I’ll finish the three miles without stopping.
In the second week, I commit to a regular run each day. I start to slowly increase the mileage – alternating between short runs (three miles) and longer runs (four to five miles). The goal is to keep it easy, while getting back in the routine by running 30 to 45 minutes every day. I’ll end the week with a longer run – 8 to 10 miles depending on how I feel.
In the third week, I start to feel normal. But I keep it reigned in. I run every day, and I’ll typically aim for 45 to 60 minutes per day. Twice, I add in some easy strides. Unlike regular strides, they won’t get up to mile race pace. They’ll probably be closer to threshold or maybe 5k pace. I just want to get the legs moving a bit. I end the week with an easy long run that builds on the previous week – 10 to 12 miles.
In weeks four and five, I’m ready to get back to normal. I increase mileage by 10 to 15 miles over the previous week, and I keep things easy. Twice, I’ll add in a few strides and see how things feel. The pace should start to get quicker, but I refrain from any real workouts. The long runs get progressively longer, with a goal of 12 to 14 miles.
Week 6? It’s back to normal. In a perfect world, I’d have a couple more weeks of easy running to ease back up to my regular training load. But if I have a race coming up, I’ll start to throw in some light workouts.
After 8 weeks, I’m definitely ready for real training.
General Guidance About Running After Your Marathon
How quickly you decide to return to training following a marathon is going to be up to you. It will vary based on your training history and your goals. Take it one day, one step at a time and slowly increase the duration, volume, and intensity as you go.
If this is your first marathon, I’d err on the more conservative side. But if you’ve completed one or more, you may want to be more aggressive.
If you have a race coming up, you might want to move things along a little quicker. Although you should be careful to still take it easy for at least a month. But if there’s nothing on your race calendar for 6 months, there’s really no harm in taking a little extra time off.
If, like me, you have a run streak going and you need that regular run as part of your daily schedule … well then you should stick to that. Just adjust your expectations about what a “run” is accordingly.
In the first week following the marathon, it’s up to you whether you run or not. You could take the week fully off. You could take a couple days off, and run three to four days. Or you could get right back to it the next morning. If you opt for rest, try to incorporate some movement into your day, like an easy walk. And if you opt for running, keep it nice and slow, and incorporate walking breaks if it feels like too much.
In the second week, you should feel free to get back to your regular running frequency – whether that’s every day, five days a week, or whatever. But keep the duration short – 30 minutes for newer runners, 45 minutes for more experienced runners – and keep the pace easy.
In the third week, feel free to add in a few strides to get your legs moving quickly. Increase the duration a bit, but keep the overall volume much lower than usual.
Continue to increase things in weeks four, five, and/or six. Strides are always good a couple times a week. A light tempo is ok, as long as you play it by ear and don’t try to force any particular pace. I find testing things out helps you understand just how recovered you are – because your body will let you know if you’re not ready to run fast.
After six weeks, your volume should be back near you baseline and you should be ready to get back to training. If I have the time, I prefer to take another month or so to focus on easy running and bumping up my mileage. But if there’s a race coming up, it’s ok to ease back into real training.
So When Can I Run After a Marathon?
The short answer is: you can run after a marathon as soon as you feel ready.
There’s nothing wrong with going for an easy run or run/walk the next day. There’s also nothing wrong with resting for a week before you lace up your shoes again.
But the most important thing about returning to running following a marathon is that you listen to your body, take things slow, and gradually ramp back up to your normal training volume.
I’m curious to hear from you – how would you advise someone who asked, “When can I run after a marathon?”