Marathon training is relentless. It seems that as soon as you finish your long run on Sunday you’re back on it with a hard training session for the next week. And after each long run you can’t imagine running any further. But you do.
The most important factor behind this is good recovery. This covers such a range of different things: fuel and nutrition, rest, foam rolling, a sensible training plan and, the often forgotten or least prioritised, sleep.
I mentioned in a previous post about ‘good’ nutrition but here I’ll specifically talk about pre-run. Like with most nutrition (and marathon training in general – are you sensing a theme here?) it really is what works for you. I’d be wary of anyone saying, “this is when and what you should eat before a run and this is what you should eat afterwards”. There is not an exact science. Obviously there is science and research which can give good guidance on ratios of carbs to protein and fuel timing but in reality, you have to find what works best for you. Everyone’s tummy is different and everyone’s training is different.
Personally I find eating straight after a long run is actually quite hard. Oh sure I can spend a good amount of time before and during the run imagining all the amazing things I’m going to eat (platters of ribs followed by cakes dipped in chocolate…) but in reality as soon as I’m done food is the last thing I want to think about. I’ll rehydrate with water straight away and then probably take some time to let my body chill. It’s just run a fair distance and it needs to adjust to no longer being running anymore.
There seems to be this panic in the running community (and training world in general) that you must refuel immediately. There is a teeny tiny tight window and if you miss it you’re going to EXPLODE. I highly doubt this is the case. Your body isn’t stupid. If it’s telling you that food is not sounding good right now, don’t force it. Wait a while. But make sure you do refuel of course.
An interesting point that was made by Liz Yelling at the MarathonTalk weekend was that it is so important to eat good nutritious food. Don’t think “oh I’ve just run 18 miles I can now eat half of KFC and a jumbo chocolate bar”. Firstly, you probably haven’t burnt as many calories as you think you have (or that your watch/app is telling you). And secondly, you need to top your body up with vital nutrients in order for your body to repair itself (long runs take a lot out of our bodies, not just burnt calories). Macro nutrients are important but micronutrients are even more so. Treat your body like a temple and use food as a natural medicine. It doesn’t have to be complicated either, something simple like scrambled egg can do! Avoid crap and choose instead wholesome food. You want to be able to wake up the next day feeling good, not fatigued, foggy and with a sugar hangover.
Ahh the nightmare that is foam rolling. As most of us are mere mortals and can’t really afford the luxury of weekly physio appointments and massages we have to make do with what we can. The foam roller. It’s a painful, it’s awkward, it’s a chore, it’s boring… we never do it enough. I personally find it a great way to keep niggles at bay and help keep my legs fresh.
Obviously I’m not an expert but I believe it’s to do with self-myofascial release. It can help with increasing the blood flow throughout the body which can help reduce muscle tension and help decrease muscle tightness. You can also use it to warm-up the muscles before a run as well.
After a long run I always find a good foam roll session the next day can do wonders for helping me recover ready for my next run. Here’s a great list of tutorials for foam rolling different areas from Kinetic Revolution (a great resource for injury-prevention and running in general).
I mainly use my trigger point foam roller (not an affiliated link) and a tennis ball, though there are lots of ‘interesting’ rollers out there for more aggressive and specific targets (see above). I use the trigger roller on my calves, hamstrings and quads and a regular tennis ball on my glutes, hips and more specific calf focus. I tend to do it watching TV or listening to a podcast to keep myself entertained. It takes 10-15 minutes if I’m really being thorough, but if I only have five minutes I’ll focus on my glutes and calves which are always my trouble spots. I tend to foam roll the day after a long run and then maybe once or twice more in the week depending how I feel.
Another great way to help my calves recover are compression socks/sleeves.
I find after a long or hard run wearing my compression socks feels wonderful. I can’t say I notice a huge difference during the run if I wear them but I do wear them during 18 milers and all my marathons. I find they can help reduce cramp (though this is highly anecdotal on my part). I used to take ice baths post long run but I don’t anymore. I just didn’t find it helped enough to go through that trauma, but there are lots of people who swear by them.
Granted this is a bit vague but what I mean is: don’t be a slave to your training plan. You don’t have to follow every single workout it’s got written down. It’s a generic plan – it doesn’t know you personally. It’s not an actual coach where you can feed back how you feel. If you’re really struggling, miss a run or swap it round. Honestly, it’s not a big deal.
What does this have to do with recovery? Rest. If you’re really struggling, take a rest day. It’ll be far more valuable to you then a sub-par run that you’ve forced yourself to go on just to tick it off the calendar. You’ll feel better resting and then smashing out your next run on rested legs and mind.
This is the big one. Out of most things this is the thing that people let slide or prioritise over. “I’ll get up an hour earlier so I can get in another run” or “maybe just one more episode tonight…”. Or the uncontrollable and unchangeable issues that invade our sleep, such as young (or old!) children. But honestly sleep is one of the most important things you can do to help your running.
It’s where most of the recovery is going to happen. Liz Yelling said that when she was training as an elite she’d get at least 10 hours a night! And a nap in the day! Steve Way agreed (he’s a childless “house husband” so can have that luxury). Liz also said that Paula Radcliffe would usually have 12 hours a night! This is crazy but also makes a lot of sense.
As someone who has a fulltime job and a long commute, getting 12 hours sleep would basically be impossible for me unless I slept at work. But I do make sure I hit the pillow no later than 10pm every single night. As I get up 3-4 days a week at 5am, I don’t find it a struggle at all to fall asleep early. Sometimes even 9pm and I’m ready to snooze. At the weekend I can obviously sleep a bit later.
If you’re feeling tired and training is getting harder and harder, honestly do yourself a favour and go to bed a bit earlier if you can. This isn’t for life, marathon training only lasts for so long. I run four times a week and go to the gym through the week, but if I have a crap night’s sleep I won’t go to the gym or I’ll postpone a run. Sleep is more important. It’s like your whole system becomes a powerhouse of recovery, repairing muscles, smoothing out kinks, flushing through your system and mind.
I heard a very interesting MarathonTalk podcast a while ago about the importance of sleep and it said very few people can last on less than six hours of sleep. Yes people are different and some need less than others but generally speaking most people really do need around eight hours. Don’t kid yourself that you can survive on less. Don’t use coffee to get yourself going. Use actual sleep. Your training will feel the better for it!
What are your key recovery tips?
How much sleep do you usually get?
What do you eat after a run/tough workout?