The marathon is one of the holy grails of running, and only 0.5% of the US population can call themselves marathoners. Running 26.2 is a satisfying accomplishment, and countless books, movies and web sites have touted its benefits. While I wholeheartedly agree and relish the challenge, it's also important to also note that marathons are hard on your body.
There's a reason most elites will only run one marathon a year. According to the Competitive Runners' Handbook, one of my favorite running tomes, biopsies done on marathon runners show that muscles can take up to a month to heal. A recent study linked running marathons to short-term kidney injury (although your body bounces back super quickly). Marathons can also aggravate old injuries or just leave you feeling generally beaten up. *raises hand*
This is just after running just one marathon. I know runners who complete as many as 6 a year, who have tried to convince me otherwise. They claim that their bodies can handle it and that they are super recoverers. Yet they scratch their heads and wonder why they never seem to get much faster.
There's no way around it. Your body needs time off. After you run a marathon, you typically do a "reverse taper" which begins with a period of zero running. Just as you gradually cut back your mileage more and more in the weeks preceding the marathon, in the weeks after, you gradually add on miles.
This time, my reverse taper after the St. George Marathon began with a running-free week. This was new for me – I had run just a few easy miles in the weeks preceding all of the marathons I had previously completed – but I knew it was necessary. After PRing in the New York City Marathon in 2015, I felt great and returned to hard and long running too quickly. As a result, I injured my illiosacral joint, had to go to physical therapy, and ended up having to take off a month from running. The most frustrating part is that, had I taken some initial time off, I could have avoided this.
If this is not enough to convince Type A personalities of the benefits of post-marathon rest, consider the results of this study. It showed that even after taking as much as 8 weeks off, their fitness levels remained more or less the same. So taking time off is good, people!
Active recovery is best, and during my zero-running week, I did a lot of walking and hiking. I had tacked on some vacation days to the end of my marathon trip, and I spent them happily exploring Utah's breathtaking vistas.
The first week back running, I logged in 30 miles (compared to a high point of nearly 80). I was feeling good, probably thanks to the contrast of being at altitude in Utah versus running at sea level here in Philadelphia. I did fight off a minor head cold, but I nipped it in the bud.
A week on the struggle bus
This past week was a different story. I experienced lingering fatigue like never before. I generally need about 7 hours of sleep to feel rested and wake without an alarm. Last week, I was sleeping 9, 10 and even 11 hours straight, and when the alarm rang, I wanted to throw it across the room and tuck in for a few more hours. The worst part is, a dull general fatigue followed me about my day like a little dark cloud. Luckily, I work from home, so when I felt super exhausted, I took 15-minute power naps. But I never woke up feeling refreshed like I usually do after napping. I'd never before experienced this level of exhaustion.
So far this week, I've put in 35 miles and felt flat and stale for most of them. My easy pace felt hard, and my heart rate remained mostly elevated. I did hill sprints earlier in the week, which I normally enjoy and feel graceful while running. This week, I felt like a baby elephant, charging up the slope. I was starting to worry.
Yesterday, I woke up once again feeling exhausted. I had 6 easy miles scheduled. I trudged over to the gym to run them on the treadmill gave myself permission to cut both the pace and distance if I felt bad. To my surprise, I felt pretty good once I started running. And I woke up this morning without an alarm feeling good, and only after 7.5 hours of sleep. And I did my first post-marathon tempo run feeling zippy and zingy, with the last quarter mile at 6:50. This is a good trend.
St. George beat me up pretty badly. Perhaps it was running at elevation plus the relentless downhill, which may seem fun but it puts a major stress on your body. Or maybe it was because I was not able to take in any food until hours after the marathon due to nausea. It could also just be that I had truly peaked in my training cycle and my body just needed a rest. It was probably a combination of all three.
I am going to play the next few weeks by ear and maybe take an extra day off or two or adjust runs as needed, in spite of myself.
The moral of the story? Take enough time off after a marathon to truly rest and recover. Running will still be there for you when it's time once again to pound the pavement. You might even come back stronger.