Marathon training is a grueling endeavor, especially for non-competitive runners who do it for pure enjoyment and personal fulfillment. Ironically, training hard is the most natural part of marathon training. As a runner, you know it’s going to be difficult, and most runners have no issue when their training schedule calls for a hard day.
Unfortunately, with recovery often an afterthought, runners have a hard time putting themselves in a “rest” mindset. Moreover, many endurance athletes who want to take recovery seriously find it a challenge to do so. When you’re running every day or close to it, even the most seasoned runner can find it challenging to figure out how to adequately recover with minimal downtime.
However, the fact remains that recovery is an essential component of marathon training. Overexertion can lead to burnout, injury, and a plateau—or even a regression. In this article, we’ll discuss the importance of recovery for runners, types of recovery, and other essential factors contributing to a runner’s recovery process.
Why Prioritize Recovery?
When you’re not training, your body is in a state of homeostasis, which is the constant regulation of your bodily systems. In this state, physical components such as core temperature, blood glucose levels, blood pH, and oxygen levels in your bloodstream are regulated to a point in which they are constant and in balance.
Hard physical training disrupts this condition by stressing the body out of homeostasis.
When you follow a hard training session with a proper rest period, your body’s return to homeostasis is what allows it to adapt to the stress you put it through. Thus, it’s during this window between sessions where your body becomes stronger, not during the session itself. If there is no proper recovery period between hard sessions, the body has no time to heal and adapt.
This type of overtraining poses a severe risk to your marathon success, as it can lead to muscle fatigue and decreased immune function. These adverse effects can eventually lead to injury and illness, which is difficult to recover from and can set your training back by weeks—or even months.
Thus, the smart runner knows that their training is only as good as their recovery. You can’t go hard every day, and even if you can, it’s an unsustainable and risky endeavor. Not to mention, ensuring optimum recovery doesn’t only improve your strength as an athlete, it also guarantees consistency in your training.
Recovery makes training more sustainable, not only physically but mentally, too. Many runners dismiss the mental fatigue that goes hand in hand with frequent high-intensity training, and a proper recovery will have you less susceptible to burning out.
The Different Types of Recovery
Active recovery and passive recovery are the two types of recovery to take note of. The names are pretty self-explanatory—an active recovery involves some form of low-intensity movement, while a passive recovery involves pure rest. There are plenty of sports studies that center on each type’s effectiveness, but most conclude that it’s best to strategically employ both types into your training. But before we dive into how to do that, let’s first discuss what each type of recovery entails:
Active recovery is an exercise done at moderate intensity, around 60-70% of your regular training intensity. This type of recovery is advantageous as it facilitates better blood flow post-exercise, easing the lactic-acid buildup that accumulates in your muscles during intense exercise.
This lactic acid buildup often leads to sore, painful muscles. The discomfort can last several days, which can affect performance during training sessions. Active recovery eases this pain by increasing blood flow, clearing the buildup by distributing the lactate to various tissues.
Another advantage of active recovery is that the reduced intensity allows athletes to zone in on technique. For runners, this means analyzing stride, arm swing, pacing, and other aspects of form. Correcting one’s form leads to more efficient energy expenditure, resulting in a faster run pace.
The case for active recovery is a strong one. According to a 2018 study from the American Council on Exercise and Western State Colorado University, experts recommend active recovery for endurance athletes. However, active recovery isn’t a new concept in the running world. In fact, you should already be incorporating active recovery into your training in the form of recovery runs.
If you’re training for a marathon, likely you’re already doing recovery runs or at least are familiar with them. These runs are usually the shortest runs of your training week and are done at a comfortable pace.
By “comfortable pace,” this means being able to breathe easily enough to hold a conversation during the entire run. To be even more precise, a good rule of thumb for an easy pace for marathon training is between 1.5 and 3 minutes slower than your marathon goal pace. As for distance, 3 to 5 miles is the norm, though more experienced runners may have longer recovery runs.
Recovery runs have a time and a place in your marathon training plan, which we’ll discuss in a later section.
Mobility is the ability to move well and through a full range of motion. Mobility is different from flexibility, which is the ability to move through a broad range of motion. The latter involves long holds in static stretching, while the former dynamically utilizes your joints’ full range of motion to increase blood flow to the surrounding muscles.
Evidently, you’ll run slower if you’re unable to move through the typical ranges of motion required for running, and will also be at higher risk for injury. Thus, mobility exercises are critical for your performance.
Mobility exercises use bodyweight only, making it an excellent low-intensity activity to do on an active recovery day. A 20 to 30-minute routine composed of dynamic stretches and mobility-focused strength training can be a good substitute for a recovery run should a situation arise in which you’re unable to run.
Deep Tissue Massage
Deep tissue massages are a popular form of active recovery among athletes, enhancing recovery by increasing circulation. Like any other form of active recovery, a deep tissue massage increases blood flow in the muscles, breaking down lactic acid buildup. It’s also an excellent method of relief from Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), a condition that can plague first-time marathon trainees.
The traditional way to get a deep tissue massage is to book an appointment with a massage therapist. However, not everybody has the time nor the cash to invest in regular massages from a professional. Hence, the massage gun—only a recent innovation in the sports world—have become exceedingly popular among marathoners.
These devices utilize percussive therapy to deliver the same sort of deep-tissue massage you could get at a sports clinic, but in your own home’s privacy and convenience. In fact, famous ultramarathoner Michael Wardian used a massage gun in-between laps at the Quarantine Backyard Ultra back in April, where he ran for 63 hours straight. If you’re a runner that’s especially pressed for time, then a massage gun might be a worthy investment
While it’s been established that active recovery is the way to go for endurance training, that doesn’t mean you should ignore passive recovery completely. Even when performing active recovery, fatigue buildup from exercise can affect runners both physically and mentally. In this case, it’s best to have complete rest days or a deload week, depending on your level of fatigue.
Remember when we talked about homeostasis? A passive recovery day is perfect for helping your body return to homeostasis and allowing your muscles to heal fully.
While it may feel “sinful” at first to take a day off from training, it’s important to remember what we mentioned at the beginning of this post. You can’t get better at running by running all day, every day, non-stop, because your body adapts to training while at rest.
Deloading is an integral part of any program, regardless of what distance you’re training for. Deloads are especially vital in this instance, as accumulated fatigue is more likely to happen in runners pushing themselves to run six days a week.
A deload is a period (typically a week) in which you significantly reduce your training volume. This is done to encourage optimal recovery before moving on to the next block of intensive training.
Deloading has multiple approaches, which can include both active and passive recovery. How you deload depends on your goals, preferences, and the type of recovery you need. Many marathoners schedule their deload periods just before the race, dropping training volume by 15 or even 20 percent. Another common approach to deloading is to alternate hard and easy weeks, while some runners deload by halting training altogether for a few days.
No matter how you do it, a good deload should leave you feeling like you can push yourself harder than you did the previous week. By taking that small step back, you can put in a bit more effort once you’re back in the game.
How Do You Know When to Do an Active Versus a Passive Recovery?
To achieve your running goals, you need to train even when the last thing you want to do is step out of the door. At the same time, you also need to listen to your body and understand when it’s time to rest. If so, then how do you find a balance between the two? How do you know when to do an active versus a passive recovery?
To answer that question, you need to check in with yourself. How sore are you feeling? Generally speaking, there are two types of soreness: the heaviness or tiredness in your muscles that comes naturally after a hard workout, and the intense muscle soreness that causes discomfort and limits your movements.
Many people mistakenly think that the latter type of soreness signifies a successful training session when, in reality, it’s a sign of severe muscle damage. If you’re always chasing after this type of soreness, it will lead to burnout and injury.
When to Do an Active Recovery
The first type of soreness is what you should be going for, as it tells you that your training session was productive and does so without causing you any significant pain. When you’re feeling this type of soreness, then an active recovery in the form of recovery runs, mobility exercises, or deep tissue massage would be beneficial.
As a marathon trainee, you should already be doing recovery runs. As such, it’s probably not necessary to go into detail here. However, always note that a speed day and a long run should always have a recovery run in-between. Any hard, grueling running session should be followed by a recovery run to allow your body time to recover.
When to Do a Passive Recovery
On the other hand, if you’re persistently feeling the second type of soreness, if you feel yourself coming down with a bug, or if you’ve been even mildly injured—you need a passive recovery. You could take one or two days off or schedule a deload week, depending on your fatigue level.
Put simply: the moment you feel like you’re at your limit, and it’s affecting your performance—stop. Prevent yourself from regressing by taking a step back from training.
Don’t Ignore Sleep and Nutrition
Of course, there’s more to recovery than recovery runs and day-offs, and it’d be remiss not to mention these in this article.
The first is sleep. If getting enough sleep is essential for good health in everyday life, what more for when you’re training to run a marathon? Everyone is different when it comes to their sleep requirements, but 6-8 hours is what’s ideal for most healthy adults.
The second is nutrition. You don’t need to have a nutritionist by your side as you train for the marathon, but it’s vital to eat clean and fuel yourself properly. Avoiding refined sugars and processed foods is a must.
As a marathon trainee, it’s also important to consume more carbohydrates, following a macronutrient ratio of 60 % Carbs, 15% Protein, and 25% Fat, give or take. Eating more carbs is necessary to re-fuel empty glycogen stores from excessive amounts of cardio.
Lastly, there’s also your mental health. Marathon training shouldn’t encompass your entire life. That’s a sure way to rob yourself of your passion for running. Make an effort to set aside time to spend with family and friends, or use your day-offs to focus on other hobbies and passions.
Rest and recovery are part and parcel of marathon training and should be approached with as much discipline as you would a running session.
From scheduling recovery runs to adjusting your macronutrient ratio, all these factors come together to ensure that you stay strong and keep progressing. In short: prioritize recovery to run your best race yet. Happy training!
In the past, Natalie Ann Unson dreamt of being either an athlete or a marine biologist. Instead, she is now a professional writer based in Manila, Philippines. When not writing about sports and fitness, she’s writing about sustainability, the environment, and ocean conservation. Outside of work, find her by the nearest surf break, running laps at the nearest park, or exploring coral reefs 40 feet underwater.