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Recovery for Marathoners; How To Approach It and What To Use?

7 Apr 2020

In our first two blogs, we brought you some expert advice on how to look after your body when preparing for a marathon
- both physically through training and rest but also nutrition and hydration thanks to
Tom Goom and Nick Arcuri.

While mass events have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is still the opportunity to exercise outdoors which will aid those taking part in marathons to maintain their fitness for rearranged events like the London Marathon in October.

We're delighted to bring the final stage of preparing yourself for such an event, with this blog from Rob Duffield; Professor of Sport & Exercise Science - University of Technology Sydney and Head of Research & Development - Football Federation Australia.

You'll find the full list of references to correspond with points included throughout at the bottom of the article for further reading.

Understand load and fatigue to guide recovery:

Recovery is a multi-factorial process that results in the return of physiological or psychological systems to their pre-exercise state. Accordingly, the need for, and timeline of, recovery is dependent on the extent of fatigue, which in turn is based on the load or volume of the exercise bout.5 By understanding the volume or load of training/competition, it helps inform the type and duration of recovery required for appropriate readiness. Marathon training requires large volumes of prolonged duration training that accumulate through weeks and months into a competitive bout; with competition often the largest and most intense load of the training cycle.2,3 Thus, marathon training and competition results in large depletions of metabolic substrates (carbohydrates and fat), increase protein degradation and muscle damage, increased thermoregulatory and cardiovascular strain, decreased neuromuscular power, increased perceptual or mental fatigue and the general aches and pains of high volume loads (but you love it all!).1,7 By understanding the loads, fatigue and resulting physiological and perceptual responses, it makes planning and instigating recovery a more precise and beneficial process.

Recovery; more than just rest:

Recovery can be considered a multifactorial timeline of the return of performance, physiological and perceptual systems to the pre-exercise state.10 Recovery timelines for training will depend on the duration, intensity and familiarity with the training session, though is likely to be 24-48h.1 For recovery from competition, it is often presumed that a half-marathon takes 4-6 days and a full marathon takes 10-14 days recovery;8 but individual timelines will vary based on conditions, training status and performance. However, recovery is not just one system or state, and various body systems can be at different stages of recovery based on the exercise load and the timeline following exercise.8 Theoretically, the best method to promote recovery would be to remove any further exercise or training load; however, for devoted and competitive athletes, this is rarely possible or acceptable. Further, preliminary evidence suggests that increased aerobic capacity and training exposure can potentially assist the recovery process in team-sports; as greater training-induced adaptations make any given session easier to perform, and thus reduce the ensuing recovery time.6,10 Regardless, ideally you want to slowly increase your training load without having too many missed training sessions; thus, engagement in recovery interventions and processes to assist adaptation and readiness to perform become important. Hence, recovery interventions that assist increase metabolic fuel storage, assist protein uptake, decrease muscle soreness and reduce perceptual fatigue and tiredness may all be relevant.9

Recovery Interventions: what’s available?

Recovery interventions can be thought of as “big drivers” of recovery or additional “small helpers”. The big drivers to assist recovery include 1) nutrition and hydration intake 2) adjustment of training load/exposure and 3) duration and quality of sleep. More specifically;

1) Nutrition and hydration intake:

See the February blog for specific details, but ensure adequate and appropriate macronutrients of carbohydrate, fat and protein following each training session or competition. Take the time to plan out your pre- and post-session nutritional needs to prevent inappropriate or low-quality intake. Further, minimise the volume of alcohol in the days post-race.

2) Training load/exposure:

Adapt training load after the race or after big training sessions. Whilst back to back sessions may be of use during deep training blocks, the more load present post-race or a heavy session will blunt the recovery process. Adjust your training loads accordingly.

3) Sleep:

Sleep is the period for most physiological and cognitive restoration, so aim for the 7-9h/night (with ≈80% efficiency), though in reality aim to wake feeling refreshed. Don’t stress about sleep, but make conducive environments and use sleep hygiene techniques, i.e. low-light, minimal electronic activity before bed, earlier bedtime routines, eye masks and mental relaxation techniques to aid sleep onset.



In regards, to “small helper” interventions for recovery, these may include recovery aids such as 1) cold or contrast-water immersion or cryotherapy techniques, 2) compression garments, 3) active recovery, 4) massage/rollers/stretching, and 5) mindfulness/meditation/wellness.4,9,11,12

More specifically;

1) Water immersion and cryotherapy methods have some role as pain relief to reduce muscle soreness (analgesic effect), though only result in marginal effects to improve performance or physiological recovery. Use to reduce pain sensations and reduce thermoregulatory load.

2) Compression Garments again have some claims to improve performance and recovery, but the effects are generally perceptual in nature with most evidence showing limited performance or physiological recovery. Use them to feel better and improve perception of recovery.

3) Active recovery is an age-old adage, and whilst continuity of training load may assist in preventing some detraining, it is important to do this in the absence of any specific pain indicative of injury risk. Use as a light training stimulus, but don’t train just for the sake of it when trying to recover.

4) Massage, rollers and stretching are all popular, though have limited evidence that these techniques speed physical, neuromuscular or physiological recovery. Regardless, these methods are a staple of most athlete’s prehab and rehab routines. All methods create short term analgesic effects and improve perceptual recovery, thus can be important for belief in training preparedness.

5) Mindfulness, meditation and wellness are often overlooked given the volume and time required to train for marathons. Whilst not a recovery technique per se, such methods can be of use to assist sleep onset, create time away from training stress or control anxiety around training and life issues.

Recovery Interventions: what and when to use?

In summary, the need for recovery will be proportional to the load you’ve encountered and your familiarity with that exercise load i.e. the distance or speed or hills in a session. Hence, competitions likely take the longest duration for recovery, followed by the hardest/largest training sessions and in turn smaller or easier training sessions. The time you allow for recovery and the type and volume of recovery interventions you use should be adjusted accordingly.9,11

Recovery from Competition: Following competition consider nutritional intake and hydration over the ensuing 24-48h as your most important recovery method, followed by increasing sleep volume and quality. In turn, over the ensuing 2-4 days post-competition active recovery with light loads (preferably non-weight bearing) are appropriate only in absence of injury or pain (otherwise rest is more important). During the 2-5 days post, add on smaller recovery interventions of foam rolling, ice-baths and enjoyable leisure activities as required. Importantly, remember that avoidance of sub-optimal behaviours ie. low nutritional quality (take-away), increased alcohol (boozy nights), late nights (celebrations) or fast increase in training load (next race focus) as these will be more detrimental to recovery than any intervention will be able to assist!

Recovery from Training: For training, use recovery interventions based on the type, load and accumulation of your training. Nutritional intake and hydration status remain of importance on a daily basis to tolerate and recover from all training sessions. Not all sessions require external recovery aids, but consider addition of other interventions when training volumes or intensities are increased, including; ice-baths, contrast-baths, wearing compression garments or self-massage/roller techniques. Whilst the physiological effects of these are often low, they will still assist perceptual recovery and make you feel ready for ensuing training. Nightly mindfulness or wellness sessions can also help runners who are suffering anxiety and stress from life or training. Mental preparedness is still a critical part of your recovery process, so don’t forget looking after you and not just your body! Train hard, but train smart and use recovery as a vehicle to assist the training process and in turn competition performance.

Huge thanks to Rob for sharing his insight and expertise, good luck to everyone maintaining their fitness for races in the hopefully not too distant future!

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