So, you ran your first marathon. Congratulations, you have now joined a tiny portion of humans who have achieved this admirable athletic milestone.
Each year, half a million runners cross the finish line of a 26.2-mile race in the United States. Think about it: that's roughly 1% of our country's population. That's one way to be a one-percenter, right? Joking aside, running a marathon is an achievement to talk about and remember with pride.
No matter how much we enjoy the endorphins and feelings of accomplishment after crossing that finish line, however, the fact is that running a marathon is hard work -- and it does damage to our bodies that take days, weeks, even months to repair.
So what happens to an athlete's body after running a marathon? Below are several of the most common ways in which we react and how we recover from an hours-long effort. They are perfectly normal and to be expected. (Just keep in mind, they are to be considered examples and not medical advice. If you find yourself in a situation where you feel something is going wrong after a marathon, seek medical help right away!)
Sleepless night after the marathon. Many people have trouble falling asleep, despite feeling very, very tired. One reason for this is elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol as a result of putting your body through… well, the stress of running a marathon. Do whatever you are used to doing to relax and go to sleep easily, or just rest assured that if you toss and turn all night despite feeling more tired than you've ever been - you are having a very normal reaction.
Soreness. Legs may begin tightening up and cramping during or immediately after the race, but DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness – typically kicks in the day after the race and is worst over the next two to three days. There isn't much you can do to prevent or deal with DOMS. Some people take anti-inflammatories to lessen the pain -- others believe in letting the body do its thing. Either way: stairs are best climbed and descended sideways, or altogether avoided.
Swelling. The body must rebuild all those muscle fibers you tore during the race – and that often causes your legs to retain water. If you notice that your skinny jeans feel tighter than usual in the days after your marathon, this could be one reason why. Chrissie Wellington has described this in detail in her book, A Life Without Limits. Don't panic, finishing a marathon did not make you fat. You will eventually dispose of the extra liquid and get back to your normal self.
Weight gain. This might start as early as your taper, especially if you carbo-load before the race (as most of us do). It is perfectly normal to gain a few pounds during this time and the assumption is that they will naturally come off after the race — but not immediately after, as your body will like retain fluids to fight post-race inflammation (see “swelling” above).
Elevated body temperature. Speaking of fighting inflammation, this may cause you to have a mild fever over the next few nights, and your legs might be warm to the touch. Nothing wrong or worrisome about that, but it's pretty darn weird.
Weakened immune system. As the body is busy repairing torn muscle fibers, the immune system weakens and you might be more susceptible to getting sick. Not saying that you should turn into a germaphobe, but antibacterial lotion might prove to be more useful than ever in the days after your race.
Post-race blues. That feeling of emptiness and aimlessness after your big race – it’s no joke. Many of us fight this by signing up for another – be it a marathon, or a shorter race, or even something more challenging. It gives purpose to your recovery and, as soon as you feel ready for a new training cycle to begin, you now have a new big goal to strive for. Onwards and upwards!
Ready to sign up and train for your first -- or next -- marathon? Aleks Todorova is a San Jose-based endurance coach who has helped runners achieve running goals of all shapes and sizes, from finishing their first marathon (or 50K/ 100K), to running a brag-worthy PR!
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