– Running a marathon takes a huge toll on your body and if you do not follow the key steps to aid your recovery, you put yourself at risk of picking up an infection or extending recovery time
– Do not depend on food provisions when you finish the race – have your own recovery pack with you with easy to digest food and fluids
– A well planned recovery strategy will make a huge difference to improving your rate of recovery and getting you back to a normal exercise regime as quickly as possible.
Nutrition for marathon recovery
While the current focus leading up to the marathon on Sunday is very much on fueling and hydration don’t forget that recovery after the race is also a vital consideration. Let’s face it, your body is going to be severely challenged by the race! Post-race recovery nutrition is hugely important to allow your body recuperate from the stress and impact of the race. Running a marathon takes a huge toll on your body, but if you don’t follow the key steps to aid your recovery, you put yourself at risk of picking up an infection or simply having an extended recovery time where you feel fatigued. This can make it extremely difficult to get back into a regular exercise routine and may reduce your motivation to get back out running, or doing any form of exercise for that matter. Appropriate nutrition after the race is something that is often neglected by athletes due to the excitement or relief of finishing, but it is importance should really not be underestimated.
Physiological impact of the race
A marathon pushes your body to its limits. No matter how fit you are, running over 26 miles will have a big impact on your body. The energy expended during the marathon is greater than 2,500 calories (which means you almost double your energy needs for that 24 hours), and results in significant fuel and fluid losses. As a result, your muscles will be fatigued, damaged and sore. Additionally, your body will also release stress hormones that not only impair your rate of recovery, but also can suppress your immune system. With all of this in mind, you must plan your recovery to ensure you have all the necessary foods and fluids after the race to help you recover and get back to your normal self as soon as possible.
Getting started at the finish line
The immediate nutrition goal is to replace the lost fluids and depleted fuel stores with a suitable recovery meal. The fuel that the body uses during the race is a combination of both fats and carbohydrate (glycogen). Glycogen stores in particular will be heavily depleted after the race and if your aim is to be back running at a good pace in the days after the race, then you must aim to replenish these energy stores. Although many runners may not feel hungry immediately after a race, it is important to eat some food as soon as possible to initiate the recovery process, even if that is only a fruit juice and a yogurt.
The food available on-site after the marathon is often highly-processed and unsuitable for recovery, where you could be handed anything from a burger to a plain sandwich with cheap filling when you cross the line. Some people may think that because they have burned a large amount of calories, there is an opportunity to eat any type of food they want, or reward themselves for the tough race, but this is certainly not the case from a recovery point of view. Processed foods will offer little or no nutrients (e.g. plant-based antioxidants) that are a rich source to assist your body with recovery. Aim to provide your body with an abundance of nutrients from various whole food sources, as this is critical in reducing inflammation and assisting with repair of sore and damaged muscles.
So if you are going to get recovery off to a good start, then you can’t rely on what you are provided with and it is essential that you have your own food prepared with you. Home-made granola bars with fruit juice or chopped fruit with some granola and natural yoghurt would be a good start, and are easily packed and transported.
What to eat?
The immediate requirement is to consume a meal combining sources of fast (easily) digesting carbohydrate with a small amount of protein to initiate the recovery process. This initial recovery period is when the body has the greatest ability to absorb nutrients (specifically carbohydrate), but also drive muscle repair if you provide it with protein and adequate nutrients. The type of carbohydrate is particularly important during this phase. Fast-digesting carbohydrate (e.g. white rice) will result in faster restoration of glycogen compared to slow-digesting carbohydrate sources (e.g. sweet potato).
The intake of protein is another essential component of recovery from a marathon. The fundamental role of protein after exercise is to promote recovery by helping to repair damaged muscle fibres. The guideline for protein intake after intense performance is between 0.3-0.5 grams per kg body mass (about 20-40 g for the average sized individual), which is easily catered for in a meal that includes unprocessed meats, fresh vegetables and some rice. A chicken curry is a simple example of an appropriate recovery meal that is high in carbohydrate and protein and rich in nutrients.
Rehydration after the race is another priority. Depending on environmental conditions, your body weight and race pace, fluid losses can range anywhere from 2 litres up to 5 litres during a marathon. These fluids must be replaced at a ratio of 1.5 litres of fluid for every 1 kg lost, meaning an intake of more than 6 litres of fluid in some cases.
A key point here is to be practical with rehydration strategies as clearly 5 litres of fluid is an impractical amount to consume in one sitting. Best practice at the moment dictates that such recommendations on 1.5 litres of fluid for every 1 kg lost are addressed over the 6 hours after performance. In simple terms, drinking more than 1 litre per hour is probably excessive in this time period. If your race has finished late in the evening and bedtime calls before the 6 hour window closes, it is appropriate to continue the rehydration efforts during the following morning.
The intake of a wide-range of micronutrients which include vitamins, minerals and antioxidants is another vital consideration for marathon recovery. Micronutrients assist with tissue repair, support the immune system and help to remove toxins from the blood and muscle tissue. Foods that are rich in micronutrients and antioxidants such as ginger, cherries, blueberries, turmeric, green tea and a variety of other fresh fruits and vegetables should be a priority in all meals.
|Recovery meal plan|
A large bowl of homemade muesli or granola with milk
Half cup of blueberries and raspberries
Cup of ginger tea
Large bowl of chopped fruit with natural yoghurt
1 tbsp. pumpkin seeds and almond butter
A large spinach salad with boiled eggs, pine nuts, almonds, chopped peach, 1 chicken breast and an olive oil and balsamic vinegar
Cup of ginger tea
Mid afternoon snack
A fresh fruit super smoothie OR
1 chopped apple with a tbsp. almond butter
Cup of green tea
2 squares of 90% dark chocolate
2 fresh mackerel fillets
Roast butternut squash, broccoli, red onion and mixed bell peppers
1 roasted cinnamon banana with 2 tbsp. Greek yoghurt
Cup of ginger tea
Due to inadequate preparation, excitement, fatigue and lack of availability of nutritious foods, runners and athletes may neglect their recovery after a marathon. It is vital that you go to the race prepared with your own provision of nutritious foods to consume after the race. Don’t rely on the food that is provided as it will often be highly processed and deficient in the essential nutrients your body requires to recover. Fruits and homemade snack bars or FoodFlicker recovery scones are a good first option, then in the following hours vegetables, unprocessed meats, fish, nuts and seeds are good choices. There are lots of meal ideas on the FoodFlicker meal page. Eating these foods after the race will help you to recover faster and have you back in your regular routine as quickly as possible. And remember, recovery from a marathon is more than a 12-24 hour process, such that for two to three days after the race you should continue to focus on all aspects of recovery to allow your body recover properly, and get back on the roads.