LET’S SAY THAT couple months back, you decided to go the distance—like, a long distance. We’re talking 26.2 miles of distance. Maybe it was one of those, “You know, I’ve always wanted to do this once in my lifetime,” or an abiding love for absurd amounts of aerobic activity. Whatever it was that spurred your decision to run a marathon, you’re now in it aching-ankles-deep, and you’re committed.
After all, a marathon isn’t exactly something you do on a whim. It takes discipline, focus and a whole lot of planning. You devised a strict running regimen and slowly began building your weekly mileage. That neighborhood jog you could barely get through during week 1? You can now crush it with practiced ease. You’ve been diligently training, sacrificing TV time and reading time and conversations-with-significant-other time.
Now after all the hard work, the Little Rock Marathon is finally around the corner. With all the buildup to the big day, you probably haven’t had much time to prepare for what comes next—after the finish line is crossed and your muscles have taken a serious battering. Which is why we reached out to two sports-medicine specialists—Dr. Michael Cassat of UAMS’ Running Clinic and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Lawrence O’Malley—for advice on what to do for an injury-free and all-around more pleasant recovery period. Before you speed into those 26.2 miles—from the initial surge of excitement to the unadulterated joy of spotting the last mile marker—we suggest you take heed.
Stretching before a run—or any sort of a demanding workout—not only prepares your sleeping muscles for what’s about to come, it also increases your range of motion and flexibility. However, as the good docs say, how you stretch is just as important. “We know that people do better with dynamic stretching prior to a run than they do with static stretching or holding a stretch,” Dr. Cassat says. “We know people don’t necessarily have a lower injury risk with static stretching; that doesn’t affect injury risk whatsoever.” So ditch your old-school static stretches and opt for dynamic movements such as leg swings, side lunges and deadlifts.
Whip out those compression socks.
If there’s ever been a good time to wear snug, tight-fitting garments, it’s now. Compression socks, tights, or calf sleeves have been said to provide support, lessen impact and improve circulation during the race. Not to mention, they help reduce post-race hobbling. “We can actually measure changes in injury markers to muscle cells, and people have less muscle injury wearing compression,” Dr. Cassat says. “It modulates that after-run soreness and helps muscles get ready for the next run.”
Rest, but continue moving.
As much as you might be anxious to get back on your feet and train harder to trim your previous record, most experts agree that a little R&R goes a long way (like, in an even-longer-than-an-ultramarathon way). “[Runners] need to give themselves at least a good three or four days of rest,” Dr. O’Malley says. “I think what would be good after they had just stressed their bodies with running is doing a different activity besides running. Swimming, biking, elliptical—any sort of aerobic activity that’s easy on their joints will help them recover from the long run.”
Replace what’s lost.
Ever wondered what happens during a runner’s bonk—that moment somewhere between mile 18 and 26 when both your brain and legs lock up and the prospect of ever reaching the finish line begins to look impossible? When glycogen stores, which your body uses as its primary fuel during a strenuous activity, are depleted, you begin to experience the symptoms of hypoglycemia, such as mind-blowing fatigue and an I-give-up mindset. (It might also be the reason you’re seeing unicorns romping along the trail.)
Steer clear from ibuprofen.
If you’re experiencing next-day discomfort or stiffness, your first instinct might be to reach for those over-the-counter painkillers. Although they work like magic when it comes to subduing a nagging headache, anti-inflammatory drugs do little to nothing to help you recover from that grueling run. In fact, taking them might even lengthen the time it takes you to bounce back from a day of strenuous physical activity. “The inflammatory process of an injury is important to muscle growth, so when you take anti-inflammatories, you slow down muscle repair and recovery,” Dr. Cassat says.
If it hurts, get it checked out.
Running-related injuries are not uncommon—especially for first-time racers. In fact, Cassat says that as a newbie, you’re about three times more likely to get injured than a seasoned runner. Repetitive trauma hinders the body’s ability to heal tiny cracks in the bone, which results in stress fractures. (This is where cross-training comes in handy). “If you start to have pain that doesn’t go away with rest in a few days, it’s probably beneficial to see somebody to make sure you’re not missing something that could be treated very easily, something that may hamper your ability to do the race at all,” Dr. O’Malley says. “The same thing after the race. A lot of people will push through to finish the race; then they continue to have pain that nags them.”