Everything is burning. My lungs feel like a pair of citrus fruits, squeezing their sour juices into my veins with every forced breath. A numbing pressure builds in my lower legs as the two blue shoes ahead of me slowly fade in to the distance. “Looking strong – keep it up,” I shout and veer towards the shade of a bright pink bougainvillea bush. Relief spreads through my muscles as I rest against a rock and admire the view of Sicily’s aqua waters. My partner Dylan has two more rigorous hill repetitions before enjoying the same satisfaction... I am very grateful to be spending my early Marathon recovery in this stunning part of the world.
Three questions that I am commonly asked (and that I periodically ask myself) are: How many Marathons can you run in a year? How long you should wait before getting back into training after a Marathon? Do Marathons get easier after you’ve run a few? My responses have evolved since my first Marathon as a 24-year-old in 2012 and will no doubt continue to do so. With this in mind, here are some thoughts based on my experiences to date.
THE BATH TUB EFFECT
I liken the feeling of running a Marathon to full bath tub having its plug pulled. Preparation is the filling phase and then finally on race day we release the pressure. There is an initial awkwardness as the water finds its course but soon enough it flows with ease. Ultimately the final suction effect of water swirling down the drain happens at the finish however Marathoners know that this is not always the case. Crossing the line evokes a feeling of relief, followed by a severe lack of energy. Your gut is churned up from working overtime to absorb the energy-dense gels and electrolytes with a reduced blood flow. The hours of monotonous contractions leave muscles feeling depleted and distressed. Your eyes sting with every sweaty blink and your brain feels fried. Blisters and skin irritations; formed from the repetitive friction and moisture, sting with movement. Behind the scenes other vital organs start planning their process of repair. They scream for help by triggering thirst, lethargy and eventually hunger. The body wants rest and to be fair, I don’t blame it.
STEP 1: THE BURGER WON’T RUN AWAY
One of the frustrations I faced after Marathon number one and subsequently all ten since, is a feeling of nausea and haziness for 48-72 hours post-race – the time period during which I want to kick back and celebrate the experience. Months of heavy training, stringent routines, discipline and commitment by many people culminates in a couple of intense hours followed by a finish line. During heavy days of training I motivate myself by imagining the extraordinary satisfaction I will feel in that finishing moment. Occasionally I dream about the food I look forward to eating, the activities I will have the energy to do without a heavy training schedule and the people with whom I am excited to spend quality time. It seems however that no concentration of endorphins after 42.195km can override the body’s desire to rest post-race. I have learnt to respect the healing process rather than fight it.
Family members, friends, your coach and your team will be excited to see you and hear about the experience. They will be hanging out to enjoy that burger and beverage with you, as promised prior to the Marathon. That being said they will completely understand if you need some time to collect your coherence, appetite and mojo to celebrate. Experience has taught me not to schedule commitments on race day but rather, to roll with the punches. The same goes with sleep on the night of race-eve; it may happen but a racing heart rate and body full of adrenaline may also cause insomnia. I draw confidence from knowing that some of my best races have come after a poor night of sleep.
STEP 2: LISTEN TO YOUR LEGS
Following the London Olympics in 2012 I could not physically run for about a week. I attempted a shuffle to the food hall on the sixth day post-race and felt like my weary calves were holding on to my heel by a loose thread. My body wasn’t ready to run for a while. Now (ten marathons later) I am able to perform a light fifteen to twenty-minute jog a couple of days post-race if I have the desire to stretch out my legs. This is most likely due to higher strength, endurance and efficiency of relevant muscle groups resulting from years of specific training. I don’t look at my watch or put any pressure on myself to achieve a particular time or distance within the first two weeks of running and I love the freedom that comes with listening to my body. I waited almost three weeks before recommencing jogging after the London Olympics and about six weeks before attempting a proper session. I remember feeling a little unfit but fully recovered for the first two weeks and then a bout of random niggles knocked me off course. Interestingly this post-Marathon pattern has occurred more than once. It seems that my aerobic capacity and motivation to train return before my and neural and musculoskeletal systems are ready. My strategy to manage this is to avoid thinking about my next race until at least three weeks into my recovery. This allows me to recover without the niggling thought of needing to stay fit and gives me the opportunity to make a better-informed decision about how much recovery time I need. When returning to training after a Marathon, it is important to build up slowly and to be flexible with the length, intensity and day on which key sessions are performed. I provide regular feedback to my coach, Adam during this period. If unusual tenderness or fatigue is present when I wake up, cross training or rest is generally best.
STEP 3: IS THE BRAIN READY TO TRAIN?
Another significant learning from my early Marathon experiences and first Olympics was the importance of mental and emotional recovery. Any major goal that one works towards i.e. running a Marathon, involves significant planning, preparation and energy expenditure by not only the subject but also the support team. As the body grows stronger, the mind also builds resilience, anticipation and focus. Eventually, “the moment” arrives and when those final steps are taken to get two feet across the line both the body and mind breathe an enormous sigh of relief.
Representing Australia at an Olympic Games had been a childhood dream of mine and coming off the high of London was a fair shock to the system. The process of achieving a qualifying standard, gaining official team selection and fulfilling pre-event commitments whilst training for a Marathon, working and socialising (albeit less than usual) was more intense than I had expected. Admittedly I felt pretty wiped out by the time the Olympic flame was extinguished. I have since learned that it is not unusual for a bit of confusion and hollowness to be felt in the period following such an all-consuming build up and intense stimulus. Fatigue, reflection, and unknowns about “where to next?” can contribute to these emotions. By understanding that emotional waves may occur, we can implement strategies to best manage them. Scheduling a couple of days away from the hustle and bustle of the city, organising social activities and talking things through with those whom I trust are my go-to strategies. The main question I ask myself before committing to another Marathon is “am I ready to commit to the process of preparing for and racing a Marathon?”
Jae Kae Photography.
“How many Marathons can you run in a year?”
Three Marathons per year is generally the recommended maximum by people involved in the sport. My experiences suggest that more than two successive Marathons within twelve to sixteen weeks of each other would potentially increase risk of injury, illness and/or mental burnout. That being said, every individual and situation is different so putting “numbers” to recovery time-frames is difficult. The most important factor is to know and read your own body. I always follow up with my health care providers post-race and assess the situation with my coach to make informed decisions about when to race again.
“How long you should wait before getting back into training after a Marathon?”
My current advice is to go into every Marathon recovery with an open mind and not to force your return to running. Effort, preparation, speed, tactics, nutrition, hydration, terrain, wind, temperature, humidity and footwear all affect how your body responds to the Marathon distance and how quickly it recovers. Regardless of these factors I find that walking, light massage, swimming or dipping my legs in the ocean, a balanced diet and good quality sleep assist with healing and recovery. Be comfortable with walking or cross training until you feel ready to tie up the laces and find your bounce again. When you do recommence running remember to be patient and progress gradually, just like you would with training progressions. If you work with a coach, make sure you keep them updated on how you are feeling so that adjustments can be made accordingly.
“Do Marathons get easier after you’ve run a few?”
I can’t speak for others but they haven’t started getting easier for me yet. The tougher your mind gets, the harder you can push. The more you experience and learn, the wiser you will be. The fitter and stronger your body becomes, the faster the pace you can sustain. If you approach every Marathon with an intent to get the most out of yourself, effort remains the same. The experience may not be easier but it will become more familiar – embrace the challenge.
I hope the above paragraphs answer some of your questions and can assist you in your own Marathon journey in some small way. Thank you and all the best : ).