Marathon Recovery – The Mental Side

Posted: April 25, 2012 in Training

For many marathoners, especially first-timers, “race day” becomes something almost mythical.  From the time that your fingers nervously click on the “REGISTER” button on the race web-site, your mind starts wrapping itself around the idea that in a few months you will be standing on a city street somewhere about to run 26 miles, 385 yards.

For first-timers, the marathon will be the first time they have run further than 20 or 21 miles.  For seasoned veterans, the last time they will have covered that distance would be on a previous race day.  The memories and emotions tied to that last effort can be summoned from deep within with only a date, a city name or perhaps a time.

November 12, 2006 – First Marathon

May 2, 2009 – First BQ

Austin – Feb. 20, 2010 – ugh, the heat and humidity

3:17:43 – Pittsburgh 2009

New York – Marathon PR

Boston – we will never forget our two Boston’s

Pittsburgh II – Dom.

All of those races bring back strong memories.  Some of triumph, some perseverance, some painful, some joyous.  But even the oldest of memories, now more than 5 years ago remain quite vivid.

In each case I started a journey to that starting line like most would be marathoners do.  With a training plan that stretched out 18-24 weeks in advance, 5 months essentially, mapping out every single one of those 126 -168 days for me.

When I would run, how far I would go, when I would rest and now as my training plans have become more sophisticated and more aggressive – I even know how “hard” I will run each workout, sometimes even twice in one day.

You train, you battle injuries, bad weather, travel, holidays, vacations, oftentimes sacrificing precious sleep to make it all work.

You taper prior to race day and for the first time in weeks your body and your legs start to feel good.   Race day arrives, you dress, pin on your bib, make your way to the starting line and at the blast of the horn you find yourself crossing over the timing mat.

You run easy at first, wave to the crowd and settle into the race.

You run well for close to an hour, feeling fresh, like you just started.

Another mile or so passes and you notice you are starting to wipe sweat from our brow.  Your shirt is starting to stick to you a bit.  You hit the water stop, get a drink and dig in.  It’s starting now.

A few more miles and you notice a small pain somewhere.  For me it is usually on the outside of my hips at first.  You see the sign for mile 17 approaching.  Just 9 miles to go.  We’re still good you think.

Three miles later you reach mile 20.  You see some people walking through the water stop for the first time and you think, that might feel pretty good right now … but you don’t stop – still 10 Kilometers to go.

The marathon has just started.

You tick the miles off one after the other.

Your hips are pretty sore now and your calves and feet are feeling the miles.

Mile 24, Mile 25 and then you realize you are less than a mile to go.  You start to do math in your head …. If I run a final mile of 7:30 I can break 3:09:00, if I drop to sub 7:00 I have a shot at 3:08 or wait, do I?  3:03:42 + 6:XX … oh, no way I can run a 6:18 now, just keep pushing it.

You finally see the chute, you search for the extra gear, the one you have been saving for over 3 hours.  You see the clock, you hit the mat, and then …


The race that you have been building up in your mind as the be all and end all for the last 5 months comes to a screeching halt.

Whether you achieved your time goal or failed to reach it there is a tremendous feeling of accomplishment.  You are a marathoner either for the first-time or “again”, but no matter how many finish lines you cross – every one of them is damn special.

You enjoy the accomplishment with friends and family.  You have a nice dinner and head off to bed.  The next morning you wake up, the muscles that felt, “pretty sore” the day before are now screaming at you.  Muscles you didn’t even know that you had.

Even your eye-lids seem sore.

And this is where it starts to get worse.

Many marathoners do not have an “after” plan.

They were married to a training plan stuck to their refrigerator for more than 5 months.  Now, they don’t have anywhere to go from that finish line.

They’re not sure when they will run again.  How far they should go or how fast.

Those endorphins that they have been using to kick-start their day for months are now gone.  They start to fall into a rut.  Go through the motions.  Mail it in.

They’ve lost their “mojo”.  They are basically depressed.

This is not a phenomenon unique to that individual runner – this is very common – in fact too common.  It happens to just about everyone if they do not have that post-marathon “plan” established.

So how do you do it?

Post Race Plan:

Before every training cycle starts, when I put together my training plan, I also schedule what I am going to do each day for the four weeks immediately following the marathon.

I refer to this as my “reverse taper” period.  It is the time when I am going to rest, recover and gradually work myself back to training and then racing.

I do this BEFORE the training cycle so I do not allow the results from my race determine what I am going to do from a recovery standpoint.

It is very easy to allow that race performance to make you think that you are ready for something that you are not.  Boston this year was a great example, where after a kick-ass training cycle I was more or less “robbed” of my race day.

87 degree temperatures and all I could do was trot along the Boston Marathon course hoping to make it to the end and finish the race safely.  There was no “race day” for me at the end of those 24 weeks.

Kind of a rip-off huh?

So, maybe I should just jump into a marathon again?  Maybe I should find one, you know in 3-4 weeks or something and race there.  I mean, I really didn’t exert myself too badly at Boston right?

Sure.  Tell yourself that.  Plenty of people go out for a 26.2 mile training run in 87 degree heat and then run a marathon PR 3 weeks later right?  Happens all the time.

How ridiculous is that notion?  Completely right?

Sure, because we are being rational about it.  But to an endurance junkie like a marathoner, especially a “disappointed marathoner” – what I described above can seem perfectly sane.  In fact, they will assign a level of “coolness” to it.  Make them feel more “badass” in pulling that off.

They will also more likely than not run poorly or get injured during or shortly after that second effort.  Too much, too soon and you are staring at the injured list.

Think you are disappointed from a poor race experience?  Try not running at all for 6 or 8 weeks and see how that feels.

The same trap can take place for runners coming off a great race.  They want to jump right back into training, run even more miles, faster splits – race another marathon and REALLY nail it.

Same situation – just different motivation behind the decision.  You have to be tough, strong and willful to run marathons.  But being smart helps a whole lot too.

By planning out those 4 weeks in advance, you remove all emotion from it.

You plan out your “days off” in my case 3 complete days off from running and put them on your training calendar.  You get to “Cross Off” those days just as you would a workout and give yourself a feeling of accomplishment.

Only 2 more days until I run, only 1 more day until I run, I get to run today!

I then reverse my taper workouts increasing the mileage the same way I cut it back leading up to the marathon.

First run – 2 miles.

Second run – 4 miles.

Third run – 5 miles.

Fourth run – 4 miles.

Fifth Run – 6.2 miles

Sixth Run – 10 Miles

I do not run on back to back days until my Fourth and Fifth runs, always leaving a rest day or cross training day in between.

I take 3 days off before the first run, which counting the rest and cross training days will stretch this recovery period to two-weeks post race.

At that point I resume a “normal” training schedule gradually stretching my Sunday long-run by two miles each week back to 16.  Once I have that my long run back to that level, I am ready for just about anything.

During this period of time it is important not to “assign” any value to a particular run.  I run completely by feel, no pre-conceived time goals or mile splits.  If 7:45’s feel good, I run them.  If 8:00”s are as fast as my legs want to go, that is fine.

This past weekend on Sunday I actually dipped down briefly into the 6:45, 6:50 range for the last two miles of my 5 mile run.  On a cool 51 degree morning with no wind, that pace came smooth and easy.  I then shut down the run at my scheduled 5-mile goal and took the day off on Monday.

Because this schedule is part of the marathon plan, days off do not feel like I am missing out on anything.  They are all part of the master plan to return this soon to be 45-year-old endurance athlete to competition.


The final stage in the recovery process is a return to racing.  It doesn’t have to be another marathon, and in my view – it really shouldn’t be.  The marathon is a lot of things but “fun” isn”t necessarily the first word that comes to mind when I think of it.

A 5K, 10K, trail race?  Relay event?  All are fun events that allow you to pin on a bib, go fast and compete.  Get that race day feeling going again in your stomach and your legs – but even more importantly in your mind.

That feeling is good for your body, mind and soul.  I think it is a good idea to have that first post-marathon event scheduled before your training plan ever starts.  It gives you something to look forward to as you are getting yourself back to full-strength.

Two Sunday’s from now will be my first event since Boston.

“The Rookie” TRI here in Austin.  It is a super-sprint Triathlon that is geared to athletes new to the sport.  Waves are set aside for athletes in their first or second triathlon as well as waves and age group awards for those with more experience.

Being my second ever triathlon, I’m going to have some fun and race with the “Rookies” – 300 Meter Swim, 11 Mile Bike, 2 Mile Run.

By the time we get off of the bike and hit the run course – look out.

We’re going to have some fun …

  1. Joseph Hayes says:

    Great post. I like how your mental recovery write up really parallels the physical recovery write up. I haven’t experienced a marathon yet but I’ve done about 8 races (mix of 5K, 10K, Half, Ultra Halfs) and my first thought after each one is “what is next?” It is VERY easy to ride the adrenaline and sign up for another race too soon. I am definitely guilty but my distances are shorter than 26.2 so it is easier to get away without recovery but I know I would probably want to do the same after my first marathon providing nothing disasterous happening during it.

    I’m actually planning my first marathon right now. It’s the last race in a NorCal series of 3 of which I am doing the half distance of the first two. The Morgan Hill marathon is 10/28/12. I haven’t signed up yet but I also want to do CIM (California International Marathon) which is 12/02/12. What do you think about the gap between? I will likely take it relatively easy on the first one so I know what it’s like, my primary goal will be finishing. CIM, though, will be a race.

    • Joseph Marruchella says:

      Hi Joseph! Thanks for the message and the kind words. Back to back marathons are pretty tricky as the recovery from the first race will really drive your capabilities for the second one. A really good rule of thumb is that you need 1 day of recovery for every mile raced before you are “back to normal” – we are of course talking about a situation where you do not have an injury or nagging condition after the race.

      So for a half-marathon, you are looking at 13-14 days of recover, a marathon 26 days or so. My experience has been that guide is a pretty good predictor.

      The course in the marathon plays a role as well as a really hilly or downhill course takes a lot more out of you than a flat course. The muscles are under much greater strain, and they take longer to recover.

      The last thing you have stacked against you is you’ve never run a marathon before. The first one is pretty darn tough to be honest. You go places with fueling and distance that you just can’t prepare for in training. Those last 10 kilometers ARE essentially the marathon. The first 20-miles is the easy part.

      Can you run them both 5 weeks apart? Absolutely.

      Will you run CIM as well as you would have if you did not run Morgan Hill? If you were an experienced marathoner I would say that the proposition would be 50-50 at best.

      But having not run the distance before, you are indeed going to learn a lot about the race and especially how your nutrition and hydration plan worked for you on race day. So yes, I think in your case you actually will “race” as well or perhaps even better at CIM than you would if you skipped Morgan Hill.

      I would prepare for Morgan Hill just like you would for CIM, get your long runs in, taper for the race, practice basically everything. Then on race day – I would decide what my pace goal is for that particular race – and really try to run it even. If you are backing off your CIM goal from say 3:30 at CIM to 4:00 at Morgan Hill just to use some round numbers – Run Morgan Hill honest. Run even splits mile after mile, don’t go out fast and fade to a slow pace – it would be great practice for you to feel how a target pace can feel so easy early, only to feel so much more difficult late as your body starts to break down a bit over those last 6-8 miles.

      That is where the learning will really come in – and you’ll be ready for it at CIM when it happens again.

      Best to you! Enjoy the summer of training – sounds like a great adventure!

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