What Happens During the Different Phases of Running a Marathon?

By Dr. Mukesh Mehra in Internal Medicine

Jul 25 , 2017 | 4 min read

Given the demands of the race, and how much have you truly "raced," you have placed a massive dose of training on your body. If you can recover properly, you can not only avoid burnout or injury, you could set the stage for an even better training cycle in the future.

This powerful experience is not that different from what your body undergoes during a marathon. There is deep muscular fatigue from the effort, not to mention the cost of actually covering 26.2 miles on your feet and legs. If you can understand this physical state to be an opportunity, instead of an inconvenience, you might well be able to absorb the work done and earn some significant fitness.

Phase One: The First Hour

Once you've crossed the finish line, it's imperative that you turn your focus towards recovery. You can start doing the mile splits and swapping stories as soon as you have taken a few basic steps.

1. Dry Clothes -- Once you stop working, your body will almost immediately begin to enter recovery mode. Even on a warm day, you'll find yourself getting quite cold and clammy; avoid these post race chills by quickly changing into some nice warm soft clothes. This includes footwear, and injuries aside, another pair of shoes is best (as opposed to sandals) so as to keep your feet from swelling up and to provide you with much-needed support.

2. Feet Up -- After your quick change, you'll want to find a way to lie down and get your feet up. After several hours of hard work, your body needs help facilitating blood flow. Besides, this is just plain relaxing. Ideally, you'll be able to keep your feet up for 15- to 25 minutes at this first go, and it's recommended you do this several more times during the day.

3. Quick Calories -- You'll need some kind of recovery meal, ideally in liquid form and containing some protein. Avoid processed fruit juices or other sugary substitutes; use what has worked in training but make sure this happens in the first 30 minutes after your event.

4. Care for Damage -- If you have sustained some kind of injuries such as a blister or muscle strain, now you can begin assessing the true extent of what you have done and sought out help. Your brain will be much clearer, and if you need to go somewhere or wait in line at least your basic needs will have been met.

Phase Two: 12 Hours

You aren't out of the woods just yet. By now you have found your friends and family; perhaps you have even made it back to your hotel/house and are now thinking about your next meal. Don't just mail it in from here; there are still a few key things you can do aside from eating the biggest meal you can find (although that's not a bad place to start!):

1. Get cleaned up -- There's nothing like taking a shower or bath that will rejuvenate you - and make you aware of any issues you might have.If possible, consider a cool or even cold bath to help promote recovery. Note that this is not for the faint of heart

2. Serious Nutrition -- You'll most likely have a pretty solid craving, so picking a place to eat won't be hard. Just bring a snack in case you aren't the only finisher with this idea. As you pick your foods, try to keep them reasonably healthy and drink lots of water.

3. Sensible Celebration-- Your body is still running on fumes, and adding alcohol and lots of time standing on your feet can be fun but does have its limits. Make sure you get IOUs from everyone for next time and head home.

4. Sleep Right -- Chances are you'll be so tired that falling asleep won't be an issue; the problem is you'll be so sore that staying asleep could be harder than you think! Put plenty of fluids and maybe even a snack on your bedside table and keep your feet elevated. Feel free to roll over as many times as you can the next day.

Phase Three: 72 Hours

By the end of 72 hours, you'll be the toughest part of your recovery process. But you need to get there first. This period is marked by some of the deepest need for recovery, for once the adrenaline wears off the fatigue and soreness will be all that's left.

1. Stay Active -- Do your best to avoid being stationary other than sleeping. Light walking, an easy dip in the pool or a short spin on an exercise bike will each, in their own way, help your muscles flush out the toxins and after-effects of the race. Frequent rest will be needed, but total rest is your enemy here.

2. Continue Quality Foods -- You are what you eat, especially when your body is in such a vulnerable state. A treat or two is OK, but try to save the real craziness for a later date when you can truly savour the food (and bear the consequences).

3. Self-Massage -- Lightly working on your calves, feet, hamstrings, glutes and quads is another great way to stay loose and promote recovery. Whether you use your hands or a fancy gadget, taking periodic breaks to focus on your trouble areas will really help.

Moving On

Once you have emerged from the most intensive recovery, your work is still not done. Your body is still a long way from being at 100 percent. General guidelines include staying active by walking or including some cross-training like cycling or swimming. The earliest you should consider running is about a week out, but if you can stay away from the sneakers for a full 14 days you'll really be ready to begin the process of getting your stride back.