Post-marathon: Allow 2-3 weeks to recover after big race

Maria Ramos helps Jaime Medina stretch after completing the Miami Marathon & Half Marathon on Sunday. The two are from Colombia. CARL JUSTE cjuste@miamiherald.com
Maria Ramos helps Jaime Medina stretch after completing the Miami Marathon & Half Marathon on Sunday. The two are from Colombia. CARL JUSTE cjuste@miamiherald.com

On Sunday, thousands woke in the predawn hours and headed to American Airlines Arena, where they ran, ran/walked (intervals) or rode special bikes to compete in the Miami Marathon & Half Marathon.

When they crossed the finish line, they got a rush of adrenaline and took a moment — maybe more — to recover.

But sitting still after the race is not the way to go, say sports medicine doctors and experienced marathoners. In fact, there are important steps to take immediately after a big race, and in the days following it, to prevent injury.

“Research shows that muscle, cellular and immune systems are compromised for two to three weeks post-race, so recovery from a marathon is a critical component,” said Dr. Farah Tejpar, a sport medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic Florida in Weston. “Runners who don’t recover properly from a marathon put themselves at increased risk of injury and delayed healing.”

Tejpar recommends resting for at least three to four days after a big race before returning to a normal exercise routine. She suggests starting with low-impact cross training or 20 to 30 minutes easy jogging.

“Don’t rush to compete again. Allow your body the time it needs to recovery,” Tejpar said.

Dr. Thomas San Giovanni, an orthopedic surgeon at Miami Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Institute of Baptist Health South Florida, concurred that rest is essential.

“The next day, runners want to get right back into running because they figured they’ve reached this maximal fitness and they don’t want to lose that,” said San Giovanni, who is also the co-medical director of the Miami Marathon. “That is a common mistake. You want to give your body some time to rest to allow your body to recuperate and restore.”

He advocates a good night’s rest and a well-balanced meal. To help reduce inflammation, take ice baths and keep legs elevated.

After a race, some people may not be able to distinguish between post-race soreness and an injury because it’s common to feel pain and aches.

“Look for swelling and inflammation that lasts and pain that persists,” San Giovanni said. “As the days go by, if it doesn’t seem like you’re getting better, then you may want to seek medical attention or get evaluated.”

Frankie Ruiz, brand manager for the Miami Marathon and chief running officer at Life Time Fitness, says support is crucial in the period immediately after a race.

“Have somebody near by, so that you can lean on them or in case you might need attention,” Ruiz said. “I definitely recommend somebody walk with you through the recovery and that you’re not by yourself.”

Tracy Smith, a marathon runner and director of physical therapy at Cleveland Clinic, completed the Miami Marathon last January in four hours and 27 minutes. She advises athletes to stay hydrated and get some food immediately after a race. Many marathons are stocked with bananas, oranges, bagels and protein bars for the runners at the end of the race.

“You don’t want to overeat because your body doesn’t really digest at that point,” said Smith, 41, who lives in Davie. “But you have to get some calories and some carbohydrates back in.”

She also advises not to stop after a race.

“The key after is to really keep moving,” Smith said. “Not to cross that finish line and sit down. Walk around and enjoy whatever the marathon has for entertainment.”

Paul Sykes would agree. The 50-year-old Coral Gables resident completed the New York City marathon on Nov. 1 and walked a mile to retrieve his personal items.

“At the time, that felt really bad, but it’s actually the best thing that I could have done,” Sykes said. “The last thing you want to do is run 26.2 miles and then sit down and let your legs seize up.”’

According to Ruiz, marathon organizers kept this in mind. At the Miami Marathon, organizers placed the finish line a quarter of a mile from Bayfront Park, where the food and entertainment awaited.

“There’s a purpose to that,” Ruiz said. “So people don’t just come to a complete halt, throw themselves on the ground, and end up needing medical attention.”

Sykes completed the New York Marathon in four hours and 18 minutes. In total, he has run eight marathons and 25 half-marathons. His biggest advice to others is to stay in shape.

“How you recover is impacted a lot by how you prepare,” said Sykes, who had heart surgery for an aortic valve replacement at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach nine months before the New York City race.

Sykes underwent a minimally invasive method that involved a small, five-centimeter incision, resulting in a quick recovery. He was training just three weeks after his surgery.

His surgeon, Dr. Joseph Lamelas, the chief of cardiac surgery at Mount Sinai, recommended a minimally invasive approach because the recovery is more rapid and patients who are athletes can return more quickly to an active lifestyle.

Marathon runners and doctors also advise runners to congratulate themselves once they cross the finish line. Ruiz believes in rewards such as a massage or a small treat.

“A little bit later in the day, it might be time to reach for that dessert,” Ruiz said. “A scoop of ice cream or a key lime pie.”

Although he doesn’t recommend overindulgence, Ruiz does enjoy a sip of soda after completing a big race.

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