On The Importance of Mental Marathon Recovery
Olympic Marathon Gold Medal winner Frank Shorter famously said, “You have to forget your last marathon before you try another.” I would go one further and say, you can’t run your best until you have recovered both physically and mentally from your last race.
Finishing a marathon can be a lot of different things – everything from the incredible high of a dream realized, to being humbled by the distance and left wondering where it all went wrong. Most who toe the starting line have been preparing for this moment anywhere from 16 weeks prior to a year or more. Regardless of how you got there, or how your day went, most everyone will agree on one thing: your post-marathon return to running should be every bit as mindful as the plan which got you to your 26.2 finish line.
When trying to figure out how best to return to running after completing my first marathon, there was certainly no shortage of information or “reverse taper” plans available. Several prominent physical recovery philosophies exist: Noted running guru Hal Higdon endorses a pretty common strategy of waiting at least 2-3 weeks before resuming hard training, while others suggest waiting one day for every mile of the race. (This strategy is touted as being applicable to most any distance, although your level of fitness and your goals might allow you to deviate from that plan a bit.) At some point though, you have to start getting some work back into your legs, and coaches like Kyle Kranz start to inject some 30-second strides into easy runs as early as 15 days post-marathon.
Instead, where I felt like the available research was lacking was in how to mentally recover from my marathon effort. For months prior to the race, I had been focused on one lofty goal. My weeks had been filled with speed workouts, with weekly long runs, with miles and miles of recovery runs in between. Hobbies and house projects had gone largely ignored as race day got closer and closer, and that pile of laundry never seemed to get any smaller.
After my first marathon, I spent the rest of that day in various forms of sitting or stretching out, trying to comprehend what I had just done. After a solid night of sleep, I pointed the truck down the highway and made the drive to the North Shore. I spent that following week walking up and down rivers catching trout, sitting in a boat casting for muskies, chasing my god-children in endless laps around the house…and never once even put my running watch on.
After returning home, I wasn’t sure what to focus on next, so I picked up all the things I had left off. I got caught up on laundry. I put my patio furniture away for the year (which I had only used as a post-run stepping stone before going into the house). I fixed a sticky window, and raked leaves. I went for runs when I wanted to, and didn’t when I didn’t. I didn’t worry about logging miles or taking too many rest days. And then, after the leaves had long changed color, I went out and ran a race on Thanksgiving, and it felt really, really good again.
I entered the new year with a new plan and a new goal. I joined a group to train for Grandma’s Marathon, and I entered the lottery for the NYC Marathon. Mentally I was more than ready for my next challenge, and physically I was feeling better than ever. It was important for me to figure out that before I could ever convince my legs to get moving again, I had to let my brain recover first. Frank Shorter’s quote ends like this: “Your mind can’t know what’s coming.” I would amend that to say, my mind just needed time to smooth out the rough edges, because the memories are absolutely what keep me coming back!
How do you recover?
Are you preparing to run a fall marathon this year? What is on your to-do list afterward? Leave us a note in the comment section below, we’d love to hear your physical and mental recovery tips!