Let’s start by saying that there is no right or wrong answer to this. However, in most circumstances the answer to the question is “longer than you think”. Resting after an ultra marathon is something that varies enormously between runners. What one person considers taking it easy is usually very different to the next. Some think that a few days of no running before going back to ‘normal’ is ok while others take longer off. Some find that they get next to no obvious DOMs, fatigue or issues while others can suffer for days. While there is no hard and fast rule, there are several things to consider when approaching your ultra marathon recovery.
In my experience, I have found that I have been able to run, and run quite well a few days after an ultra. However, a few weeks after the event I feel fatigued and I can’t understand why I can’t get any speed out of my legs and everything feels such an effort. You may just find that a few weeks down the line you suddenly get really fatigued on a 10-15 mile run that ordinarily would be relatively easy. Is this because you didn’t stop running and kept going trying to do too much too soon? More than likely, yes. We take a look at recovery after an ultra, how long you should rest and how you should re-introduce your training.
Resting After an Ultra Marathon – What Not to Do, Part 1
I once ran a 3:53 marathon at Manchester where my goal was to run sub 4, so I ticked that box. However, I realised that if I had been 3 minutes quicker I would have qualified with a GFA for London. What did I do? Did I go back into gentle training and think I will do it again next time in another training cycle? No, I booked another marathon a month later feeling supremely confident that I had a sub 3:50 in my legs.
I rested for a couple of weeks (albeit under protest) and then went back to 17/18/20 mile runs before running Yeovil marathon. I was feeling supremely confident that I had it in me and I knew I could run that fast. What happened? Well, surely you have already realised this. I bonked at mile 18, absolutely exhausted and managed a 3:58! I then did what I should have done in the first place and waited for another training cycle where I ran a 3:46. Lesson learned, or was it?
What Not to Do Part 2
More recently I trained for a 50 mile ultra. It was postponed due to Covid in the first lockdown so we carried on training and ran it on the revised date 5 months later. I had run so many miles and achieved so much elevation that I was ready. I felt good until the end and I could walk the next day.
I had another ultra booked 2 weeks later as a back up in case Covid had meant that the first one had got cancelled again. Convinced I could run it (it was only 30 miles after all, I gave it a go. I got to mile 12 and stopped! Just like Forest Gump, I stopped running and went home, at that point vowing that I wouldn’t run again. That resolution lasted about 3 days!
The trouble is we never learn. We always think we can keep going and no doubt there are those that can but let’s look at what we should do.
Update – May 2023
I Finally Learned!
It’s only taken me 8 years of running to actually listen to my own advice. After running the London Marathon in April I actually just did some low mileage, low effort runs around my local trails – nothing strenuous. I added a couple of easy hikes in. I didn’t do anything faster than a 9 minute mile and listened to my body. I also started strength training. The result – I ran a half marathon 4 weeks out and kept it at my marathon pace (avoided the temptation to see how fast I could go – went round it as strong as I have ever been and enjoyed every minute. I felt strong, the DOMs were negligible and I haven’t ended up with the usual fatigue – in fact, I am ready to get back to speed reps 4 weeks after. See – it pays to listen to what they say.
What You Should Do
Take at least 2 weeks of easy recovery after an ultra. You don’t have to give up exercise completely, just take more rest days from activity than normal. Any running should be short and at a very relaxed effort. While you may feel OK by around day 4 or 5 after your race, you shouldn’t underestimate the toll that the ultra marathon (or any race where you over exert yourself) has taken on your body.
Sleep, eat healthily, rehydrate and do everything you would after any long run or race
- The first week after, tempting as it may be, don’t do anymore than 20-30 minutes of running at a very slow pace
- If you had a bad race, don’t be too eager to get out there and prove to yourself that you can do it
- If you have a great race and you feel OK, don’t underestimate how much your body has gone through
You may feel good, you may not have the DOMs you were excepting, but you have still caused damage to your muscles that need time to repair.
As well as the muscle damage, an ultra marathon especially, can take its toll on your organs, your immune system, your nervous system and your mental health… it goes far beyond what you do to your legs and you need to be kind to yourself.
As a coach, I have now lost count of the times that and athlete has come to me 1-2 months later and can’t understand why they have no speed in their legs and can’t score a PB at the local Park Run.
Immediately After an Ultra Marathon
Stretch, stretch, stretch and ensure that you are restoring motion to the muscles that have been used so much. Stretch when you finish, keep stretching, ice if you need to but keep moving. Tempting as it is to fall on the sofa and undertake a new kind of marathon on Netflix, it won’t do you any good. Keep moving, keep stretching. Getting the blood pumping will restore the motion to the muscles that you need. Have a shower, have some food and do what you need to do but don’t sit down – not yet anyway. Those stretches and moving around are so important!
Stretches should include:
- Calf stretches
- Hip flexes and extensions
- Quads and hamstrings
- Back and trunk
Yoga and pilates are excellent ways to stretch and cross training is also beneficial and easier on the body. Cycling and swimming are also alternatives if you must keep exercising although not after you have just finished your ultra. An hour on the bike will put far less strain on your tired and overused muscles than going for a run. Swimming is an excellent form of exercise but equally a brisk walk will get the blood flowing. Even walking the dog will help to keep the muscles moving.
Foam Rolling and Massage
You can also roll out any tight spots with a foam roller or invest in a massage gun. There are many different types of massage guns that all do a similar job. We tend to look at the Amazon reviews before buying anything like this. Alternatively, you can pick up a foam roller for approx. £10. it’s about finding what works for you. You can book a sports massage and have a thorough deep tissue massage. Some people have them regularly. Honesty, I have only ever had one but that’s because as a busy single mum I am always running around all over the place.
There is a theory that you should take a day off for every 10 miles run. That’s a lot of time resting after an ultra marathon if the distance was 100 miles. Much of the time, you won’t feel much like running the following day or the day after. If you can bear to take a week off, it will only benefit your recovery.
How Much Rest Do You Need?
In terms of how long you should be resting after an ultra marathon, there isn’t a one size fits all solution. We have known people that have completely an ultra then gone and done another soon after without any ill effects. While we wouldn’t advise this, we are just trying to demonstrate how everyone is different. Your own specific recovery time will depend on:
- How far you ran
- How hard the terrain was
- How experienced you are
- Effort – both physical and mental
- How long you have taken to recover before
- If you are left with any niggles, injuries, strains, overwhelming fatigue
As I mentioned earlier, I have sometimes gone back to my normal running schedule after only a week of so called rest (which involved running more than I should) this includes speed work, long runs and everything else I normally do. I felt fine but I didn’t take into account the stress I had out on my body. I also suffered later down the line.
Running In the First Week After
If you are anything like us, you are probably keen to get back to training, or at least some sort of running. If you are going to carry on running, do not do anything they exceeds 60-65% of your maximal heart rate. This includes tempo runs, speed runs or hard long runs. If you have just completed an ultra, a few steady miles after a few days of nothing is advisable. Stretch your legs with a walk but a “recovery run” the day after is not resting or recovering. Running for anything over an hour is not advised for the next week at least. Avoid hills and any hard climbing. Don’t underestimate the importance of resting after an ultra marathon.
Getting Back to Training
When you are ready and everything is feeling ok with your muscles and mind, which could as little as a week or as much as a few weeks, you can start over. Many recommend a reverse taper without the speed work, increasing the weekly mileage and length/intensity of runs until you are back to normal. Work back up to your standard weekly mileage and then bring the speed work back.
At the end of the day, you know your own body and it is important that you listen to your body. Are you sleeping more than usual, is everything an effort, do your muscles feel tight? Does a normal run feel tough? Do you currently hate running – after all this is supposed to be enjoyable! These are the signs that you should be looking out for to gauge if you are ready to get back to training or not and should contribute to your plan for resting after an ultra marathon.