Respect the Distance
“The marathon is long. No one wins. Some just survive it better than others.” I’m not honestly sure where I first heard this sentiment, but it’s true. The marathon always wins. It breaks down all of our carefully erected mental safeguards and barriers. It grinds our bodies and reduces our brains to mush. It extracts one hell of a toll on our bodies. And it is imperative we remember this.
It’s really common when we finish a marathon to immediately want to go register for the next race. Especially if we had a “good” race. But it is important to respect the distance. The physiological toll we pay for that experience is a lot higher than most of us want to admit. Even if we’re really fit, in good health, and execute well on race day, our bodies are cooked afterward. Never mind the physical trauma our muscular and skeletal systems endured, the physiological toll on our bodies is so great that our endocrine and immune systems are all out of whack too. There is a reason why a lot of people get sick after running a marathon or ultra, especially if they have to fly to get home. Spending several hours inside a tin can with 50-plus of our newest best friends when our immune system isn’t functioning isn’t the best way to stay healthy.
Track your resting heart rate. I’ve touched on this in previous articles, but I can’t stress enough how important this is after a long, hard, race. Your resting heart rate is one of the best indicators you have to determine if you’re recovered from the race and ready to resume training. Your body is going to be working overtime for a while trying to repair the physical damage and strain on the endocrine system that you put on it. If that resting heart rate is still elevated, it means you’re still working on fixing the strained and broken bits.
Be aware that you’ll probably have a case of the wiped-outs. Those long, hard, races can fully deplete our glycogen reserves. This means that you may feel perfectly energetic while your blood sugar levels are up, but as soon as they drop you’re going to feel like you need to sit down. You simply don’t have the buffer of those glycogen reserves to keep you going. This means that you’ll need to be extra careful about taking it easy, even when you are feeling perky. Refilling those energy reserves is one of the biggest priorities. I’ve known a lot of folks that take longer than expected to recover from a race because they start working some more intense workouts in as soon as their feeling frisky.
It’s all good to say “wait until you’re fully recovered before getting back at it”, but there are some things we can do to help accelerate that recovery. The most important things are sleep and nutrition. Getting a lot of sleep is important because that is when we’ll actually be rebuilding the physical structures and tissues that were torn down during the race. It’s also a time when we aren’t stressing our bodies. That stress budget is important because the more total stress (work, life, physical, etc.) we’re putting on our bodies, the more work our bodies have to do to recover from that particular day, never mind the race we just did. Don’t trick yourself into thinking you don’t need as much sleep as you normally do because you’re not putting in a lot of miles. You’re still working hard, just in a different way.
The nutrition component is also important because that’s where we’re getting the resources we need to do the actual recovery work. This starts as soon as we cross that finish line: get some easy to assimilate carbohydrates in ASAP while your body is primed to store them as glycogen. Even super-on-point Meb Keflezighi keeps a Snickers bar in his drop bag at the finish line. After that, it’s important to make sure we’re putting in a lot of high quality food so that our bodies have the nutrients we need to recover, not just calories. You’re probably going to need some protein to repair damaged tissues, but make sure you’re getting lots of fruits and vegetables too. These will provide not only crucial vitamins, minerals, and water, but also the carbohydrates you’ll need to get those glycogen levels back up to normal. While a bunch of junk food may sound good, the inflammation that comes with it probably won’t help you feel any better anytime soon. A celebratory beer is good. A bender is probably not the best idea.
Easy “workouts” are also a great way to help repair the physical damage we did to ourselves in the race. Low intensity effort can actually help flush nutrients into the beat up tissues and prime our bodies to store post-workout calories as glycogen. The important part here is that they are super easy, just hard enough to get some blood flow but not hard enough to beat us up anymore or deplete those glycogen reserves. Often it’s a good idea to do something (anything) other than running to do this. Low or non-impact activities are often the best, as they help minimize the eccentric load those fried muscles have to handle. Swimming, biking, power-walking, yoga, and body weight exercises are all great examples of these kinds of activities that can allow us to get the heart rate up just a little bit without putting a large strain on us.
I’m a strong proponent of not racing more than two long endurance races in a year. This doesn’t mean you can’t go run a half or full marathon if you want, but you damn well better have the base volume that makes it fit within your weekly volume budget. If you routinely have a high training volume, to where the race distance is roughly the length of your long run and you treat the race as a training run, then you’re probably okay. Just be sure you hold those competitive juices in check and don’t get too carried away. Even if you are a high volume athlete, a hard two-plus hour race pace effort is going to put a big strain on your body.
As Mary Schmich wrote in the speech later put to music by Baz Lurhmann Everyone is Free (to Wear Sunscreen): “The race is long. And in the end, it’s only with yourself.” Respect the distance. Learn from the experience of others and don’t get greedy. Endurance races are hard on the body. They may not hurt like the mile, but they put a much bigger strain on the overall system. Not respecting that will result in injury or a seriously jacked up endocrine system. So go sign up for that next awesome race. Just make sure it’s far enough down the road you have time to recover from the massive ordeal you just put yourself through.