Today is October the 21st, 2019- aka, the day after you tackled the Auckland Marathon! You did it! You ran a marathon. You took anywhere between 50,000 and 60,000+ steps and you were out on the course for anywhere up to 6 hours. We know it can be a little difficult to describe the complicated mix of emotions you now feel – maybe relief that it’s over, some pride for what you have achieved, maybe a bit of grief in this being over. Respect for your body, disappointment, joy, a little bit of nostalgia for the journey. As your mind processes the mix of emotions it is also important for your body to process and recover. And to do this, you need to understand how the race impacted your body by first looking at how the body responds to prolonged exercises and stress.
“Stress” can be defined as being many things, but ultimately it is how our body responds to the demands we put on it, resulting in an autonomic nervous system response.
We can split the autonomic nervous system into two branches:
The Sympathetic Nervous System:
The sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the flight or fight response, is when our nervous system recognises that our body is under stress and allows it to respond accordingly. It is this part of our nervous system that increases your heart rate, dilates airways to let you breathe easier and helps to release stored energy to strengthen muscular contractions. Those nerves you were experiencing standing on the starting line yesterday…you can thank your sympathetic nervous system for that.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System:
The parasympathetic nervous system is the part of the nervous system that allows your body to ‘rest and digest’. This part of the nervous system helps to slow your heart rate down, restore damaged tissue and eliminate waste products from the body. This is what we need to focus on to get your body recovered post-race so you can get back into training for your next event!
Let’s have a look at some different ways we can get our body into a parasympathetic state so we can recover after events:
Research suggests that you should consistently get 7-8 hours of sleep per night. However, if you are training hard or recovering after a big race, the importance of getting a good night’s sleep increases (that means ideally more than the 8 hours). It’s during sleep that your body is in a parasympathetic nervous system mode and helps to regulate recovery.
Massage is a great way to help calm the body’s nervous system to allow the healing process to really get started. By stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, your body can naturally begin its healing process. My recommendation is to try to get a massage straight after a marathon (most marathons have post-event massages) – otherwise, aim to get one no later than the following week. This massage should focus on the body as a whole, rather than any particular area, and should be lighter than your traditional sports massage as the primary focus is recovery rather than treatment of an injury.
Don’t be afraid to take some easy weeks after running a marathon. While we often think about that our musculoskeletal system is the only system that needs to recover after significant bouts of exercise, the truth is that your body’s other systems need to take time to recover also. Plus, this gives you time to have a mental break from the training and racing you’ve been doing. Allowing for this will mean you can get back into your training for the next event with a spring in your step.
Prolonged exercise such as a marathon can cause micro-trauma to your muscles. Look at getting a well-balanced meal in post-race to begin rebuilding your muscles straight away. Make sure you are replacing the calories that you’ve just burned.
So go on, put your feet up, get some decent sleep and get a massage- you deserve it!
Luke McCallum is a SportsLab massage therapist and recovery expert. He is also a seasoned runner himself with some notable achievements, impressive especially for someone with such short legs.