Finally, after all those long, lonely months of training, the London marathon is upon us again. For months now, competitors have subjected themselves to tough training regimes and lived on diets devoid of the treats that help the rest of us through the dark winter days. As they pound the ground on their 26.2-mile journey round the city, thousands will cheer them, creating a carnival-like atmosphere. For the lucky ones, the course will be completed and personal bests bettered. But when the crowds have departed and the day draws to a close, another challenge lies in store for these weary souls: how will they cope with life after the marathon?
In the immediate aftermath of the event, says Nicky Lewis, head of Sports Studies at the University of Wales, Newport, “psychological responses are very different, depending on the level of the runner. It can be very draining. Some people want to lie down in a dark room and they do not want to see anyone for up to three or four hours after the event.” Others, such as Iain Anderson, a physiotherapist in Glasgow, feel “pure elation”, even though their bodies have “taken a pounding”.
Lewis believes the pressure that some runners put themselves under to do well can affect them psychologically as well as physically. Recreational runners and fun runners are less likely to experience a severe letdown afterwards than those for whom success is paramount. Many will have “feelings of great achievement – especially if they are runners who have set themselves this goal after a period of illness”.
Whoever you are, a mental cool-down is essential immediately after the race, says Lewis. This enables runners to cope with the cognitive stress they have endured during the day.
Once the excitement has died down, competitors should retire to a relaxed environment, she advises. “Participants should either be with very close friends and family or alone after the marathon. It is important to have a close network of people who are positive and calming. Runners should also avoid competitive environments such as the local pub. There is no point in seeing how many pints you can down after running 26 miles.”
The psychological aspects are only one part of the unwinding process. Runners must also begin a physical cool-down as soon as they have crossed the finish line, says Faye Ballard, a chartered physiotherapist at the Cromwell Hospital in London. This should mirror the warm-up and should be as well planned as training.
Remembering practical tips such as taking in
fluids, getting out of wet clothing and arranging where to meet friends and family after the race makes finishing less stressful. Participants should remember that mobile phone networks could become jammed on the day. Ballard also warns against stopping dead after running for such a long time – it is important to walk around afterwards.
Iain Anderson recommends staying overnight in the place where the marathon takes place. “After the Inverness, marathon we headed straight home. This was a big mistake. I was as stiff as a board and I was in agony in the car. We stopped en route and when I got out of the car, I was walking like John Wayne,” he says.
The first few hours negotiated, the key to maintaining physical recovery over the next day is to walk around and undertake some very gentle stretching. However, Ballard advises against working on Monday – “especially if you work in an office” – to avoid seizing up.
Instead, runners should go swimming or have a very gentle massage to alleviate stiffness during this period. Putting ice on muscles can also help with any swelling.
One of the most common complaints after the marathon is delayed onset of muscle soreness, says Ballard. This generalised ache, felt mainly in large muscle groups such as the thighs, can last up to seven days but runners should not be alarmed. The body will recover if participants have planned their recovery.
Injuries, however, must be dealt with properly.
For those keen to get straight back into training, Ballard says “there are no set rules about how long to wait before starting again but a break of four to six weeks before getting into heavy running is advisable.”
This can be easier said than done. “People running marathons are transformed,” says Gordon MacKay, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon, who ran the New York marathon in November.
“Their lifestyles change. They become hooked on diet and exercise and will do anything to give themselves the edge. The drive is so great and they are so committed that they become unstoppable in achieving their goal.”
Ballard urges runners to “put things into context”. “Running a marathon is a massive achievement and they must realise that the body needs time to recover.” In the meantime, cycling and swimming are good exercise as they give joints a break.
Anderson returned to training a couple of weeks after a disappointing run in the Lochaber marathon (which also takes place on Sunday). He was determined to use the Inverness marathon to improve his time.
“My legs seized up at around 14 miles at Lochaber. I was absolutely gutted. But there was no way I was going to give up. It was a complete slog. I felt shock, horror and total disbelief that my body had just given up,” he says.
One month after completing the Inverness marathon in October, Anderson ran the New York marathon. “My body was not quite as battered after New York. Maybe I have built up some sort of tolerance,” he says. But he admits that he felt drained.
Not everyone feels ready for action straight away. Helen Macdonald, a medical student, ran the London marathon last year. One year on, she now feels ready to contemplate serious sport seriously again.
“During the first two weeks after the race I was in agony – running was the last thing that I wanted to do. I started to get quite depressed because of the pain – I thought that I had ruined my body for nothing. I first started to miss running about one month after the marathon when I was better but still too injured to do any sport,” she says.
Anderson realised after his New York run in November that “doing three marathons in a year takes its toll on you”. It was not until after Christmas that he was able to haul himself back into running. Despite this he will be back in action tomorrow at Lochaber in a quest to get a new personal best.