Many people argue that running is the pinnacle of human movement. Every muscle in the body is used when running. Not many other activities can make that claim. We as humans have a unique ability to run great distances compared to the animal kingdom. Did you know that you can outrun a cheetah? Well, at least in the long run. Not even Usain Bolt can beat a cheetah in his famous 100-meter race.
But for 10, 20, or more miles? We’ve got cheetahs smoked. Two reasons for that. We sweat a lot more, allowing us to cool our bodies very efficiently. The other reason is that we run on two legs, not four. When four-legged creatures run, they can only take one breath per stride because the stride forces the lungs to shut. Humans don’t have this issue. We can take multiple strides per breath. This greatly conserves energy and allows oxygen to flow to the muscles more efficiently. These attributes we possess make humans the greatest distance runners in the animal kingdom.
Marathon running isn’t the most popular sport in the world, but it should be among the most impressive. Most animals can run, but we run the farthest. That’s pretty cool. The current record for a marathon (26.2 miles) is a time of 1 hour 59 minutes by Elide Kipchoge of Kenya. That’s a 4:34 average mile pace. No land animal is capable of that distance and time. That’s…insane.
But races for that long come at a price. Although humans can do it, pushing the body to the limits in any direction puts severe strain on it. The cardiovascular, endocrine, musculoskeletal, and even digestive systems are greatly affected during marathon distance running. These systems need nourishment and time to recover properly. Always looking to improve running performance, researchers looked to see how long it really takes for the body to fully recover from a marathon.
Marathon Recovery Research
Researchers in Spain examined the results of 86 marathon runners. They measured inflammation, muscle, and cardiac damage markers in the blood. They initially examined the runners’ baseline numbers before the race. They then compared these numbers 1, 2, 4, 6, and 8 days after their race, monitoring when their numbers returned to normal. Here’s what they found.
Inflammation: inflammation continued to show elevated numbers eight days after the race, though they were very near pre-race numbers by day 4.
Muscle: Two markers of different types of muscle damage were examined. One marker showed the kidneys filtered muscle damage for four days after the race. A different marker showed elevated numbers for 8 days in the blood.
Cardiac: Full cardiac recovery was demonstrated between 2 and 4 days post-race.
As you can see, it can take a long time to return to normal after such a long race. According to this study, with a decent sample size of runners, it takes over a week of rest for the body to fully recover. These were not elite-level runners, but any marathon-capable body is a high-level athlete. For elite-level runners, these times are probably reduced, but there’s no research to know for sure.
I personally have never run a marathon and don’t plan to, but I can imagine I wouldn’t feel like running for a while after. As with any sport, there are some genetic freaks out there. Check this guy out.
Just because the body isn’t fully recovered doesn’t mean it can’t compete again. There is no way the body can fully recover from a marathon within 24 hours. But with training, it is possible to recover just enough to repeat it.
All in all, it appears that it takes the body a little over a week to fully recover from a marathon. But this doesn’t mean you should live on the couch for a week. Research shows that low intensity, active movement is ideal for muscular and cardiac recovery. Take easy walks and do the normal day-to-day chores. Drink plenty of fluids, and eat your vegetables. Being intentional about recovery from a marathon or any sporting event can reduce these recovery times a small percentage. Optimizing recovery is helpful for any athlete aiming to be their best.
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