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How much rest and recovery time do you typically take after a long race? Or perhaps the better question to ask is: how much time should you take before you get back into training?
This is a frequently debated topic among the running community, and something I’ve discussed at length with other coaches and athletes. I’ve always been in the camp of: rest and recovery are a part of training, regardless of fitness level, and not an avoidance of it. But how do we know how much rest and recovery is needed following a massive aerobic effort, such as an all-out marathon or grueling ultra-distance race? And how do these amounts differ athlete to athlete?
With the growth of ultramarathons, as well as the rise of multiple race efforts in succession—such as the recent Boston to Big Sur or Boston to London to Eugene—how do we strike a balance with sufficient—or simply bare minimum—recovery with the understanding that these novelty endeavors aren’t exactly the norm and thus have not been extensively researched?
Adam Merry: From Canyons to Western States
The Canyons Endurance Runs by UTMB in Auburn, California, just took place, with the marquee 100K distance offering two Hoka Golden Tickets into the Western States 100 Endurance Run for the top two finishers, as well as entries into CCC, part of the UTMB World Series Final in Europe this summer, for the top 10 finishers.
The timing of Canyons 100K is tricky, just eight weeks before the Western States 100. This poses a unique challenge in that athletes must execute a near-perfect race to snag a golden ticket, before pivoting to another big effort at Western States.
It was incredibly refreshing to hear Adam Merry, the second-place overall finisher in the 100K and Golden Ticket recipient, say in his post-race interview that he would be taking plenty of downtime and rest to recover from his effort, particularly given that the conditions served up temperatures in the upper 80s.
“I’m taking at least until Thursday and maybe Friday fully off from running (so five days minimum),” Merry says. “I’ve been walking around during travel and will continue that kind of movement and two mobility-focused strength sessions with my coach. Maybe a really light 45- to 60-minute bike spin four days removed, but all of my exercise between now and then will be restorative and recovery-oriented.”
Merry is performing at the highest level in the trail and ultrarunning world, and he understands the important role rest and recovery play in his pursuit of optimal race-day performance. The same goes for the world’s best marathoners, who typically take two to four weeks from training before getting back into training. If there was a fitness benefit to jumping back into training two days after a long race, we’d certainly see elite athletes doing it.
It would seem like a no-brainer to take extensive rest, but recent years has seen a rise in athletes across the fitness level spectrum frequently countering with statements like, “I only need a couple days,” “My body is used to this,” or “I need to get back into training so I don’t lose fitness.”
So how much time should you take off after a big effort?
Here’s What the Science Says
Undoubtedly, this question has a lot of nuances and is specific to each athlete and their training and injury history, as well as the athlete’s goals following the effort. A study from 2017 sought to investigate the effects of running a marathon and how this impacts aerobic fitness and performance one week later, while taking those days off from running. Before the race, and for the following seven days, researchers tested perceived muscle soreness in addition to treadmill running tests that measured VO2max, %VO2max at lactate threshold and running economy, and, finally, lactate threshold and peak velocities.
The study found “possibly trivial” and “likely trivial” differences over the course of the week between VO2max and lactate threshold/peak velocities and unclear differences for %VO2max at lactate threshold and running economy. They found that perceived muscle soreness increased over the three days following the marathon, but no clear differences were observed from prior to the race and four to seven days after. The authors concluded that running a marathon does not adversely affect aerobic fitness and performance one week after the race, with maximal aerobic performance capability, threshold, and economy restored to pre-race measurements.
Another study from 2016 found that changes in cardiopulmonary capacity, namely a reduction in cardiac contractility, were found in amateur runners within four days following a marathon—indicating a certain degree of “cardiac fatigue.” Of course, there are numerous studies on creatine kinase (CK), a marker of indirect muscle damage, that has a close correlation with muscle soreness. Elevated CK is not always as scary as it has classically been portrayed (in the absence of clinical symptoms), as it is critical to creating energy during exercise, and there are enormous variations in levels among the human population based on genetics, hydration status, medication, and subclinical disorders (identifiable via testing or imaging, but without symptoms).
A study from 2012 found the variation of CK levels post-exercise to range from 12-60,000 IU/L, with rhabdomyolysis cases ranging from 10,000-1,000,000 IU/L. Many online blood testing companies flag CK levels once they exceed 200 IU/L, but studies from 2017 and 2021 demonstrate that in ultramarathoners who raced the Leadville 100 and a 24-hour race respectively, all showed CK levels above 14,000 IU/L after the races, with the majority being asymptomatic or corrected via rehydration, without needing major medical attention.
If there was a fitness benefit to jumping back into training two days after a long race, we’d certainly see elite athletes doing it.
The 2021 study described trending muscle-specific miRNA in the blood as being perhaps a more useful and specific way to quantify degree of muscle damage. Thus, the landmark study from 1980 that showed elevated levels of CK in marathon runners lasting up to 14 days post-race, may not be the most current and accurate guide to determine how much time off to take.
OK, that was quite a bit of science to digest. So what can we take from these studies? Are they telling us that four to seven days is the optimal range of rest from exercise to take following a marathon or ultra?
The science certainly underscores that taking four to seven days off following a marathon (or potentially further) isn’t going to negatively impact the fitness garnered in the training block leading up to the race, and that trying to hop back into running economy workouts within that time frame is not only counterproductive, but likely a bit dangerous while the body works to get back to homeostasis. We also know that, while elevated CK levels are indicative of muscle damage and correlative with muscle soreness, levels should be taken with a great degree of medical context and can usually be corrected quite quickly via rehydration.
A Coach’s Perspective
As a coach, my flow chart, in terms of establishing the appropriate recovery period for an athlete is as follows:
Was this an “A” goal race that you specifically trained for over the course of weeks and then ran at a maximal effort based on the distance? If so, building in a full week off from exercise following the effort is not going to hinder your fitness and will likely set you up for better mental and emotional health as you look towards the next “A” race. If you are someone who struggles to rest and not exercise, I recommend gentle walks starting in the days following a race to address restlessness and muscular soreness. I usually do not prescribe structured or high-intensity cross-training during this week, but I typically suggest an easy spin at low resistance of up to 45 minutes towards the end of the week, to encourage blood flow to the muscles.
How much rest are you typically building into your training on a weekly or 10- to 14-day basis? The scientific literature is not incredibly robust on the cadence of rest days, due to a large variability between amateur and elite level runners, but if you’re building in one to two rest days per week, or at least taking one day off every 10-14 days for higher level athletes, you likely do not physiologically need to take more than a week off following a big effort. (Unless you sustained an injury; in this case, be sure to work with your doctor on a return-to-sport timeline).
You may need to, from a mental perspective, or if additional life stressors are impacting your ability to achieve high-quality recovery (sleep, nutrition). Personally, I usually take 10 days off from running after a 100-mile race. This isn’t based on any research, but rather, the timeline that my body customarily feels good on. I like to take a week off, then give myself those three additional days of insurance to know that my muscles, tendons, bones, and mind have had a chance to fully recover from the effort and the preceding training block. I’ve taken longer to come back after a 100-mile race, but never shorter. Adam Peterman, winner of the 2022 Western States 100 Endurance Run, described taking the entire month of July off from running last year so that he could recover from the effort, his first 100-mile race.
What does the remainder of your season look like? Are you doubling back for another marathon or trying to capitalize off the fitness you built in another distance? Did you run the race as a training run? I still stand by taking anywhere from three to five days off in these instances, with a very gentle and easy transition back to sub-maximal efforts, and—depending on the timeline of your season—taking seven days off won’t hurt. If you utilized the race (for our purposes here, marathon distance or further) as a training run and not at your maximal effort for the distance, then your fitness level, experience running these distances, and recovery quality based on totality of stress are all factors to take into account as you structure the remainder of your training. Working with a knowledgeable coach to build this structure is going to be your safest pathway for best results.
What is the reality of your recovery quality? Are you someone who is a working professional or a parent? Are you able to place an emphasis on high-caliber nutrition in the hours and days following a race, as well as getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night? We know how impactful these two factors are in recovery, in addition to all the other recovery aids out there, but sometimes truly nailing them isn’t always realistically attainable for amateur athletes where running isn’t their job. I see many amateur athletes attempt to put some of their lives on hold to get through peak weeks of training and then race day, only to dive head-first back into the realities of their responsibilities after the race. That’s simply not proper rest and recovery, especially from a mental and emotional perspective. If you fall into this category, perhaps taking that full week off (or more) from running is the safer bet, especially when it comes to preventing injury and burn-out.
Find Your Own Path
We all need rest, no matter our fitness or performance level. It is an essential tenet of training. Science tells us there is a minimum amount of time we need to recover from an aerobic effort such as a marathon based on subjective and objective criteria, and that doing so does not negatively impact our fitness. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and leaning into your specific needs as a multi-faceted human—i.e, work, family, traveling, volunteering, etc.—should always take precedence. Perhaps it’s five days off; perhaps it’s 30.
Respecting our physical, mental, and emotional health by building in planned rest following a big effort is arguably one of the best ways to set yourself up for success for the next go and prevent those forced, unplanned days off. And for those who struggle with rest, perhaps viewing it from the lens of American record holder, Ryan Hall, can be of service: “I constantly remind myself that it takes confidence to rest,” Hall has said. “Anyone can train like a mad man but to embrace rest and to allow all the hard training to come out takes mental strength.”
If you find yourself asking, Should I take more time off? Perhaps lean into the side of you that’s questioning your decision by exploring other hobbies and forms of movement until you feel mentally ready to ease back in. No matter what duration you choose to take off following any race, have trust in your decision, just as you do with every other element of your training.