If you’re planning to continue your running season beyond the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, the experts have some advice: not so fast. These words of wisdom apply to everyone, even runners who might wake up on October 14, the day after the marathon, with a bounce in their step.
“The hard part is trying to slow down the amount of running you were doing,” says Lori McGee, a coach at Chicago Endurance Sports. “Mentally, I think a lot of runners suffer a sort of postpartum depression [after the marathon]. They’re used to training all the time, and their whole life revolved around that. They have a hard time stopping the running so that they can physically recover.”
This isn’t to say runners should cease all physical activity in the days following the marathon. On the contrary, it’s imperative to remain active, whether that involves walking, swimming, cycling or yoga.
“A lot of it depends on how you physically feel,” says Michael Schaffner, who also coaches at Chicago Endurance Sports. “If you’re feeling okay, sitting still is going to be the worst thing. You just want to keep moving, keep your muscles moving. Everyone’s different, and you really have to listen to your body.”
Some athletes begin running again within a week of the marathon, but they do so in a light and easy manner, with a focus on how their body is responding. Brendan Cournane, who has been coaching Chicago-area runners since 1996, refers to this as a “reverse taper.”
“If you look at a marathon training schedule, the last really long run is three weeks before marathon day,” he says. “Then it gradually goes down, and there are just a couple easy runs that last week before the marathon. So in the reverse taper, the mileage you do the last week leading up to the marathon is the same mileage you should do the week after the marathon. These are slow recovery miles, and you can build back up. You can get into the 10- or 12-mile range within three to four weeks.”
At this point, it’s appropriate to begin thinking about racing again, maybe with a 5K like a Thanksgiving turkey trot, or even a 10K.
“You don’t want to go overboard, even if it might feel good,” Schaffner says. “During a marathon, your body takes quite a beating. If you’ve done the Chicago Marathon, then by the second week of November you can start running regularly again with a 5K or 10K. You just have to slowly build at it.”
Those early races should be viewed primarily as measuring sticks.
“You can use 5Ks in a couple different ways,” McGee says. “One, it’s a distance you can realistically complete. But 5Ks are also a really great test of physical fitness. You can use them to see where you’re at fitness-wise and how you’ve recovered from the marathon.”
Even so, it’s not out of the question to set a personal record in one of those events. The trick is to avoid making that your primary objective.
“Running is so mental,” McGee says. “And sometimes if you think you have to do certain things in the next race, you can destroy what you’re capable of. I think if you’re a little more relaxed and ease back into your running, you’re more likely to PR. The only thing is that if you start pushing your body too much without a recovery period, you’re just putting yourself at a higher risk of injury. So we would never tell someone that [a PR] should be your goal.”
By early 2014 it will be realistic to compete in high-mile race such as a half marathon. In fact, Chicago Endurance Sports sets just such a target date with its “Winter Warriors” training program. The sessions begin in mid-November and culminate with the New Orleans Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon on February 2. The Chicago Area Runners Association also puts on a winter half marathon training program that targets the F^3 Lake Half Marathon on January 25.
“I would say that more than half, and possibly as many as 75 percent [of runners who work with Chicago Endurance Sports], continue their seasons after the marathon,” McGee says. “They don’t want to lose the fitness that they have, so they continue to train.”
Those who don’t continue training and racing find themselves at a distinct disadvantage if they decide to run in the next year’s Bank of America Chicago Marathon.
“We have [other] people who come to us to train for the Chicago Marathon, and then they sit on the couch all winter and start up again in the spring,” Schaffner says. “So they have to start from scratch.”
The key to steering clear of that trap is to devise a new game plan within weeks of crossing the finishing line at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon.
“After you’ve come through something like a marathon, all your energy has been put toward it,” Schaffner says. “You build up, build up, and it’s like, ‘Now what?’ It can be a letdown. Setting new goals is a good way to avoid falling into a funk.”
In other words, keep your running shoes at the ready. There are still plenty of smaller races to be run.