Recovering after intense physical activity: Tips from marathoners

27 April 2023 dot 5-minute read
Healthy Body Feature Fitness and exercise Physical activity Live Well Recovery
It takes up to 24 to 48 hours for muscles to recuperate after strenuous activity. (Credit: Getty Images)
Intense physical activity like running a marathon puts your body under significant stress. It depletes your glycogen stores, leaving you with sore muscles and making you feel exhausted. Proper rest is only one part of a good recovery plan.
Here are several recovery strategies athletes rely on to ensure optimal physical performance.

1. Refuel with a healthy meal

Experts recommend eating a meal within 60 minutes of your workout. They advise choosing a balanced meal with high-quality protein and good carbohydrates to speed up muscle recovery.
Long-distance runner Sam Kwe says she does not feel 100 per cent ready for the next training session if she neglects a well-balanced diet.
"My go-to recovery meal is a salad with avocado for healthy fats. Tofu or chicken for proteins, and bread or rice for carbs," she says. "I usually crave carbs, and I guess it's my body's way letting me know my glycogen stores are depleted."
Studies suggest eating healthy snacks within 20 minutes after a workout when muscles are most receptive to rebuilding energy.

2. Take a recovery nap

"Recovery is important if you want to train safely and improve your performance, whether you run three or 26 miles, swim, walk or lift weights," says Matt Lopa, 45, a former cyclist who is training for his first marathon. He typically takes a nap post-workout.
Sleep is one of the most effective ways to recharge and improve physical performance. It is critical for the following functions:
  • Hormonal balance. Sleep regulates the hormones in the body, including those that play a key role in muscle repair and growth.
  • Energy restoration. The body replenishes its glycogen stores while sleeping.
  • Reduced inflammation. Naps soothe muscle soreness and joint pain.
  • Mental recovery. Adding #OneMoreHour of sleep can reinvigorate the mind, helping with focus and motivation for the next workout.

3. Load up on water

Experts suggest drinking water instead of energy drinks for moderate physical activities like brisk walking. (Credit: Shutterstock)
Water supports many bodily functions, from the regulation of blood pressure and body temperature to the transport of essential nutrients through the body.
Athletes are advised to drink at least 500 ml of water two to three hours before exercising and hydrate with 250 ml water 30 minutes before they train. However, water intake varies based on a person's level of fitness, type of activity and location of training. The point is to stay hydrated throughout your workout.

4. Reduce muscle soreness with a hot or cold bath

Liliani Tarigan, a 30-year-old personal trainer and running coach, soothes her muscles with a hot bath, especially after a strenuous two-hour run.
Hot showers and baths can be good for your body post-workout because heat generally helps improve circulation. The increased blood flow delivers nutrients and oxygen to muscle joints, allowing them to recover.
On the other hand, ice baths or cold-water therapy can constrict blood vessels and reduce blood flow to affected areas. The decrease in blood flow may help relieve muscle inflammation and swelling.
Kate Liu, an ultra-trail runner and swimmer, puts her tired muscles through contrast water therapy. This involves repeated immersion of the body in alternating temperatures of water – hot and then cold.
"I usually alternate between two minutes of hot water and 30 seconds of cold water," she says.
Switching between hot and cold temperatures may help reduce stiff joints and improve blood circulation.

5. Recover with a walk, stretching exercise or massage

Spend 10 to 15 minutes stretching your body after working out to avoid cramps or muscle soreness. (Credit: Shutterstock)
While you should schedule rest days after intense fitness routines, recovery does not mean inactivity during downtime. On the contrary, active recovery helps the body repair and restore itself. It involves engaging in light physical activities after a challenging workout, such as brisk walking, swimming or biking.
While training for a half marathon, Zoe Mendes prioritises stretching exercises after her run to increase flexibility and reduce muscle soreness. "I do 10 to 15 minutes of static stretching or use a foam roll. I never skip it because it helps me avoid injuries."
After stretching and refuelling with a protein smoothie, Zoe relaxes with a walk with her dog, an activity that can help clear lactic acid.
Apart from stretching and going on walks, Zoe sometimes rewards herself with a post-workout massage. Getting a professional massage can improve circulation, enhance mobility and alleviate muscle tightness, thus accelerating recovery.
The body has an incredible capacity to take care of itself, but it requires a helping hand. Since recovery depends on the type and intensity of your training regimen, seeking expert advice can kickstart progress towards your fitness goals.
Try a wellness programme like AIA Vitality to help you manage your lifestyle choices. It can also assist in other areas such as finding insurance coverage that offers comprehensive health and protection benefits.
Optimising the effort you place in your regular workout routine makes for an investment with unmatched returns. Are you ready for your journey to a healthier, longer, better life?
What's the impact of #OneMoreHour of sleep? Australia's leading sleep expert Olivia Arezzolo lists how sleep improves memory, blood pressure and more in this episode of AIA Voices.
AIA Voices is a community of influential and educational voices from around Asia who talk about life, health and wellness. It is a platform to educate, motivate and inspire people to make positive behavioural changes on their health and wellness journey. AIA Voices provides an opportunity for communities across Asia to connect, collaborate and learn from each other, and was designed to drive AIA One Billion, our ambition to engage a billion people to live Healthier, Longer, Better Lives by 2030.
NIH, National Library of Medicine. 2019. Nutrition and Supplement Update for the Endurance Athlete: Review and Recommendations. [online] [Accessed 5 July 2022]
NIH, National Library of Medicine. 2020. Sleep Hygiene for Optimizing Recovery in Athletes: Review and Recommendations. [online] [Accessed 5 July 2022]
NIH, National Library of Medicine. 2021. The Sleep and Recovery Practices of Athletes. [online] [Accessed on 5 July 2022]
NIH, National Library of Medicine. 2014. Influence of contrast shower and water immersion on recovery in elite netballers [online] [Accessed on 5 July 2022]

This is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a financial adviser, or medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances.

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