How to Run Back to Back Marathons

How to Run Back to Back Marathons

Consecutive marathons have long been a thing (such as Boston to Big Sur). However, when races were deferred during the pandemic to 2021 and 2022, many runners found themselves registered for two marathons within a short time frame. Since then, back to back marathons have become more popular. 

Back to back marathons are not an easy scenario – they are a challenge. One marathon alone is physically and mentally demanding! If you find yourself doing two consecutive marathons, the tips provided in this article will aid in enhancing your experience and reducing some of the inherent injury risks. 

(It is an important caveat that running two consecutive marathons does come with an increased risk of injury! You can reduce, but not entirely remove that risk.) 

Should You Run Back to Back Marathons?

The answer highly depends on your experience level. If you have only completed a handful of marathons, you may want to proceed with caution. An experienced marathoner will be able to handle consecutive marathons better. 

If you are preparing for your first marathon, back to back marathons are strongly discouraged. Recovery from your first marathon takes longer than after subsequent marathons. 

Even for experienced runners, back to back marathons are not always appropriate. Even if it seems like everyone is doing two marathons a season right now, it is important to do what is best for you, your body, and your life demands. (Read here to understand what happens to your body after running a marathon.)

Train Appropriately for Consecutive Marathons

One marathon is challenging enough if undertrained; two marathons may be downright unfeasible.

The better trained you are, the more quickly you will recover from the first marathon. The quicker your recovery, the better experience you will have in your second marathon. 

The training plan duration is a fine balance. You want to be adequately trained for the first marathon, without being over-reached by the second marathon. Generally speaking, most runners can tolerate up to 24 weeks of training. However, some runners may find that their personal limit is 20-23 weeks. That means you should think about a total of 20-24 weeks of training to encompass preparation for the first marathon, the first marathon, recovery, and the second marathon. 

The exact total duration of training will also depend on how much time is between the consecutive marathons. If you have six weeks between races, you may opt for a total of 24 weeks of training; if you have four weeks, you may opt for 20 weeks total of training. Some runners with a robust training base may only need 12-14 weeks leading up to the first marathon, which means they only need a total of 16-18 weeks for two marathons. 

If in doubt, work with a running coach on these goals. There is a fine line between preparation for consecutive marathons and overtraining.

Establish Your Goals Early 

Do you plan on racing one of the marathons for a PR? If so, you should plan accordingly. Typically, the best approach is to race the first marathon and then approach the second marathon as a slower race. 

For many runners, running a full marathon – even at an easy pace – places high recovery demands on the body. If you try to PR in the second marathon, your body may not yet be recovered – and your nervous system may not be ready to handle a high intensity. 

For all but genetic outliers, it is unrealistic to race two marathons back to back. Truly racing a marathon breaks down the body. You cannot always predict the level of central nervous system fatigue that comes with a marathon PR. Between the nervous system fatigue and muscle damage, it is very difficult – and potentially risky – to attempt to PR in two consecutive marathons. 

No matter how the first marathon goes, stick to your established plan for the second marathon. Unless you carefully strategize with a coach, avoid the temptation to race the second marathon if the first marathon did not go as planned.

Fuel Well During the First Marathon

If you want to run back to back marathons, you want to minimize muscle damage in your first marathon. Whether you are running the first of the two marathons for a PR or for an experience, you want to fuel with a high amount of carbohydrates during the first marathon. 

Why? Not only does carbohydrate consumption enhance performance; it also reduces muscle damage and expedites recovery. 

A 2020 study in Nutrients demonstrates the relationship between high carb intake during a race and better recovery. In the study, the participants consumed either 60 grams of carbohydrates /hr, 90 g/hr, or 120 g/hr during a mountain marathon. The cohort who consumed 120/hr demonstrated higher aerobic capacity within as little as 24 hours post-race, compared to the other groups. 

A similar 2020 study in Nutrients found that 120 g/hr during a mountain marathon resulted in lower levels of creatine kinase, lactate dehydrogenase, and other biomarkers of exercise-induced muscle damage. 

120 grams of carbohydrates per hour is an extremely high carb intake. These levels may be difficult for many runners to get. However, we can extrapolate from the research that any increase in carb intake can aid with recovery. (We can do this since it is established that intra-run carbohydrate intake has a protein-sparing effect.) 

A goal of 60-90 grams of carbs per hour may be more realistic, while still offering benefits for less muscle damage and faster recovery compared to 30-40 grams of carbohydrate per hour. If you plan on running back to back marathons, develop a fueling strategy of 60-90 grams of carbohydrate per hour (you can do up to 120 g/hr if you tolerate more!). Practice it in training to ensure your gut is trained, and then follow it on race day. 

Eat Protein and Carbs Shortly After Finishing

Recovery nutrition is absolutely essential if you plan on running two marathons in close succession. Eating enough after any long run or hard workout has a profound positive effect on recovery. That effect is only more significant after a marathon. 

After the first marathon, make it a priority to eat 20-30 grams of protein plus 50+ grams of carbohydrates as soon as you can. A liquid option such as a recovery mix or separately drinking a protein shake and sport drink will be easy to ingest if you feel nauseous following the race. 

Once you feel ready to eat, continue to eat protein and carbs throughout the day. Stay hydrated also, as hydrated muscles recover more quickly. In the days following the marathon, continue to prioritize protein intake to repair your muscles. 

Take Recovery Days following the First Marathon

A marathon still takes a toll on your body. You will have muscle damage and soreness after the first marathon. If you want to complete a second marathon relatively soon, you need to recover from the first marathon – and that begins with rest days. 

Typically, you will want to take at least 4-7 days of complete rest after the marathon. If you find you are feeling good after 4-7 days, you may choose to incorporate gentle cross-training such as cycling or pool-running. 

Keep Training At a Lower Volume and Intensity Between Races

Once you are ready to run again, (typically 6-10 days post-marathon), begin with short, easy runs. The temptation may exist to cram in more training for the second marathon, but the goal of this training phase is to recover and then do just enough to maintain fitness. 

Depending on the time between races, you may not do any hard workouts. Unless a runner has six weeks or more between marathons, I never prescribe anything other than easy-paced running. Faster running places more strain on the nervous system and musculoskeletal system, and thus could interfere with the recovery process. 

You may only do a couple medium-length long runs between races. Typically, the approach I recommend for my athletes:

  • 2-3 weeks between marathons: no long runs
  • 3-4 weeks between marathons: no more than a 10-12 mile long run
  • 5-6 weeks between marathons: no more than a 16 mile long run

Those recommendations will vary based on individual athletes and factors such as how your first marathon went, how you are feeling, your goal for the second marathon, and more. If in doubt, be conservative between the two races. 

Keep Your Second Marathon At a More Comfortable Intensity 

You will enter the second of the two back to back marathons with more fatigue. The fatigue may be mental, physical, or both. That fatigue makes it challenging to push yourself hard – so you might as well enjoy the experience and keep the second marathon at a comfortable intensity. 

What to Do After Running Back to Back Marathons

Once you complete the second marathon, you want to start a recovery phase followed by an off-season. Two marathons in one season is a significant stress! 

It is recommended to take a minimum of 1-2 weeks completely off of running after a marathon, and that includes the second marathon of back-to-back marathons. Since you ran two marathons in close succession, you may opt the longer end of this range (10-14 days off of running). 

Once you resume running, you want to take a proper off-season. An off-season is a minimum of four to eight weeks of low-volume, easy running. You may even run fewer days and cross-train more. Most importantly, you do not want to rush back into training for another marathon for at least a couple of months. (For more on off-season training, listen to this episode of the Tread Lightly podcast.

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