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What Training for a Long Race Really Does to Your Legs

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Going the distance and running your first marathon or half-marathon this year? Training for long races, which of course includes, long runs, puts a lot of stress on your body, and particularly on the muscles and tendons of your legs, says Julie Khan, a physical therapist at Hospital for Special Surgery, the official hospital of the TCS New York City Marathon. "How much damage occurs is very much related to your level of experience and overall fitness," says Khan.

Whether you're a race newbie or seasoned road warrior, what's really going on from your hip to ankle when you tackle 26.2 or 13.1? Get the most mileage out of your lower half with expert tips to keep your legs in tip-top shape throughout training and, of course, through race day.

Your Muscles

As you ramp up your mileage in training, your muscles are more apt to micro tears. That's what causes muscle soreness and pain, explains Khan. Your old friend "rest day" is the fix, but not just any R&R will do—active rest and recovery should be the goal. "Proper rest, cross training, and nutrition are key to allowing your muscles to rebuild before the next long run" especially during lower mileage weeks on your calendar, says Khan. (Survive those brutal long runs with these expert-backed tips.)

Get enough—or even more—sleep than usual. "Sleep is underestimated as a tool for recovery," she says. "This is when your body can shut down and truly rebuild." Eat balanced meals and stay hydrated, too, as Khan says it's very common for marathon runners to be unknowingly dehydrated during training.

Muscles that typically need a little extra TLC during long race training are hip flexors, quads, hamstrings, and calves. Use a foam roller, massage stick, or sports massage to realign muscle fibers and keep them in top shape. "Foam rolling and sports massage to these areas are critical for maintaining proper length-tension relationship of the muscles," says Khan.

And don't forget strength training. "General full body weight training should continue until the week of the marathon," she says. Khan's suggests exercises such as planks, bridges, squats, single leg balances, and monster walks to target your core, glutes, quads, hamstrings, and overall stability.

Your Veins

Forget what you probably heard before: Marathon training does not cause varicose veins, which are veins that are dilated or bulging because of valve failure. "Running, or vigorous physical activity in general, does not cause any vascular leg problems," says Kathleen Gibson, M.D., a vascular surgeon at Lake Washington Vascular in Bellevue, Washington. Inactivity and immobilization, in fact, are risk factors for deep vein thrombosis, the most dangerous kind of blood clots."

Running can actually improve vascular health. "As you train for a marathon, your muscles, veins, and arteries get better at transporting blood, oxygen, and removing harmful by-products of exercise," says Khan. Think about it, "vascular" is the second half of the word cardiovascular.

"Regular exercise is important for maintaining a healthy circulatory system, including healthy veins," says Gibson. "Exercises that involve the gastrocnemius and soleus 'calf muscle pump' in your leg, such as running, help to propel blood in the deep veins of the muscle back to the heart." You might be prone to leg swelling if you have a tight Achilles tendon—all the more reason to keep those legs limber. (Related question: Why Do Veins Stick Out After You Exercise?)

And if you're catching a flight to your big race, take extra care of your legs. "The three things I tell my patients when they travel are compression, hydration, and movement," says Gibson. "Knee-high compression socks have been shown to reduce the incidence of blood clots in your lower legs and improve circulation during your flight." Thankfully, runners now have a rainbow of colors and styles to choose from.

Guzzle fluids (but not alcohol) to fight muscle fatigue and leg cramps, and get up during the flight. "Use the restroom, walk around, and do some minor stretching," suggests Gibson. "Just gently shift your weight from one leg to the other while standing, raise yourself up on your tiptoes, and then back on your heels." Aim for moving your legs for up to five minutes of every hour during the flight.

Your Knees and Ankles

Do your knees snap, crackle, and pop like Rice Krispies on the stairs? Do you have "the Jimmy legs," Seinfeld-style? You're not alone. (Avoid runner's knee with this one simple trick.)

"Popping or cracking in the knees or ankles is very common and shouldn't be alarming," says Khan. "It's like cracking your knuckles." It's all part of the minor musculoskeletal pain that decreases while running. As your body warms during exercise, you'll generally feel better."

And that leg twitch? It's a sign of muscle fatigue, she says. "It's always a good idea to make sure that you eat and drink a well-balanced meal of carbohydrates and protein within 30 minutes of running to replenish your muscles."

Many long-distance runners develop new or phantom pain during the final three weeks of training when they begin to taper their mileage leading up to the race. "Runners become dependent on running, and when that is decreased you start to doubt your training and new pains start to pop up," says Khan. "For the most part, these taper pains are all part of the rejuvenation process of the body. You're allowing your muscles to recover and rebuild from the prior three months of training." Just keep stretching, foam rolling, and cross training to help your muscles rebuild for race day. All of this is normal, so don't doubt yourself.

But when should you be concerned? If you have pain that doesn't go away, then it's time to see a doctor.

Give your legs some TLC

Try compression gear: Research suggests compression (socks, sleeves, etc.) might increase blood flow to the heart, helping clear muscular waste products—like lactic acid—that make your legs feel like lead after a long run. "The strongest data shows that wearing compression socks not only during your race but after, leads to quicker recovery, with decreased muscle soreness and increased subsequent performance," says Gibson. "Keep those compression socks on after the race and your legs may thank you for it."

Cross-Train: Don't forget your other recovery tools to keep your legs in shape throughout training and race day. Non-impact cross training like swimming, cycling, and using the elliptical make for smart active recovery. "Your body and mind need a break from the monotony that is long distance running," says Khan. (Here's how to make sure you're ready mentally, too.)

Don't forget to stretch: Dynamic stretching and foam rolling when your body is still warm from your workout will help loosen tight muscles. Khan says you should do it after every run, focusing on your quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and IT bands. And treat yourself to a sports massage about two weeks before you hit the starting line. That way you and your legs will be ready to run come race day.

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