Most marathoners agree that the last 6.2 miles of the race are just as difficult as the first 20. It's during that last, seemingly endless stretch that calves tighten, quads burn, and joints you didn't know existed start to ache. But all that becomes a blur as sheer force of will drives you toward the finish line.

Unfortunately, crossing the finish line doesn't make the pain go away. Just as marathon training takes a long time, so does marathon recovery. But you can start the recovery process immediately after crossing the finish line.

The First Few Hours

The experts offer the following tips to start your road to recovery.

Keep Moving
The temptation to collapse and lie down when you cross the finish line might be overwhelming, but don't. Instead, walk around slowly while you start to rehydrate.

Drink
"Your cells need fluid [after the race]," says Jack Scaff, MD, a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and director of the Honolulu Marathon Clinic, no matter how much you drank during the race. But water alone won't do the trick, says Dr. Scaff. After a marathon, you will have a low concentration of sodium in your blood and the fluid around the cells in your body. This can make it difficult for your cells to take in more fluids. Drinking sports drinks or eating salty foods, like pretzels, will help your cells absorb the fluids they need.

Eat
You should also eat carbohydrates to restore glycogen, the form of carbohydrate that is stored in your muscles and used for fuel during exercise that running a marathon depletes. According to sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD, "Your muscles get well fueled when you eat about 0.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight per hour for five hours after exhaustive exercise." For a 150 lb athlete, this means eating something equivalent to a big bagel every hour. In addition to carbohydrate, you need protein, so Clark suggests adding milk to cereal, turkey to a bagel or roll, or yogurt to fruit for a recovery snack.

After you complete a marathon you might not be ready to eat immediately. Eat as soon as you feel ready; if it makes you feel queasy or nauseous, take a break. Make an effort to take in nutrient-packed foods, and continue drinking and eating healthy foods the day after the race.

Take Care of Your Body
Other than eating and drinking, there are a few things to keep in mind in the hours following the race. Try to do what makes you feel better. If stretching feels good, stretch. If walking keeps you from getting tight, keep walking slowly. If you feel a throbbing injury, ice it.

Use Ice, Not Heat
Heat is one thing you should avoid during the few days after the race. A Jacuzzi or hot tub, or even a heating pad, might seem like the perfect remedy for aching legs, but according to Dr. Scaff, heat can actually exacerbate injuries during the 72 hours following the race. It seems less soothing, but you should ice your aching muscles and joints instead.

The First Week or Two

The recovery continues in the weeks following the race.

Rest
Having completed a marathon myself, I can attest that you will be sore. Climbing and descending stairs presents quite a challenge. Pay attention to your body and its need for rest. In a few days, the soreness will begin to subside.

Stretch
"Light walking and stretching will help you regain some flexibility and decrease muscle soreness," says Kim Liljeblad, an Ironman triathlete and marathon training coach with Community Running in Boston.

Lay Off the Running
Training for a marathon gets you in the habit of running a lot. After a few days of rest, you may start itching to hit the road again. Try not to do that. "It's almost impossible to get runners to lay off long enough," says Dr. Scaff. But, he adds, "Recovery is as important as training."

Try to abstain completely from running for at least one week, preferably two. When you return to running, take it very easy. "Go out at whatever pace you feel you can do, for no more than an hour at a time," Dr. Scaff advises.

Six Weeks of Rehab

Don't worry; your body won't ache for the six weeks following the marathon. But just because the pain isn't acute doesn't mean you're back to full strength. Full recovery from a marathon takes a minimum of six weeks, according to Dr. Scaff. Use the time to try other fitness activities that don't stress your body as much as running, and ease up on your running mileage and intensity.

There's a "10%" rule Scaff believes all runners should follow: No more than 10% of your mileage should be spent racing. A marathon is 10% of 262 miles, so you have a way to go before you should be racing again.

Kick Back and Relax

Finishing a marathon is an incredible athletic feat. Enjoy it for a while, and give your body the time it needs and deserves to make a complete recovery.