So you're running a marathon. All the high-fives: only about 2 percent of the population has run one, according to various surveys. Now that you've done the bulk of the hard work—the long runs, the recovery runs, the strength training!—close out your training plan the right way with these expert pointers that will help you make it confidently from mile 1 to 26.2, whether it's your first big race or your 20th.
1. Respect the Taper
A typical marathon training plan is 16 weeks long (though some are longer or shorter) and starts with reducing your weekly training mileage two to three weeks before the event, says Jason Fitzgerald, a USA Track & Field-certified coach, the head coach of Strength Running and the host of The Strength Running Podcast. This is called "the taper" and it gives you an opportunity to get the adaptations you want from your last long run (also your longest run), while still giving your body ample time to recover, he explains. Taper before that two- to three-week period, he warns, and you may start to lose some of the aerobic fitness you built up.
But tapering isn't just for your miles, says Fitzgerald. You should also cut back on aerobic cross-training (like cycling) and strength training during this period, he says. You don't need to back off completely, but keep the workouts short and the effort low. As for your other runs, go at your usual pace during workouts. "You're not doing as much volume at a hard effort, but you're staying sharp so that when the marathon comes, you're still fast and fit, and you're rested and primed to race hard", he says.
2. Do a Dress Rehearsal
Test everything you plan on racing in—top, shorts, socks and especially shoes—before race day. "It's important that you wear whatever you're going to wear during the marathon at least two or three times during training and during runs that are similar to the marathon itself, like a long run", says Fitzgerald. This way, you're much less likely to end up chafing in unfortunate places or getting painful blisters.
A good rule is to dress as if it's 10 to 20 degrees warmer than it is. Remember that you can shed clothes in the first few miles as you warm up, says Fitzgerald, so wear top layers you're OK with parting with (they usually end up getting donated).
3. Carb-Load Carefully
As a marathoner, you're probably no stranger to the term "carb-load". Carbs get stored as glycogen and are the body's most readily accessible source of energy, which is why many runners eat more carbohydrates than usual before a race to top off their glycogen stores. But loads of people get the strategy wrong: sorry to say that carb-loading does not mean inhaling loaves of bread, plates of spaghetti and bowls of cereal for weeks leading up to a race.
Instead, you want a more structured approach. About three or four days before your event, shift the makeup of your meals to 70 or 75 percent carbohydrates, still leaving room for protein and healthy fat, says Ryan Maciel, RD, the head performance-nutrition coach for Precision Nutrition. If you just go all out on carbs the night before your race, you'll probably feel sluggish the next day and it's not actually going to increase your glycogen stores. Your body can't do that in one night, he says.
Also, practise carb-loading in the days leading up to some of your longest runs so you know what's going to work for you, says Monique Ryan, RDN, a sports nutritionist who advises professional endurance athletes and teams. That way, you won't face any surprises before hitting the starting line.
"You're not doing as much volume at a hard effort, but you're staying sharp so that when the marathon comes, you're still fast and fit …"
Head Coach of Strength Running
4. Hydrate Early
To get the most out of your training, you should be hydrating well all the time, and particularly in the weeks leading up to your event, says Maciel. "Chugging water the night before a race is not going to make up for not hydrating enough all those other days", he says. In other words, if you trained while slightly dehydrated, you just won't have the fitness you could have had if you'd taken in more fluids.
During the race, the idea is to replace that sweat as you lose it. "You should be drinking anywhere from 700ml to 950ml (approx.) per hour of your run", says Maciel, or about 235ml (approx.) every 15 to 20 minutes. You want to sip, not chug, a cup every mile or two, if you can manage. Aside from taking in too much water, gulping can also cause GI distress, he says.
Marathons typically have hydration stations along the course so you don't have to stress about carrying fluid with you, and most offer water and a sports drink. Look at the course map ahead of time to see how far apart those stations are and whether the event separates them by miles or kilometres (5 miles apart is a lot further than 5K!), then plan your hydration strategy accordingly. Finally, make sure you know what the event is serving and road-test the specific sports drink in training so, come race day, if you're craving electrolytes, you'll know the drink agrees with your stomach.
5. Pack the Night Before
Race morning, you may be waking up at 4 or 5am, feeling nervous about the run and about getting to the race's starting village and corrals. One way to eliminate stress: lay out everything you'll need before you go to bed. This includes clothes, shoes, headphones, energy gels and chews, hydration, your bib and pins, warm layers, a gear-check bag and an extra phone charger. Many athletes say the act itself can be a calming pre-race-day ritual.
6. Don't Obsess Over Sleep
Sure, an excellent night of sleep before a race is ideal, but the chances of that happening are pretty slim, says Cheri Mah, MD, a physician scientist at the UCSF Human Performance Center and a Nike Performance Council member who specialises in sleep and performance in elite athletes. Anxiety and excitement over what's to come often get in the way, even for the self-proclaimed most chilled racers amongst us.
One way to promote sounder sleep is to lean in to your regular wind-down routine, whether that's reading a book, writing in a journal, stretching or whatever else helps you relax and signal to your body that it's time for bed, says Dr Mah. "If your mind is racing, extend the time of your wind-down routine to help process your thoughts. And if you can't sleep after 45 minutes in bed, get up, do a sleep reset—read, stretch, do another activity in another room—then when you feel more tired, go back to bed. Don't lie there for hours trying to sleep", she says.
If you just can't get a good night's rest, don't freak out. One sleepless night isn't going to break your stride. "The sleep you get in the days and weeks leading up to competition is most important", says Dr Mah. That is why she recommends prioritising sleep the week before the race (are you noticing a theme here?). "At least seven hours per night, but aim for eight to 10 hours, especially if you have accumulated sleep debt from chronic insufficient sleep", she says.
7. Know What You'll Eat on Race Morning
If you can wake up early enough that you're eating breakfast at least two hours before you're meant to run, have a normal, well-balanced meal, says Maciel, with more than half (up to 75 percent) of the calories from carbs, a quarter from protein and the rest from healthy fat. Think toast with banana and nut butter and maybe a hard-boiled egg on the side.
If you don't want to get up that early, eat a mini version of this meal an hour before you start running. Or you could go for a smoothie, says Maciel. Be sure to include a good source of complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains. Complex carbs take longer for your body to break down, which means the fuel should hit your bloodstream during your run, right when you need the extra oomph. For a go-to shake, combine oats, peanut butter, berries and cow's or alternative milk.
Avoid foods that are heavy in fat or fibre, or overly greasy, says Maciel. They take longer to digest, which can over-tax your stomach and cause gut problems while you're running.
Whatever you eat, you should feel confident the meal will work for you because you've tested it many times before your long runs. "You don't want to try anything new before a race", cautions Maciel. "You should be doing what you've practised over the last several months of training".
8. Refuel Smart as You Run (and Afterwards)
Replenishing your fuel is essential. Skip it and you'll deplete your glycogen stores after two or so hours of running, which, in a marathon, could mean halfway through the race. "You're going to hit a wall", says Ryan, and you won't be able to hold your pace.
To avoid that, Ryan says you want to take in 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour. You'll also want to consume 250 to 500 milligrams of sodium per hour, adds Maciel. You can get both in the form of gels, chews, sports drinks and/or carb-dense, salty snacks, like pretzels (you may need to BYO salty snacks). Again, use your long runs to experiment with different fuelling options. What works for one runner won't necessarily work for you.
After you cross the finishing line—congrats, BTW!—eat a full, balanced meal within an hour or two, says Maciel. This will help your body kickstart the recovery process and preserve lean muscle mass. (Though, sorry, walking down stairs will still suck for a few days.)
9. Be Mindful of Your Breath
As you run, concentrate on taking deep breaths that puff your belly out on the inhale and contract your belly back in on the exhale, says Belisa Vranich, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and the author of Breathing for Warriors.
This belly-breathing method opens up more space in your lungs for oxygen and helps you breathe more efficiently, as you can get the same amount of oxygen in one breath as you would from several shallow breaths, says Vranich. When you take deeper inhales and exhales, you're delivering more oxygen to your muscles when they need it most, which allows you to maintain or pick up your pace (clutch for that final sprint to the finish). "Controlling your breath can also slow down your heart rate", adds Chris Bennett, Nike senior director of global running. That lessens the stress on your body, which can boost your endurance and help you run longer.
10. Keep Your Head in the Game
Just as you train your body for 26.2, you should also prime your mind. Study the racecourse. Are there hills or hairpin turns? Will you have fans all along the route or are there lonely stretches? The more you know, the better prepared you'll be for mental obstacles.
Before the race, imagining yourself churning your legs up a steep hill or sprinting the final metres could help you gain the confidence you need to conquer the course. "Research has shown visualisation is a technique that can help decrease levels of stress or anxiety and put you in an optimal state of mind to perform at your highest level", says Nike trainer Branden Collinsworth, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and performance coach.
To propel yourself through the race, picture crossing the finishing line and repeat pump-up phrases, like You're fast, you're strong. Science backs up the strategy: imagining you're executing a task, setting goals to do it and using self-talk can help boost athletic endurance, according to a review published in the Sports Medicine journal. And in a meta-analysis published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, researchers found that self-talk strategies could improve performance too. Talking yourself up may also make running feel less intense, suggests research published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
So repeat after us: you've got this.
Words: Ashley Mateo
Illustration: Martin Tognola