How to Run a Better Marathon

Last updated: March 5, 2021

By Nike Running

How to Run a Better Marathon

You've logged the training miles—now it's time to put the work to work.

You've likely dedicated months of physical and mental training to ace this event. And while that long-term dedication is crucial, what you do in the weeks and especially the days before the race is just as important. We've got all of the intel you need to run your best.

Whether you're a seasoned marathoner or prepping for your first go, these last-minute pointers will help you make it confidently from mile 1 to 26.2.

01. Respect the Taper

A typical marathon training plan is 16-weeks long and starts tapering, or reducing your weekly training mileage, two to three weeks before the marathon, says Jason Fitzgerald, a USA Track & Field-certified coach, head coach of Strength Running and the host of The Strength Running Podcast. "Two weeks should give you enough time to absorb the last long run that you did and get the adaptations from it that you really want", he explains. "You don't want to taper too early, because after about two weeks of dialling back, you start to lose some aerobic fitness".

In addition to lowering your mileage, you should also cut back on aerobic cross-training and even strength training during your taper period, says Fitzgerald. You don't need to back off completely, but keep the workouts short and the effort low. As for your running intensity, 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.

02. Prioritise Dress Rehearsals

Just as you practise your nutrition and hydration strategies with long runs, you should 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.

Layers are key. A rule of thumb is to dress as if it's 5 to 10 degrees warmer than it is, and remember that you can shed clothes in the first few miles as you warm up, says Fitzgerald.

How to Run a Better Marathon

03. Carb-Load Smart

Carbohydrates, which are stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen, are the body's most readily accessible source of energy. That's why carb-loading, or upping the percentage of your daily calories that come from carbs, is a go-to method for runners who want to top off their glycogen stores before a big event. But this doesn't mean inhaling loaves of bread and bowls of cereal for the month leading up to a race.

About three or four days before your event, shift the make-up of your meals to 70 or 75 percent carbohydrates, still leaving room for protein and healthy fat. This is instead of slamming a plate of spaghetti the night before the race, says Ryan Maciel, RD, the head performance-nutrition coach for Precision Nutrition. "Do that, and 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.

Three or four days before your event, shift the make-up of your meals to 70 or 75 percent carbohydrates.

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 with more than 25 years of experience advising professional and endurance athletes and teams. Come race day, you won't face any surprises before hitting the starting line.

How to Run a Better Marathon

04. 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 of 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. "If you're going for longer than an hour, you should be drinking anywhere from 710 to 950ml per hour of your run", says Maciel. That's about 240ml every 15 to 20 minutes. You want to sip, not chug. 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, you know it agrees with your gut.

05. 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, an extra phone charger and your go-to breakfast. The act itself can be calming.

How to Run a Better Marathon

06. Don't Obsess Over a Good Night's Sleep

Sure, an excellent night of sleep before a race is ideal, but anxiety and excitement can often get in the way. One way to promote more and better 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 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. "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 for 15 minutes—then when you feel more tired, go back to bed. Don't lie there for hours trying to sleep".

"The sleep you get in the days and weeks leading up to competition is most important"

Cheri Mah, MD, Physician Scientist at the UCSF Human Performance Center

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 Mah. Which is why she recommends prioritising sleep the week before the race. "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.

07. 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 set to run, have a normal, well-balanced meal, says Maciel, with more than half of the calories from carbs, a quarter from protein and the rest from fat.

If you don't want to get up that early, eat a mini version of this meal an hour before you start running. "We generally recommend something liquid at this point", says Maciel. Make sure you 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 soy or cow's milk.)

Avoid foods that are heavy in fat or fibre or overly greasy, says Maciel. They take longer to digest, which can overtax 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 past several months of training".

08. 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. 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 kick-start the recovery process and preserve lean muscle mass. (Though, sorry, walking down stairs will still suck for a few days.)

09. 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 helps open up more space in your lungs for oxygen. "The densest, most oxygen-rich part of your lungs is at the bottom of your ribs", explains Vranich.

How to Run a Better Marathon

"Controlling your breath can also slow down your heart rate"

Chris Bennett, Nike Running Global Head Coach

This belly-breathing method helps you breathe more efficiently—you can get the same amount of oxygen in one breath as you would from several shallow breaths—and gives you more pacing choices, 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. "Controlling your breath can also slow down your heart rate", adds Chris Bennett, Nike Running global head coach. That lessens the stress on your body, which can boost your endurance and help you run for longer.

10. Keep Your Head in the Game

Just as you train your body for 26.2, you should also ready 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. "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 Branden Collinsworth, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, human performance coach and Nike Master Trainer.

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 journal Sports Medicine. 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 let us be the first to say: You've got this.

How to Run a Better Marathon

Nike Run Club

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How to Run a Better Marathon

Nike Run Club

Your perfect running partner.

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