Training for a Marathon
Congratulations—you’ve made it through the sometimes grueling, always interesting process of training to run 26.2 miles. The race is fast approaching, and your nerves are probably getting frazzled. Let’s look at what you can do on race week and race day to have the best possible experience and finishing time.
First, know that there’s not any workout you can add in this week before the race to improve your time. There is, however, much you can do to sabotage your performance, especially overdoing your physical activity this week. As your taper wears on, you’ll find yourself with rebounding energy stores. Often, this leads athletes into foolishly trying to squeeze in one more tough workout or to burn off some of this extra energy by doing something like extreme yard work. Resist the temptation! If you need a project, sit quietly and visualize, in detail as fine as possible, a successful race day, including what you’ll do in the hours before the race, how you’ll pace yourself, how you’ll handle adversity, and how you’ll feel as you approach and cross the finish line.
During race week, stick to your planned workouts. Early in the week, you can get a massage if massages have been a pleasant part of your regular routine. It’s not the time for deep tissue work, however, so be sure to tell your massage therapist that you’re soon going to run a marathon. In the days closer to race day, take extra care to stay hydrated, and keep away from spicy and high-fiber foods in the day or two before the race.
Two days before the race, take the day off of workouts, or count your travel and a trip to the expo as cross-training. Don’t waste your energy sightseeing.
Early in race week, if not sooner, draw up a race plan. You can use the template downloadable here or create one of your own. Touch on these points:
- What to pack, if you’re traveling to the race, including clothes for warm and cold weather on race day
- What you will eat before and during the race
- How you will pace yourself
- What self-motivating words, phrases, or songs will work for you
- What scares you and how you will cope should these fears become reality
Getting all of this down on paper—or on the screen—will help you plan both logistically and emotionally.
Don’t be surprised if you have dramatic mood swings as the race approaches. Some experience extreme PMS—pre-marathon syndrome, and for many of us this includes moodiness, crankiness, and trouble sleeping. Be sure that you get a good night’s sleep two nights before the race. You’ll likely have trouble sleeping the night before the race; trust that this is normal and won’t affect you. Stay in bed, relaxing and breathing deeply.
If you are traveling for your race, be sure you allot plenty of time to get to your destination. Arriving two days early if you’re flying gives you time to find alternative routes if a flight is canceled. If you are flying, carry your running shoes with you, or wear them on the plane. Arrive a day ahead if you are driving to the race. You’ll need to pick up your packet the day before the race, not on race day as you can do at smaller, shorter races.
Here’s a pre-race timeline…
Two weeks before:
- Break in new running shoes
- Run a “dress rehearsal” in the outfit you plan to race in
One week before:
- Write your race plan
- Pay extra attention to sleeping well
Two days before:
- Arrive at your destination if flying
- Sleep well
- Stay off your feet and rest up
One day before:
- Arrive at your destination if driving
- Shake out your nerves with a brief (less than 20 minutes) run
- Pick up your packet
- Lay out your clothes; attach your number and chip
- Relax and visualize success; remember your reasons for racing
Two to three hours before:
- Sip on fluids, but not too much if you have a nervous bladder
One hour before:
- Visit the portalets, possibly many times
- Line up in your appropriate corral
DURING THE RACE
Each of us will have an individual best way to approach the marathon. But for all of us, the best-run race will be evenly split between the two halves. That means it’s critical to hold back at the beginning of the race. Know your goal time and the pace per mile you need to hit it. Start at or even slightly slower than that pace (often crowds will make this easy). If your race offers pace groups, join them or keep them in sight.
Often coaches suggest you divide the race into segments: ten miles, ten miles, and 10K. This can work very well, as you increase your effort across those three segments. What you might find, though, is that things get hard earlier than expected. We’ve all learned to fear the proverbial wall that hits around mile 20. Don’t be surprised if you hit a rough patch earlier—at mile 18, or mile 15, or mile 10. Use the tools you learned in training.
My mantra for such rough patches is “form and breath.” When things get tough, I come back to the best form I can muster: feet light, pelvis level, core engaged, arms swinging briskly, shoulders low, neck long. And I breathe as fully as I can. This always helps me keep it together when the going gets rough.
Sometimes the roughness comes from not taking in enough calories. If you find yourself getting cranky or negative, or slowing down unexpectedly, check that you are getting enough carbs and fluids. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to pass through an aid station if you are feeling nauseated or your stomach is sloshing.
At some point over the 26.2 miles, something in your body will hurt. In fact, it’s likely that everything in your body might hurt, either individually or in concert. This is normal. (I call it “everything hurts, nothing hurts,” because it feels like my whole body is an exclamation mark, but I can’t specify exactly where the intensity resides.) If you develop an ache that’s very intense, try pulling to the side of the road and slowing to a walk, all while relaxing as much as possible. If it’s a gradual ache, notice it and come back to your best form and breath. Often these aches appear and disappear, or move around the body.
Continue with your relentless forward progress, and you will make it. Time seems to stretch and shorten like an accordion over the course of the race. But it will have an end. Enjoy it when it comes—look around, listen, and feel the physical and emotional rush of the finish.
AFTER THE RACE
Get warm, take in a snack (if you’re not hungry, you still need fluids and carbs, so try to get down some sports drink), and keep moving for a few minutes after your race. Once you stop moving, it may grow tough to start again. This soreness will crescendo for the next two days, then gradually subside. Gentle walking, floating in a pool or an ice bath can help. Once the muscle ache is gone, you can resume easy, easy running, but know that you still have a lot of recovery left to do. Don’t run hard or long (nothing over an hour) for at least three weeks after the marathon. Let your body be your guide. And don’t panic if when you do run, it’s very hard. This is not a loss of fitness. This is your body still recovering from your good, hard effort.
Again, congratulations on your journey. I hope this marathon training cycle has been just one step in a lifelong career in running. Let me know how it goes!