Training for a marathon takes intense preparation, dedication, and skill. However, poor race-time decisions can counteract all of your months-long hard work and planning. Here are a few basic guidelines to minimize any excess damage to your body — and make the race experience more pleasant for you.
How should I prepare in the weeks before the marathon?
- Your last long run should take place approximately 3 weeks prior to the marathon. It takes that long for the training-induced muscle damage to resolve. Adding one more long run could lead to trouble. There will be minimal gain, if any, and may cause an athlete to suffer from "dead legs" during the event.
- The mileage 2 weeks before the race should be reduced by 25% to 50% versus the previous week. You should further cut this mileage in half the week before the race.
- This period may be when you wonder "Did I train enough?" Don’t worry. You cannot make up training in the last 2 weeks. You will not de-condition while you are tapering off. If you put in the training, you are ready.
- Like you taper your work to restore your muscles, focus on sleep the week prior to the race. Your body will appreciate it. Even if nervousness stops you from getting sleep the night before the race, the extra sleep you got during the preceding week will make up for this.
This is a good time to review the map of the course. Visualize yourself cruising along the course, enjoying the trip.
What to eat and drink before the marathon
Make sure you are well-hydrated prior to the start of the race. Drink lots of water during the week before the race. This optimizes your hydration before you hit the start line.
Eat a diet rich in complex carbohydrates, such as breads, rice, pasta, and starchy vegetables. This helps maximize your glycogen (energy) stores. Don't experiment with new foods this week. Carbohydrate loading (carb loading) can be complicated. Try it some other time, perhaps before other long runs.
Be sure you have on hand your hydration and food sources for the race, including an electrolyte source. Be sure these are the same you have tested during your long runs. Nothing new on race day!
Adjust your strength training
Consider tapering your strength training for the last 4 months of training. For the last 6-8 weeks prior to an event, strength training should consist only of calisthenics, ball exercises, Pilates, or other strength training methods with minimal external resistance. The goal is not to build new muscle, but to maintain your strength going into your event.
There should be no strength training the week of an event. You need to rest your muscles and prepare them for the race.
How should I prepare the day before the marathon?
Lay out the clothing that you will wear. Do not wear a new outfit for the race — 26.2 miles is a long way to run if something is chafing you. A clothing tag can become a painful enemy very quickly.
Do not wear new shoes in the marathon. Wear a pair that you have worn during a few long runs (as long as they did not create any problems). Remember, nothing new on race day ever!
Be prepared for anything. Fill a gym bag with the essentials:
- Dry shirt
- Extra pair of socks
- Tissue (you never know when the portable toilet supply will run out)
- Extra shoelaces
- Hat or cap
- Vaseline® (or other lubricant)
- Extra safety pins
- Blister care products
- Whatever else is a must for you
You can throw your sweats into the bag prior to starting the race. Most races have a baggage check area.
More planning tips for the day before the race
- Make sure you have picked up your race number. Don't spend hours on your feet at the race expo. Despite all of the vendors, it is important to save your legs for the next day. If possible, pick up your number early.
- By now you should have perfected your routine you used before your long runs. This is the same you should use the night before the race. Eat the same meal at the same times you have practiced, and make sure you are well hydrated.
- Plan when you will leave, how you will get to the race, and where you will park. You don't want to get lost prior to the race. You will have enough anxiety as it is. Plan every detail of your morning from waking up, to dressing, to getting out the door, and to the start line.
- Many races provide water and gels or electrolyte drinks on the course. If you have not practiced using these products during your long runs, don’t use them on race day. Even small differences in sugar concentration can cause stomach upset during an event. Bring your own supply that you practiced with on race day. You must have both a fuel source, usually in the form of gels or chews, and your electrolyte source with you.
- As you review the map of the course, find the locations of water stops, aid stations, and portable toilets.
- Check the pollution levels at the course. If there will be higher levels of pollutants, plan ahead. Minimize exposure to pollutants on the way to the race, and warm up somewhere that is either extremely well ventilated, or indoors. Areas with tall buildings and heavy traffic can be the worst places to warm up. Pollution has a negative impact on performance, and may worsen allergies or asthma.
How should I prepare on race day?
Get up early. Plan on arriving at least an hour before the race. You do not want to feel pressured for time before the race. Other tips for race day:
- Take in some calories. Eating whatever worked for you prior to your long training runs is a good idea. Drink plenty of water.
- As you dress, lubricate any areas in which chafing has been a problem. If blisters or hot spots have been a problem, treat the site prophylactically (using Second Skin®, Body Glide®, moleskin, or whatever worked during training).
- Pin on your number. Most races now have the timing chip attached to the bib. Leave this attached. You will also likely have your bag check tag attached to your bib as well. Follow the instructions in the pre-race information on how to check your extra gear.
No matter what the temperature is when you get up, chances are that it will increase during the race. You will generate a lot of heat while running. At the start of the race, you might wear old clothing that you can discard once you are warmed up. Old socks work well on the hands. Garbage bags do a fine job of providing protection in inclement weather. When you discard things, do not throw them in the path of another runner.
When you arrive at the marathon location
- Arrive at the start expecting to find a line at the portable toilets. Since you have time to spare, don’t be stressed. Find a comfortable place near the toilet to sit and rest as you wait.
- Don't worry about a warm-up run. Walking from the car will loosen you up a little. You might want to do some easy stretching (if you are used to this).
- Just before you head to the starting line, take off your sweats and check your gym bag. Make sure you have secured whatever food and/or drink that you are bringing with you and attach it to your person.
- Head to the start and put yourself in an appropriate spot in the pack. The start of races is crowded. Do not worry about starting too slowly. The pack will thin out quickly, and a slow start will give you a chance to warm up your muscles and save you from the agony of starting out too fast.
You have worked hard to get here and you’re ready to go. Enjoy the adventure ahead!
What should I do during the race?
You have a hydration and eating plan that you have practiced on your long runs. Stick with this. Do not be tempted to change plans now. Do not wait until you are thirsty to drink water— that is too late. If conditions are dramatically different than when you practiced, adjust accordingly by increasing hydration on hot days if needed.
Start slowly. A fast start usually spells disaster. If you feel strong you can always start running faster later in the race. You cannot go backwards once you feel tired.
Enjoy the race. It is a long 26.2 miles, but if you smile for people taking photos and videos, thank the volunteers, and wave to the fans as you run by you will enjoy yourself so much more. Finish with a smile on your face, you did it!
What should I do after the race?
No matter what the results are, be proud of yourself. You can learn from every race. Some tips for your post-marathon:
- Drink. Even though you drank during the race, you will still be a little dehydrated.
- Replenish carbohydrates. There is a 2-hour window following a hard effort during which absorption of carbohydrates may be enhanced. If you can't eat them, then drink them. A little protein mixed in improves recovery. Do not choose anything extremely high in sugar or fat, it will cause stomach upset.
- Keep moving. Do lower intensity cardiovascular movements, such as walking, for 60 minutes after the race. This will diminish a lot of the post-race stiffness. Stretch gently.
- Don't plan on running during the week after the race. Walking, swimming, or cycling at an easy pace will work well.
- You may find that a massage is helpful for post-race stiffness.
- When you resume running, start easy — 30 minutes 3 to 4 times per week — and increase gradually from there. Most experts will tell you to avoid speed work for a month after a marathon.
- Start planning for your next marathon. Review your training; determine what worked well and what presented a problem. Adjust your training schedule accordingly. Experience is the best teacher.
Do allow your body to recover. An extreme athletic event like a marathon is incredibly stressful on the body. The body needs the rest; otherwise, problems such as injuries, fatigue, decreases in performance, and immune suppression can result.