An honest guide to marathon preparation

Running marathons is scary. I’ve run loads of them and get nervous before each and every one of them. There’s a lot I’ve learned over the last few years and the two things that have stuck with me most are that planning and preparation are vital to a good race and that the marathon begins almost a week before you start running. Here are my top tips for getting race ready.

The week before the race

Read the race pack – You might have received this via email as organisers often don’t post things now. That means it’s easily discarded without a second thought, but it could contain really important information. It’ll have information on timings, travel issues, what to expect on the day, rules and regulations and last minute advice.

Learn the route and visualise it.  – This sounds cheesy, but your race preparation isn’t just physical. There’s a lot you can do mentally to prepare yourself. Take a look at the map of the route and look for landmarks. Think about how you might feel at those places and how you will deal with those feelings. Run through the race in your head from mile 1 to mile 26. It will help defeat anxiety and will quash any in-race surprises. Here’s an article I wrote about dealing with pre-race nerves.

Get your name printed on your top – It’s brilliant to hear someone shout encouragement at you as you go by. If they can see what you’re called, the crowds will whoop and holler at you.

Stretch/foam roll – Stretching is contentious in sport and exercise at the minute. Should we? Shouldn’t we? Static? Dynamic? All I know is that so long as you don’t push yourself too hard in those stretches, they shouldn’t do any harm. If you’re used to foam rolling, then give the muscles a bit of an iron out whilst you’re watching the telly, too.

Don’t just stop! Taper does not mean stop! – The taper (doing less in the run up to the marathon) is a difficult thing. Many people see it as a stopping point. It’s not! Keep running and simply reduce the distances and intensity of the runs. It’s important to keep your muscles active and your joints moving. You should continue to run at the same frequency as you did in your training, but you should reduce how hard you work and how far you run. You won’t gain any fitness this week, but it will help to keep you in race mode. Remember that with reduced load should come reduced intake of food.

Eat a little less – With a reduction in the amount of training should come a reduction in the amount you put in your gob! Don’t starve yourself, but reduce your portion sizes.

Massage – If you can afford it, and have the time, book yourself in for a sports massage somewhere. This will loosen up your muscles and give you an opportunity to confirm that your body is in great condition. It might be a little painful during the massage, but you’ll feel brilliant in the days after it!

Talk to friends and family about where they will be on race day – If you’re doing a big marathon and know that people will be coming to watch, don’t leave seeing them to chance. Work with them to plan where they will be standing and look out for them. If they’re smart about it, you might be able to see them at multiple points on the course. It will give you smaller goals and something to look forward to.

Work out your pacing strategy – For those who just want to finish, this might not be so important. But if you have a time in mind, work out what your average mile pace should be throughout the race to hit that time. Remember that it’s a balancing act – do you have the skill and fortitude to stick to one pace throughout? Are you likely to slow and therefore need a ‘buffer’ early on to accommodate slower late miles? Some words of warning – Don’t let this pacing rule your race. Reassess it throughout the race. It might happen, it might not. Either way, you’re still running a marathon.

Confirm travel plans – How are you getting to the race? Roads are likely to be closed, so where is best to park? Many large marathons run a park and ride scheme, but you have to pre-book. I prefer to take public transport. But if races are at the weekend, check train engineering works or changes to bus timetables. Don’t assume that if there’s a big marathon in town, that the transport people and marathon people have talked to each other!

The days before

Carbohydrate loading isn’t the same as stuffing your face – It’s easy to think that you need to get as many carbs in your body as possible before a marathon. But it’s not that simple. Your muscles and liver only have a certain capacity for storing it. Beyond that, you’re just adding weight – and you already have enough fat on you to provide energy for multiple marathons. Yes, you should eat more carbs than usual, but don’t go bad. Don’t eat until you can’t eat any more. You don’t want to be heavy and lethargic on marathon day.

Think about your tummy – treat it nice and if you’re worried, go bland! – Tempted by a vindaloo the night before the marathon? I dare you! Many people get very worried about what to eat before the big day. If you’re one of those people, keep it simple and keep to the tried and tested meals you always eat. Now is not the time to try a goat stew or a ripe blue cheese from the north west of France. If you eat pasta, go for brown pasta. The same goes for bread.

Make sure you have everything you need – You don’t need to pack just yet, but check that you have everything on your essential kit list. Got new kit? Give it a wash and take it on a test run – especially tops. You can spot a new marathon runner after 20 miles by the state of his nipples. Blood on vest = hasn’t washed or tried a brand new vest. Don’t be that guy (or girl!). Here’s a checklist courtesy of our friends at The Physio Rooms in Brighton. You can download it and print it off here.

Courtesy of The Physio Rooms Brighton

Prepare your playlist, if you must listen to music – Some people have a pathological hatred of people who listen to music on marathon day. I don’t do it myself, as I love to take in the atmosphere. But for those who do, who are we to stop you (safety permitting)? Get your tracklisting ready and rock and roll yourself around the course. Have you thought about using music intermittently? During the tough times, instead of at all times? Quiet part of the course? Whack it on. Tough later miles? Whack it on. Got a special song that makes you emotional and motivated? Save it up and whack it on! But please please please don’t have your music so loud that you can’t hear what’s going on around you. It’s rude, it’s dangerous and it may upset those around you.

Don’t stop running – This got covered in the taper part before, but make sure you have a run in the two days before the marathon. Plod slowly and take the time, by yourself, to work on that visualisation.

Visit the exhibition. Take in the excitement. Don’t get sucked in. – More and more large marathons don’t post numbers and race packs any more. They cite ‘logistical reasons’ when they really mean they don’t want to pay for postage and would like you to visit their exhibition and buy stuff. Pick up your number, take a look around and enjoy what’s on offer. Don’t buy stuff to use in the race unless you’ve used it before. Now isn’t the time for new trainers with springs in them, or energy gels that guarantee more alertness (with a side order of ‘I think I need a poo’). Stick with what you know! You may, however, get some great deals on some great gear. And may also get to meet the people from the charity you are supporting.

Fill in the important information on your number – You’re not going to keel over and you will be fine. BUT – don’t be complacent and think you definitely won’t be that person. This isn’t for you, this is for the people who are trying to help you. They need to know about any pre existing medical conditions and they need to know who they should ring to say ‘don’t worry, big Dave is fine, but he won’t be finishing the race because he’s lost too much blood through his nipples’.

The night before

‘Pack’ your bag, but don’t pack it – Get everything together as if you were packing your bag, but keep it out. When morning comes, you will want to check you definitely have everything – so pack it then.

Don’t eat too much – Remember, you’ve done the storage already this week. This isn’t your last meal, so don’t gorge. Go easy and don’t bloat yourself.

Get an early night – Go to bed early. You’ll likely have to get up at an ungodly hour and you will need the rest. Even if you can’t sleep, lay in bed, breathe, relax and visualise your calmness and confidence for tomorrow.

Race day

Eat breakfast. Pasta for breakfast on race day is a mistake many people make (I did it at my first one). There’s no need! Normal breakfast with a little more of the ‘complex carbs’. Take a snack with you such as a banana.

Check public transport – Check the live departure boards for train companies. Any delays? Any likely problems? Do the same for the roads and adjust travel accordingly.

Do a poo! – Do this preferably before you leave the house. It’s more appetising to sit on your own throne! Nerves mixed with fluids and extra food will make you need to go. Probably more than once. So give yourself time.

Take toilet paper – Even if you went before you left the house, you might need to go again. Take some toilet paper as the last thing you’ll want is to sit in a portaloo and see no wiping material!

Wear something old that you don’t mind throwing away/donating to charity – You are likely to have to drop off your bag at a truck or venue and then not be able to access it again until after the race. That means potentially standing around in very little until the race starts. Wear something old and tatty that will keep you warm until you absolutely have to strip down to your race clothes. Then throw them to the side once you’re ready to start. Most marathons pick these clothes up and donate them to charity, so they will be of use.

Don’t arrive too early – Yes, you’re excited. But there’s not an awful lot to do when you arrive and you don’t want to have to hang around in the cold for no good reason. An hour before the start of the marathon is the perfect time to arrive.

Don’t arrive too late – Don’t give yourself the anxiety and stress of rushing to the start line and arriving with only ten minutes to go whilst still needing to visit a portaloo, drop your kit bag off, warm up and then find your place at the start.

Take yourself off somewhere and give yourself a talking to – If you arrive in good time and have done all you need to do, go and have some time on your own. Remind yourself of the hard work you’ve put in to get you there. The cliché that the hard work is done is absolutely right and this is the procession at the end of a long, long period of training. Run through the marathon once more in your head, remind yourself where people will be and be proud of yourself. The marathon is the easy bit. It was the training that hurt the most!

Don’t overhydrate – We’re warned to stay hydrated at marathons, but it’s easy to nervously sip at water in the build up to the start. Don’t get sucked in because you’ll need a wee on the way round. Evidence suggests we need far less water throughout a marathon than we might think.

Warm up? – The question mark is there because there’s argument for and against it. Some people say the first few miles should be the gentle warm up and that doing it outside of the marathon is just a waste of energy. Others say it helps with preparation. Do what you would usually do. Personally, I don’t warm up. Never have.

Don’t queue too early. Or too late! ­ This is another easy one to get wrong. Don’t find your start coral too early because it’s boring and you get a little locked in. But also give yourself plenty of time to get there and to settle. Prepare yourself to get cozy – it can get pretty busy there. Head down about 15 minutes before race start.

Get out there and enjoy it. Count up, then count down. Have mini victories and small targets – I needn’t say any more than this. The marathon is your procession so enjoy it. You’ve worked hard to get there after some big, big training efforts. Identify those mini targets as you get around – the people you love, the landmarks, the 10ks or the half way – whatever helps, do it!

I hope you found those useful. Please tweet me @52marathonman if you have any questions. ENJOY your marathon!

About kevin betts

Personal trainer, marathon runner and most interested in motivation and goal setting. I run for peace of mind, but also to create a bit of turmoil to get through.

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