I recently completed the London Marathon and, like many people who surpass a personal milestone, I've been reflecting on the process as a whole. So alongside the article detailing the biggest things I've learned in eleven years of running, I put together this one. It focuses on the things that I need to do and remind myself of in the weeks and days before a marathon, on race day itself, and immediately after it. But before I go into all that I want to emphasize something...
Imagine it's race day. After months of training and preparation you are finally here. You're feeling so many things all at the same time; anxiety, excitement, confidence, fear, pride at having come so far and nervousness at being so close. This is normal, so don't fight it. It's also normal to worry about the things you could have done and what could still go wrong. But while this is normal, it isn't helpful.
No-one can change what they did six months ago but everyone can change what they do today, and tomorrow. Focus on the things that are within your control. It doesn't matter whether your goal is to finish your first event, set a new PB, or qualify for the Boston Marathon. Just relax, enjoy the race and be grateful for the opportunity to do something you love.
Now, onto the specifics!
THE WEEKS BEFORE
- Need to travel? Prepare a detailed itinerary and familiarize yourself with your destination points ahead of time. For example, know where the expo is, where you're supposed to get your bib, and where your hotel is in relation to the start line.
- Prepare a checklist. As well as an itinerary, use checklists to make sure everything you need goes with you. With all the excitement and fuss around traveling, it's easy to miss something that is crucial to your performance and comfort.
- Keep your gear close. If you are flying, pack your running gear and shoes into your carry-on. Lost luggage is not as rare as you think. Most of us can deal with losing a towel and some toiletries, but having to replace your favorite shorts, top and socks, as well as break in a brand new pair of running shoes less than a week before an event is not ideal.
- Know your weather. In some locations, weather can be unpredictable. Make allowances for sudden rises and drops in temperature and for the sudden onset of wind and rain. This is also a good time to mentally prepare yourself for the possibility of less than perfect conditions on race day.
- Stay moving, stay hydrated. If traveling by car or air avoid prolonged sitting times. Walk and move your legs often while at the same time ensuring you drink enough fluids. Pack a re-usable and/or collapsible bottle. Better to be a little too hydrated.
- Advance nutrition. Nutrition matters, not only during the race but in the weeks leading up to it. The best approach to nutrition is to treat it as a fundamental part of your training. You wouldn't avoid going for a run in the five or six weeks leading up to an event, so try not to abandon your established nutritional behaviors either. That also means avoiding experiments with new foods and alternative dietary protocols.
- Alcohol. Alcohol can compromise your sleep, cause gastric distress and, because it's a diuretic, increase urine production, elevating your risk of dehydration. I'm not saying quit drinking altogether in the immediate run-up to an event. But I am saying be mindful of alcohol consumption.
- Jet lag. This is something I always struggle with. My worst experience with jet lag was when I ran the Tokyo Marathon. I only got three hours of sleep on Thursday and Friday, falling asleep at 10 pm and waking up at 1 am. The night before the race I could not sleep at all. I was quite concerned about this, but overall I felt okay. Strangely, it turned out to be the best race I ever ran and I hit a PB. Sleep, while important, might fall into the category of "things I can't control", so if possible try to arrive at a location two-plus days in advance. This gives you some time to acclimatize. Avoiding caffeine in the afternoons and having dinner at least three hours before bedtime will also aide sleep.
THE DAYS BEFORE
- Bib pickup. Check the schedule. Some events allow you to pick it up days in advance. Some allow you to pick it up on the day.
- The Expo. Some events have huge expos which get really crowded, especially the day before the race. This means that while visiting it you might spend a lot of time on your feet. If you can, go as early as possible to avoid the last-minute crowds. If your race is local, the best day to go is opening day. If traveling, head there as soon as you get into the town or city, collect your bib and avoid hours of standing and walking.
- Know the course. Some expos offer handy information sessions that provide course details. Get to these if you can. If not, be sure to look at the course map in advance and absorb all the important information about the event. You might also find tour operators and event organizers putting on course tours a few days before a race. These represent a great way to mentally prepare for the route.
- Ease off. My coach always includes a 3km run the day before a race. Every training plan and every person is different, but I like to get out in the morning, move my legs and release some stress before an event.
- Pre-race dinner. Plan it in advance. If you have the option to cook, do. Find a grocery store and get everything you need. If you plan to have dinner at a restaurant choose one that is close to your accommodation and make a reservation ahead of time. In terms of food, it is best to go for a moderate amount of something you have at home on a regular basis. Don't eat too little, don't eat too much, don't eat too late and don't eat anything new or "exotic".
- Get your gear ready. Shoes, socks, shorts, top, bib and pins, bra, underwear, food, water: lay it all out the night before in order to minimize stress in the morning. And remember the timing chip! Some events pre-attach them to your bib, others give you a chip to attach to your shoes. Make sure you know where it is and where it has to go. No timing chip, no time recorded.
- Bag drop-off. Some events have an area in which you can leave your belongings. But some don't. Check the instructions ahead of time since they vary from race to race. Some will only allow bags provided by the organizer, for example, and come with restrictions on what you can put in your bag. Personally, I like to carry a variety of things that help me stay warm and comfortable before and after the race. The journey back to my car or hotel can be unpredictable so, if I can, I like to have a change of clothes for after the race, a stuff bag for my race clothes, and spare toiletries and tissues.
- Race-day breakfast. When I travel I prefer to have breakfast in my room. I'll buy some bread or a bagel, and pack a serving of peanut butter and jam. If you prefer to have breakfast at the hotel restaurant, know the timings in advance, make a reservation if necessary, and have some idea of what they are serving. Some races start a little later (10:30 or 11:00 am, for example) and for these events I usually have two small breakfasts, one soon after waking and one two hours before the race. I eat just enough, and with plenty of time, as I want to give my body time to process and digest the meal.
- Don't chafe. Those pictures of runners with bloody nipples are real. During your training you will probably have noticed which areas tend to chafe and how badly. It will likely be the same (or worse) on race-day. Pack some Vaseline or another anti-chafe product and cover the areas you know are most susceptible. Be extra generous with the treatment on very humid or very rainy days.
- Careful with NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and other drugs. When I began running I regularly came across advice telling me to take anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen to treat mild injuries and pain. This is not good advice, in general and especially on race-day. When running a marathon, most of your organs are working overtime. Taking anti-inflammatory drugs can interfere with the body's recovery and adaption processes, as well as the gastro-intestinal tract and/or the kidneys. Just because it's available over the counter doesn't mean it won't interfere with preparation, performance or recovery.
- Logistics. You may feel prepared for the race, but how are you getting to the start line? Avoid race-day stress by understanding the public transportation schedules, road closures and entry/exit procedures. Some races offer free parking and shuttles to the start line. Some don't and require you to make your own way. Similarly, it helps to know how you're getting back after the race. Work it out in advance and you won't have to worry so much after having run a whole marathon.
- Support. Do you have family and friends in attendance and willing to cheer you on? Good, but make sure you get a chance to see them. Co-ordinate with them to decide where they are going to be waiting and on which side of the road. My family once came to the Boston Marathon and cheered me on. They were where we agreed they'd be but I was running on the opposite side of the road and couldn't see them.
- Set an alarm, or two. I've talked with many people about the nightmare of arriving late for a race because an alarm was ignored or didn't go off. The manic wake up, the skipped breakfast, the anxious commute to the start line. I don't want that to happen to me, so I make sure to set multiple alarms. Bonus tip: put your phone/alarm on the other side of the room so you have to get out of bed to turn it off.
THE DAY OF THE RACE
- Nothing new. This is one of the simplest rules to follow. Eat the same old breakfast. Wear the same old shoes, shorts and top. Pack the same gels. Most people are nervous enough without the added disruption of something new and unfamiliar.
- Toilettes. These are always crowded places so allow yourself plenty of time beforehand. Usually, the first queues are the longest ones so check the ones that are away from the entrance. These tend to be less crowded.
- On the start line. Some races assign starting positions. It's usually based on an expected time and puts faster runners towards the front. Regardless of whether this is done or not, the start line will be a busy place. Arrive well in advance and give yourself time to get into position with your wave, corral or pacing group.
- Stay warm. The wait to cross the start line can be long. If it's cold that means your body will need to tap into your energy stores to retain heat. Not good. It's best to preserve as much energy as possible. In order to stay warm and relaxed wear layers of disposable clothes that you don't mind not recovering. I usually wear an old sweater and remove it right before the start, often placing it in bins made available specifically for this purpose. It doesn't go to waste, it goes to charity.
- Pace yourself. Running at an even pace is the most common way to approach a marathon. Yes, crossing the start line is very exciting and it is very tempting to start fast, but try not to. Stick to your planned pace, find your rhythm, and don't worry if getting caught in the crowd results in a slower first few kilometers than normal.
- Nutrition and hydration. Use the same fuel strategy you used while training. Don't experiment. If that means bringing your own hydration belt, do it. Personally, I don't carry my own hydration but I do bring my own energy gels. If you choose to do something similar lookup where the water stations are located and which drinks/gels/carb products will be available. There's no one-size-fits-all fuelling strategy, but a common recommendation is to consume 200-400 calories (2-3 gels, depending on the product) per hour, along with some water. I also tend to have one gel 15 minutes before starting for an extra boost.
- The mental game. Running a marathon is as much of a mental challenge as it is a physical one. Use your inner voice in a positive way. Focus on your breathing and rhythm. Use the excitement from the spectators lining the course to stay present. If it's easier, focus on small goals. I tend not to think too far ahead. Often, I break a race down into 5km chunks and focus solely on maintaining my pace to the next one, and then the next one, and so on. Once you're into the second half, it's common for energy to flag and negative thoughts to creep in. Don't worry. Smile. Allow yourself to be energized by fellow runners and by the cheers and the signs of the crowd. Remember that the race is a celebration of all the hard work you've already put in. Be thankful and enjoy it.
- Seek help. If you feel unwell, during or after the race, seek medical attention. Most races have trained medical staff on-site, so if you feel anything significantly over the normal discomfort and fatigue of running seek them out while at the event. You're safer there and you'll be treated and/or transported faster than if you are back in your hotel room.
THE DAYS AFTER
- Plan the post-race. Many races provide nutrition and a "space blanket" after you finish. If that isn't available or you prefer your own solution, plan it out. Know where your bag/gear collection point is, and know where you're meeting friends and family and at what time. Be aware that the medal collection, post-race nutrition and gear collection can involve ten to thirty minutes of additional walking. Also be aware that this extra activity can help your body begin to recover and relax. Try not to go straight from running a marathon to sitting down in a cramped car or train for hours.
- Eat, drink. Try to have a snack as soon as you can after the race and aim to have a proper meal within a few hours. Most importantly, make sure you hydrate throughout the rest of the day.
- Take some time. Marathons involve a lot of effort and its common for immune systems to be impaired after a race. So take it easy. Eat good food and drink. Relax with your friends and family. Breathe. It may feel like your legs will never recover, but they will. After a few days, even if your muscles feel strong and loose again, resist the urge to begin pushing yourself. Your muscles may be fine, but your nervous system will still be recovering. If you must do something, do something different. Take short walks, go on easy bike rides, swim, or attend a yoga class.
There's something magic about crossing the finish line. It's a great reward for the many months of physical training and mental preparation, and it is often accompanied by an even stranger mix of emotions than were present at the start. There's ecstasy at having done it, exhaustion from pushing yourself harder than ever before, sadness that it's all over and excitement at the prospect of starting again.
I find that a couple of days later all those emotions are still there, and they sustain me as I sit down at my computer and look for my next race.