You’ve pushed through long miles, developed strength and speed, and avoided your taper tantrum – now it’s time to exercise the grey matter and develop a smart race strategy.
As you put in the final preparations for the big day, there are several elements to your marathon plan you need to get right: pre-race preparations, pacing, tactics, hydration, and nutrition.
Each of these elements is vital for executing a good performance on the day.
After all your arduous work, the last thing you want to do is go in blind and without a solid plan.
You’ll also be experiencing a flutter of nervousness right about now, which will only intensify as the big day approaches, but having a plan will ease your doubts, giving you a focus for that energy and ensuring you don’t forget anything significant.
You need to have a structured approach to your run having mapped out your race time expectations. You need to know what you’re going to eat and drink - and when - and you need to have tactics in mind to save energy and give the best performance you can.
Each of these elements and more are detailed below.
Overlook the importance of your pre-race regime at your peril. This is a crucial time when you'll be preparing mentally and physically for the challenge ahead.
Eating and drinking
By now you should have a working food regimen, so it’s best to stick to that. Try to avoid making too many changes – this is not the day to experiment. You should have built up a healthy store of glycogen – an important fuel for your muscles - having taken on extra carbohydrates, like sweet potatoes, pasta and bagels, over recent days. Your tapering plan, meanwhile, should allow those stores to grow and be ready. You should be hydrating yourself throughout also, including some electrolyte-rich fluids. But be careful not to overeat in the morning of the race – a light breakfast should do it, and leave a large enough gap between eating and the starting pistol so digestion is well on underway. This can be between one and three hours depending on the individual. Also, don’t take on more water than you can handle. Sip regularly and don’t chug. You should get to the starting line feeling comfortable, energised and fuelled-up.
- Take your first gel or calorie source within 15 minutes of the start. This will ensure your glycogen stores don’t get depleted too early.
Dealing with nerves
The better your plan, the less nervous you should feel, but you’re bound to be caught up in the excitement of the day especially if this is your first marathon. Take long, deep breaths, focus on dropping your shoulders, and go over your plan in your mind.
If this is your first marathon, you might find your positioning at the beginning of the race means you’re corralled away from the starting line with other runners in your group for anywhere up to 20 minutes. That means any warming up you’ve done beforehand is wasted. There is usually a brisk 10-minute walk before you get over the start threshold, which many use as their warm-up instead. Ideally, you’re looking for a conservative start, so if you’re too pumped, you may set off at too fast a pace (see section on pacing).
If you’re a more competitive runner, then a 5-10 minute pre-race run with dynamic stretching will help get your muscles into performance mode.
Have a list of final checks for the things you need to do before the race and anything you need to carry with you, gels for example.
Here’s a quick checklist:
- Race chip: Best to be fitted to your shoe the night before
- Race number: Again, fit this the night before
- Running outfit: Shoes, socks, hat, glasses, nutrition carrier, straps, and bands
- Sports watch: For keeping track of your splits
- Gels: Four or five
- Anti-chafe cream: Don’t rely on this being provided - they can run out, and it's a horrible way for a race to end prematurely
- Attach a copy of your plan and splits to the back of your race number card so you can quickly check as you go.
Like any journey, your marathon will have a beginning, middle and end. Each of these sections requires a different approach, and sticking to a plan is key.
The long-established approach for ensuring a successful race is to run negative splits – that is, to begin slow and gradually increase your pace throughout the race.
The key advantage of this approach is that it uses fewer glycogen stores early in the race. This is important because once these reserves expire, you will hit the wall and your stride withers to a stunted shuffle.
Once you’ve identified a target finishing time and broken this down to achievable splits, make sure you stick to the times carefully. You’ll find your starting pace is almost uncomfortably slow, but don’t be fooled – stick to your plan!
Ignore all those who shoot off in the excitement at the start of the race. Your goal is to get settled into your pace as quickly as possible. If you find you’ve set out slower than your goal pace, give it some time and you might find you’ll naturally speed up once everything gets warmed up.
Avoid making surges to get around slower groups, take your time and wait for the right opportunity to overtake.
If you took your first gel at the start, then take another around the 45-minute mark – and don’t pass a water station early on, even if you’re feeling good.
At this point, you should be comfortable and on pace. Make sure you’re relaxed, running with good technique. Make sure you're making the correct splits but otherwise enjoy the race and take in the sights and sounds.
If you’ve managed your pace well, stayed hydrated, and watched your technique, you’ll be in a strong position to finish the last six miles on target. Break down the final section into chunks and stay on track for your goal pace. If you’re feeling strong, then now is the time to begin the big push and pick up the pace.
Your tactics on the day can contribute much to your performance, shaving minutes off your time and conserving valuable energy reserves.
- Be realistic about your goals. A 3-4 hour marathoner will on average log around 35 miles a week during their training. A 4-5 hour marathoner logs an average of 25-30 miles per week. This should give you a general idea of where to aim.
- Don’t run harder up hills. Allow your pace to slow as you maintain your effort level. If you try to power-up elevations, you’ll start eating into your important glycogen stores too early in the race.
- Take the opportunity to draft behind other runners. Running around a metre from someone in front can decrease your energy expenditure by 7 per cent. On the other hand, take advantage of tailwinds by moving out of the pack.
- Take a racing line. The marathon’s distance is measured over the shortest possible route, so cut the corners as much as possible so you don’t run further than necessary.
Dos and don’ts
You’re perfectly primed for the big race, but there are just a few important dos and don’ts that many marathon runners have picked up from experience.
- Don’t overdress. It’s a common sight to see discarded layers soon into the race.
- Chaffing is easy to overlook as a potential problem but it’s no joke if you develop a bad rub en route. Make sure you’re prepared with a suitable lubricant.
- Stick to your own plan. Just because everyone else is eating bananas or jumping up and down, doesn’t mean you should. You have your plan, you know what works for you, don’t experiment, or get inventive now.
- Make sure to check the weather and take the necessary precautions, such as an extra layer or sun cream as required.
- Do enjoy the day. Yes, it’s an overused cliché, but congratulations to you for coming so far. Get out there and enjoy it.
Last minute marathon kit
As you approach the final weeks before the marathon, take a look at some last-minute kit you might need for race day.
The Garmin Forerunner 935 is designed specifically for elite sport participants to monitor and improve training and racing performance. Capturing accurate data specific to your activity, the 935 offers immediate performance evaluation to enhance techniques.
With a long-life battery that will survive up to 10 hours in training mode or up to 40 hours in power saving mode, the Suunto 9 Baro GPS Multisport Watch also keeps track of your heart rate, splits, and tracks your route.
The Fitbit Versa Watch features an in-built HRM to give you real-time feedback on heart rate. It also stores and plays music wirelessly and can even be set up for contactless payments so you can carry less.
The Polar Vantage M is a GPS running watch with a wrist-based heart rate monitor, a huge range of smart-coaching features, and 24/7 activity tracking. If you want even more, the Polar Vantage V is the first ever running watch to measure running power from the wrist.
These tasty, fruity carbohydrate gels give an instant energy boost whilst on the move. With all new packaging that's easy to use and available in a choice of seven flavours.
The SiS GO Isotonic Gel was the world’s first isotonic gel effectively delivering an easily digestible and quick supply of carbohydrate for energy during exercise.
EnergySource is a new generation sports drink for use during exercise. It contains key electrolytes and a carbohydrate formulation of maltodextrin and fructose in a ratio of 2:1.
ZERO is a leading electrolyte sports drink tab, producing a clean-tasting and highly-refreshing drink with zero calories. The tabs contain light natural flavours with no artificial colours or preservatives.
Wiggle Hydration Tabs can help you get the most out of your water and optimise hydration. The addition of balanced electrolytes provides better carbohydrate absorption to help you avoid low blood sugar levels.
Intended as a barrier to the effects of rubbing, its formulation makes it easy to apply for all-day protection from skin on skin rubbing, chafing from clothing, or pinching and friction from shoes, protective gear, and other irritants.
This thick, smooth body lubricant protects and heals areas prone to chaffing or irritation during activity. It's a great all-round moisturiser too.
Keep your head cool and protected should the sun emerge on race day. Lightweight, breathable, and moisture wicking, this cap by SKINS also has reflective detailing and an adjustable strap.
Featuring adidas climalite® fabric in this classic adidas cap moves moisture away from the skin as you sweat for optimal dryness.
Don't let your shades get in the way of a great run. The unobtanium rubber nose pads and temple tips ensure the Oakley Flak 2.0 XL Prizm Field stay put.
The dhb UltraLite Sunglasses lenses are built from polycarbonate which is characterised by its durability and ability to provide performance-level clarity. Choose from three different tints.
The frame comes with a full wrap-around design that provides a great balance to the face, ensuring the glasses stay in position even when you’re at your most active.