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 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.
In our previous guides, we've talked about the importance of wearing the right kit, including shoes, socks and compression clothing. It's also important to feel comfortable in your race day outfit, whether that's shorts and a t-shirt or leggings/trousers. Go for a run in the outfit you plan on wearing, make sure it all fits properly so that on race day you've one less thing to think about. Check the weather forecast and have a backup plan too.
Once you've nailed your outfit, it's worth considering printing your name on your top. That might sound cringe, but you will rejoice when a friendly face in the crowd cheers on your name, especially if you have hit a wall. Someone in the crowd knowing your name can help spur you on when you need it most.
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 the 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.
It's a good idea to bring an extra long sleeve t-shirt or jumper with you to wear whilst you're waiting to start. This extra layer should be one you don't mind discarding as you get going. Most marathons collect these garments and donate them to charity so don't feel as though you are littering. Staying warm before your race is important, and it is likely you will have dropped off a bag with your belongings in a locker or with friends before heading to your start pen.
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: Charge it the night before so you can keep 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 slowly 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 tops around the race, plan according to the forecast and practice wearing this outfit on training runs.
- 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 945 delivers key metrics for you to track your training efforts along with suggestions for recovery time. On race day, most importantly, it will ensure you are running your own set pace per mile or kilometre (whichever is your preference) keeping you on track with an accurate GPS connection.
Once you purchase this watch, you won't want to take it off. If you're addicted to data the Polar Vantage M2 even shows you how your body uses different energy sources during a training session and how effectively you have recovered overnight. The GPS running watch with a wrist-based heart rate monitor will also make tracking your pace easy on race day so you can smash your targets.
These tasty, fruity carbohydrate gels give an instant energy boost whilst on the move. They're easy to consume whilst on the move, don't leave you feeling sticky or your mouth gummed up and are available in a choice of seven flavours.
If fruity-tasting gels are not really you're thing, or you're fed up with fake flavours, Maurten Gel 100 will hit the spot. Their neutral taste can be a refreshing change and the consistency of the gels make them easy to swallow on the run. Natural ingredients make absorption into the body quick meaning you'll feel the impact of an energy boost during your race.
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. The water resistance properties make it perfect for hot and humid conditions
Make it easy for your friends and family to spot you in the crowd with this running cap which will also keep your head cool and protected should the sun emerge on race day. Lightweight, breathable, and moisture-wicking, this cap by Ciele also has UPF 40+ for added protection.
Featuring mesh panels for breathability, this classic cap is perfect for warm runs.
Don't let your shades get in the way of a great run. The unobtanium rubber nose pads and temple tips ensure the EV Path Prizm 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.