The Final Marathon Countdown: 15 Expert Race-Week Tips
Two professional coaches and one of America's top marathoners share their best pre-marathon advice
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Unlike 5Ks and 10Ks, the marathon requires maximum amounts of dedication, patience and perseverance in order to show up prepared for success on race day. It’s often not the missed workouts and long runs that cause marathoners the most anxiety, but rather the final countdown in the week leading up to the event. The risks of making a training or nutritional mistake is magnified the closer you get to the marathon.
To help ease your fears, we sat down with three experts to get their opinions on how to handle that important week: ZAP Fitness coach Pete Rea, former U.S. marathon champion Annie Bersagel, and coach Greg McMillan.
Coach Pete Rea
1. Change as little as possible from your normal routine.
When entering the final week of a marathon program, one of the most effective policies is to stick to your routine. Do you normally go to bed at 9:30? Stick with it. Do you normally eat pasta with chicken the evening before your long runs? Stick with it. Do you normally take a 20-minute walk the evening before a long run or a race? Stick with it. Do you normally wear your favorite lightweight pair of trainers for long runs and races? Stick with them. Routine is very important as it relates to sleep patterns, digestion, biorhythms and your overall performance. Change as little as you can from your normal routine and you will increase the likelihood that you will have a great day at the Queen’s Distance.
2. Do something “harder” the week of the race.
One of the biggest mistakes we see our ZAP adult running campers make during marathon preparation is failing to execute something harder the week of the race. During the marathon taper, athletes are running less and have typically dialed back the intensity as well. Often, athletes feel stale the day of the marathon with a significant reduction in both intensity and volume. You will avoid being stale by doing something moderate 5-6 days out from the race. A tried and true “week of the marathon” session we implement here at ZAP is two separate 2-mile chunks (with 7:00-8:00 in between) at your goal marathon rhythm.
3. Be sure to run the day before the race.
Continuing on the theme of the taper and avoiding “staleness,” runners should always do a bit of jogging the day before the race. The overwhelming majority of the feedback from age-group marathoners is consistent with the pros: a day off two days before the race will leave you refreshed with pop in the legs, whereas a day off immediately preceding the race often results in heavy legs. My advice is an easy 15-18-minute run.
4. Avoid “expo lingering.”
Road race expos are an integral part of the business side of our sport. Running-related retailers ply their wares amidst the throngs picking up their race numbers and the last-minute snack before race day. Too often, however, runners will spend hour after hour at the expo trying everything from the latest cooling running underwear to salsa-infused energy bars. If you are looking for a way to kill the energy in your legs in the days before the marathon, then “expo lingering” is for you. Get in, get your number and leave!
5. Don’t second-guess your goals and preparation.
I recommend to virtually every marathoner I have coached that they [should] take a quick look at their training log the evening before the race. Remind yourself of all the work you have done and that you are as ready as you can be—then go execute. Quite commonly, I see folks around the country talking themselves out of their race plan and goals the weekend of the race. Be confident in your preparation and step to the line knowing you have sacrificed and prepared properly. I recommend the book Elite Minds by sports psychologist Dr. Stan Beecham as a pre-race review. You will never again question your prep.
1. Do resist the urge to make up for missed workouts.
Whether due to injury, illness or simply a busy schedule, even the best-laid plans go awry. It’s tempting to try to squeeze in that last workout in the last five days, but this is counterproductive. You won’t see any fitness gains and only risk wearing yourself out before the race. I was sick before Dusseldorf and didn’t feel better until the last week before the race. Even though I wanted to test my fitness, I knew I just couldn’t afford to. In hindsight, I’m very glad I chose to rest.
2. Do take extra precautions to avoid illness.
Carrying a little bottle of hand sanitizer with you wherever you go is a good policy, especially in that last week. It’s also advisable to temporarily suspend the “five-second” rule.
3. Don’t compare training logs.
This is the equivalent of avoiding post-exam discussions of the test questions. Nothing good will come of it at this point. Either you’ll feel intimidated by others’ workouts or become too glib about your own preparation. Wait until the race is over before evaluating your training.
4. Do make an extra effort to get plenty of sleep.
While you shouldn’t be attempting any strenuous workouts, focus your energy instead on resting like a champ. You should have a little more time on your hands with less running. Reinvest it in your sleep.
5. Do prepare mentally for how you will feel during the race.
If you run your best, it will hurt—a lot. Expect this, but also know that the first few miles will probably float by. This is natural. Be prepared for it to feel almost too easy at the beginning and be ready to race when the race really starts (probably around 20-23 miles).
Coach Greg McMillan
1. Remember that you have already built your fitness for the race, so any workout in the last week is about “refining” fitness, not building fitness.
It’s not about going faster but running your paces with less effort. That way you won’t leave the race in training.
2. Don’t try anything new.
You’ve practiced your race nutrition and equipment in training, so just follow what you found works. Don’t experiment with new foods—even if other athletes are eating them—in the week before the race. Stick with what your body is used to so you don’t get any GI surprises.
It’s very normal to be nervous as a race nears, but you must always quell any nervous energy and focus on relaxing. Some runners let the anxiety of the race burn up all their mental energy so that by the time they stand on the starting line, their mental reserves are already depleted. As nervous thoughts creep in, acknowledge them and then push them aside and focus on something else.
A lot. People who smile and laugh are more relaxed and keep nervousness under control. Watch funny shows or simply focus on smiling a bit more during race week—not crazy-person smiling, but just a simple reminder that you are so lucky to be able to race this race.
5. Make an oath to yourself.
There are lots of things we can’t control in a race, but the one thing we can control is doing our absolute best during all stages of the race—whether we are running a new PR or having an off day. Either way, make an oath to yourself that you will do your best on the day. That in the first miles, you’ll control your pace and run relaxed. That in the middle, you’ll focus on grooving goal pace and continuing to get in all your fuel. And, in the last part, where it gets really, really tough, you’ll smile through the pain. You’ll focus on your best. You’ll never relent. You’ll never give in. You’ll keep pushing and get to that finish line.