Running a marathon is an amazing, life-changing experience but if you're not adequately prepared, it can turn out to be a lot harder than it needs to be. For this post, I'm drawing on my experiences from running countless endurance events on four continents, including over 20 marathons. I'm pretty sure I've made (almost) every mistake in the book along the way.
Let me share my learning with you so you don't have to run 20 miles with a piece of tubigrip gradually slicing through your achilles tendon.
In no particular order, here are my top 10 tips for marathon success.
1: Get to know your race pace
Toward the end of your marathon training plan, run blocks within your long runs at your target marathon pace. This will help you get used to what your marathon pace feels like. It should feel comfortable and 'cruisey'. If it doesn't, perhaps you should consider reviewing your expectations.
2: Do a marathon day dress rehearsal
Hold your own 'pretend race day'. Rehearse everything you plan to do on your big day a few weeks before, preferably on one of your penultimate long runs. The alarm call, race day breakfast, toilet routine (within reason - no need to install a heavily soiled portaloo on your driveway), clothing, anti-chafe, sunscreen...
Sit down and review afterward to understand if there is anything that didn't go well that you might need to adjust.
3: Practice your marathon fuelling for a happy gut on race day
Decide well in advance whether you are planning to use the on-course nutrition (many marathons will list the nutrition they are using on their website) or bring your own. Test your chosen marathon nutrition several times on long runs to make sure that it agrees with your gut (and that you have a way to carry all that you need). It doesn't guarantee that you won't get a nasty surprise on race day but it certainly reduces the possibility.
4: Prevent the evil chafe
Chafing = bloody misery. Prevention of chafing means a happier you as you get into the business miles. Identify possible clothing & skin on skin chafing areas and apply an anti-chafe product. Think armpits, groin, thighs and neck. Straps and labels can also do serious damage after three hours of rubbing. I swear by Body Glide but plenty of other decent alternatives are available.
For blokes, your nipples are an accident waiting to happen. Cover them with something, otherwise you'll be that chap with the classic finishers photo with blood streaming from either nipple. I've had most success with band aids taped over with zinc or kinesio tape.
5: Don't wear new shoes on race day
In fact, don't wear anything you haven't tested for your marathon. By all means get a fresh, bouncy pair of shoes for your big race but make sure you've done some miles in them first to road test them. You wouldn't drive a brand new car straight off the forecourt without testing it first would you? You would? Ok, forget that one.
I like to do ~50km in my new shoes before a marathon, including testing them out on a long run. Remember that shoe manufacturers make changes to each new edition of a running shoe so even if you buy the same shoe model you've been wearing for 15 years, it may have tweaks that don't agree with you.
Running a marathon PB at London Marathon in 2017 (photographer: David Altabev)
6: An organised marathon runner is a relaxed marathon runner
If you're not familiar with the term flat lay, it's laying all of your kit out on your bed/floor before the big day. For most people it's to put on their Instagram but it's actually a useful way to check off that you have everything you need.
If you are running a marathon away from home, do a flat lay before you pack/travel & again on the day before the race. If you do it in the morning you can run out for emergency purchases whilst the shops are still open. Unless you're in a campsite on top of a hill in rural Uganda of course, then you're pretty much stuffed (yes, that was me).
7: Review the race course for surprises
Have a look at the marathon course map ahead of toeing the start line. This can help you avoid surprises during the race (e.g. climbs, descents, pinch points, aid stations) and having a basic strategy will help you feel relaxed and more confident of the task ahead of you. Write a few key notes on the back of your hand or inside of your forearm e.g. MASSIVE HILL AT 21 MILES - SAVE SOME ENERGY
8: Keep an eye on the race day weather
Keep a keen eye on the weather forecast in the days leading to the race. If it looks like there may be extreme weather conditions, you will need to pack extra items. Think old clothes to stay warm before a cold race that can be discarded at the start, waterproof items for wet races (ponchos are a winner), hat, glasses and sunscreen for hot days plus a set of dry, clean clothes to change into at the finish.
9: Trim those toenails!
Out of control toenails = discomfort and bloody socks. Look after your feet during training and trim your toenails several days before your race to allow for any over zealous chopping to sort itself out.
Celebrating finishing the New York City Marathon at Central Park
10: When the going gets tough - remind yourself of your 'Why'
Running a marathon is hard. The last stretch can be mentally draining so have some tools to help you rise to the challenge. Dedicate each of the last 6.2 miles of your marathon to important people in your life. Write each dedication on your hand/forearm to provide you with a mental boost and focus for those all-important last miles.
Let me know in the comments if you have other pearls of marathon wisdom to add and I'll include them in the next post!
One final thing...
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