Race day prep… not to be underestimated. The things you do in these last days and hours can be the difference between a smooth-sailing journey from home to race line to finish line, or a last minute dash with your better half’s trainers (it’s happened before!).
For the low-down on how to prep, and what to do when the race start countdown finally comes, keep reading…
Rest, rest and more rest!
I can’t say it enough, as you may have gathered from the previous post! Don’t do anything too strenuous, this is the perfect excuse to make your partner do the housework! You need to conserve as much muscle glycogen as possible, and this isn’t going to be done by scrubbing the kitchen floors. Take it easy, and let your body prepare for the task ahead.
For the same reason, try not to spend too much time on your feet – if you have to go to an exposition to pick up your race number, don’t spend the whole day walking around the stalls. Take a seat where you can!
The night before a marathon is not likely to be your best night’s sleep, but don’t fret – the shut-eye you get two nights before your marathon is more important. Try to get to bed early every night in your final week,and make sure you get a quality night’s sleep on the Friday night (if your marathon is on a Sunday). If you do struggle to nod off, don’t let it concern you – as long as you’re lying down you’ll be getting rest!
Tips for a restful night
Have a hot bath about an hour before bed: a lot of people think this is because we need to be warm to feel sleepy, but actually it’s to do with the drop in body temperature that occurs after a hot bath. Our circadian rhythm gives us a natural slight drop in body temperature at around 1pm, and then a more significant drop in the evening hours. A hot bath can help induce this drop in body temperature, making us feel more ready for bed.
Eat a small bedtime snack: complex carbohydrates are best with a small amount of protein and calcium. This will help induce serotonin release, calming the brain. Avoid sugary foods and other stimulants such as caffeine or alcohol. Having said that, if a glass of wine or a small beer is likely to relax you then have it earlier in the evening with your meal. Good foods to choose for your night-time snack are:
- sliced banana and chopped dates
- wholegrain bread with half an avocado
- handful of peanuts or almonds and a glass of milk
- a yoghurt and honey
Avoid large meals close to bedtime: going to bed with a full stomach can make it hard to sleep as your body works to digest the food. Also avoid spicy foods, like curry, late in the evening.
Don’t go to bed hungry: a rumbling stomach can also make it difficult to sleep! Choose a snack, like the ones above, to help satiate you and release those calming hormones.
Keep your sleeping environment comfortable: your bedroom should be fairly cool, quiet and dark to get the best night’s sleep. Anything that affects these elements and is in your control, you should try to change. Although most people find a quiet room is better, some people feel that calming music helps them sleep so try this if you like.
The Night Before
You should be well practised in your pre-race evening meal if you’ve been reading the Spring into a Marathon series, if so stick with what you know, but if you haven’t then the following should be a safe bet:
||1 bowl pasta (80-90g dried weight)1 large serving vegetables1 chicken breast fillet2 slices bread and butter2-3 scoops vanilla ice-cream
||2 slices of toast with honey1 yoghurt
As mentioned in the Sleep section above, avoid eating too late at night, and only eat to just fullness – you don’t need to be stuffed to be well fuelled!
You will make your morning 100 times less stressful if you prepare your kit the night before. Make a list of what you need to put on and take with you, here is my list from Brighton Marathon last year:
- Running vest (with race number already pinned to it, contact details written on the back)
- Running tights/shorts
- Trainers (with socks inside and timing chip attached) positioned next to each other – left and right the right way round!
- Fuel belt (with energy gels, tabs etc. already in place)
- Timing chip (if an ankle one)
- Pacing band
- Warmup kit (more about this below)
- Race instructions/directions
- Pre-race snack
- Change of clothes and comfy shoes
- Post-race snack
- Small amount of money
- Sun protection
This should be enough for almost all circumstances, but you may have other requirements to add to your list, for example if you’re staying overnight or flying.
Make sure you get up with plenty of time to get yourself ready, you need to plan to make and eat your breakfast, get dressed, brush your teeth and lots of other obvious things! But guaranteed they might not enter your mind when you plan what time to get up – prepare! Set your alarm, and perhaps even ask a friend (or your hotel) to give you a wake up call.
Eat your pre-race meal 3-4 hours before your race – you should know by now what works for you through all of your training so stick with that – often this is porridge and maybe a cup of tea or coffee. Caffeine can be a good bowel stimulant, so for those that worry about gastrointestinal distress a cup of tea or coffee in the morning can help you to go to the loo early in the morning. Delicate topic, but worth mentioning!
Getting to the Start Line
Each race is different, but make sure you allow time to get to the race starting area. You may want to meet up with friends and spectators, or your charity if you’re running for one, and you will want to leave time to have a small snack, hand your kit bag in and line up.
It is a good idea to keep a layer of clothing to keep you warm while you stand around and wait. If you are lucky enough to have a friend waiting with you at the start line (who’s not also racing!) then you can wear what you like and hand it to them when you start, but if not an old t-shirt or even a bin bag that you can discard once you’ve cleared the masses is a good alternative.
Most large races have designated start zones for each predicted finish time range. Keep an eye out for these well in advance.
Race Line Up
You should already know where your start area is (if your race has split start zones) so make your way there and try to find yourself a good position where you don’t feel crowded and you can move around a bit.
You might want to stick to the sides so you can see your friends, but be careful of barriers used to line the course as they can have metal feet that stick out which you could trip up on.
To warm up or not to warm up?
Unless you’re an elite, it’s not really worth warming up, and you might not have a choice to anyway if your starting zone is tight! You could do a few strides (50m or so easy sprints) before you head to your zone, but in all honesty you would be safe treating the first mile or so of your race as a warm up. After all, you will be running for at least 2 hours!
Often it is best to just aim for a steady, even pace in a marathon. You could try to go for a negative split (second half run faster than the first) but this can be risky as you begin to feel tired. It is almost always best just to start off at a pace that feels slow, take a checkpoint and adjust as necessary. It it so, so easy to get carried away with the crowd and a fast first mile could make you feel great and might feel easy, but it could start to wear on you as you continue with your race.
If you have a GPS watch, take the readings with a pinch of salt – they have been known to do weird things at marathons. For example at London there can be a few black spots where your watch won’t register you at all! It is ultimately a matter of personal preference, but a simple stopwatch and pace band may be your best bet. Having said that, I didn’t wear my GPS watch for my marathon and missed every minute of every mile! And if you’re like me, you’ll probably want to upload your data to whatever site you used and analyse it for hours after the race! If you want to wear it, wear it – but keep an eye on the mile markers for pacing as well.
The over-ruling factor here is RUN TO FEEL. If you feel awful, hold back, if you feel great – take a reality check! If you still feel great, maybe you can pick up the pace. If you’ve been practising your race pace in training it should feel natural, so go with it!
A Race of Two Halves
It has often been said that a marathon is “a race of two halves”… a 20 miler, and a 10k at the end. This is probably the best advice I was given when it comes to the actual race itself. You will probably feel absolutely fine, even good, up until around 20 miles. This is when the hard part comes. The final 10k is a test of your mental strength and sheer determination. You will probably hurt (there’s no point dancing around the subject!) and you may well feel like giving up – but you won’t give up! This is where you need to put your mental strategies into place. In Part 5 we talked about mantras, these can be great to keep you focused when things start to feel tough.
Other ways to keep mentally strong in the final 6.2 miles are:
- Interact with the crowd: chances are you have your name on your race vest, if you do people will shout it out! And when they do, acknowledge them – even if it’s just a nod of the head or a wave of your hand – this very act will make you feel so much better… like a rock star! Ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it does help!
- Visualise finishing the race: imagine what it’s going to feel like crossing the finish line, how you will feel, what it will look like, what it will smell like, what you will see. Picture yourself running across it.
- Think of your loved ones and supporters: when times get tough, it’s who we love that pull us through. Picture your husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, mum, dad, son, daughter, friend, dog! Whoever it is that motivates you, think of them and picture them cheering you on right now.
- Remember your cause: so many people run for charity these days – if you are raising in memory of someone, or to raise money for a particular cause, use this to draw on in these final miles. It will help spur you on.
- Relaxation techniques: these can include focusing different parts of your body in turn and actively relaxing them. Start at your face muscles and work your way down – pulling silly faces is optional but may help! Another way to relax is to focus on your breathing pattern, in for a certain number of steps, and out for a certain number of steps.
Try as few or as many of these as you like – whatever works for you, do it!
This might seem like an obvious thing to say, but this is YOUR race – enjoy it! Take it all in: the crowds, the landscape, the fellow runners, the different charities, the messages on people’s running vests. Absorb it and live for it. When I ran my first marathon a doom and gloom cloud came over me when I realised I was falling behind pace. For this reason, the second half of my race was like a complete blur. I lost sight of what was important and regret it to this day. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself and just run, jog, walk – whatever you do best!
The Finish Line
I’m not going to talk about sprint finishes as ultimately you’ll either have it in you or you won’t. Some people advise against it, saying you’re likely to injure yourself, but as long as you don’t pull up to quickly you should be able to increase pace gradually without injury. Do whatever feels right – just get over the line!
As you cross that all important finish line, try not to just stop dead. Slow to a jog, and then walk if you can. It can feel quite disorientating when you’ve finished a marathon, or any race for that matter! You end up being shuttled into a funnel of sorts, and people are coming up to you: putting medals over your head, wrapping you in tin foil, handing you bananas and bottles of water, cutting off your timing chip. Just go with the flow and follow the instructions of the marshalls… you’ll find your way out eventually!
Taking a slow, gentle walk of around a mile or so after you’ve finished can really help to flush your legs out and ease aches and pains you may have picked up along the way. It might even help to prevent the dreaded DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) the next day.
Drink some water, have a snack – there’s a reason races hand out bananas after a race: they’re fantastic! If you begin to feel at all unwell, seek out the help of a marshall – they will get help if you need it. If your charity has an after party – go to it! You might be lucky enough to get a post-race massage, snacks and a warm welcome when you get there.
After you’ve finished, take the time to reflect on your achievement. You may just have a single fleeting moment before you meet up with your friends and family, if you have people watching you. Take it all in – YOU JUST RAN A MARATHON!
The final part of Spring into a Marathon will focus on recovery and how to ease yourself back in to training – don’t miss this last part of the series!
- Higdon, H., 2011. Marathon The Ultimate Training Guide. New York, Rodale Inc. Pages 178-229.