When you’re right in the middle of training, it’s easy to go on autopilot for a while. But as race day draws near, runners often begin to feel the full weight of their marathon goal. It’s that moment when you recognize you’re really going to do this: run 26.2 miles on foot, preferably without stopping.
Rest assured, you aren’t alone if you experience fear, uncertainty, and maybe even dread. These feelings are completely natural, and you can make it to race day with confidence by paying attention to the milestones and issues you’ll face in the final month or 6 weeks.
6 Weeks to 2 Weeks Out from Goal Race
This 4-week block is a critical time in your training. It is also the point when runners begin to question if their goals are attainable. This is totally normal. At this point in your training, aches and pains, accompanied by cumulative fatigue from training, are beginning to add up. You may ask yourself, “How am I going to manage 26.2 miles at this pace?” This question can set into motion a cascade of self-doubt and negative self-talk. And, as self-fulfilling prophecies go, the less we believe in our abilities, the more likely we are to fall apart on race day.
Why do we get this way? This cycle is usually triggered not by our minds, but by our bodies. Four common culprits can leave a runner feel wholly worn out going into the final block of training.
Most shoes are good for 300–500 miles. Let’s assume you start your training off with a brand-new pair of shoes. You proceed to put 12 weeks of training on that pair of shoes. That could easily be 400 miles—or more, depending on your plan—and you still have six weeks to go! So if you feel aches and pains starting to pop up, first check the mileage on your shoes.
This four-week block is the toughest part of the training. The key workouts you’re doing these days are the hardest and the mileage is the highest. It probably is the most running you have ever done. You are bound to feel a few new aches and pains. Reassure yourself that this is normal and part of the adaptation process—to a point. Be watchful that those part-of-the-process aches and pains don’t turn into injuries.
Some runners have the mindset, “If fast is good, faster is better,” and they run too aggressively early in their training. Over time, this adds up, and at some point, something’s got to give. Remember, you aren’t going into every workout 100 percent recovered, so if you make it harder than it needs to be, you simply dig a hole of fatigue deeper and deeper. You can’t go back in time and run with less intensity, but you can focus on the now. Let your new challenge be to listen to your body and pull back as necessary, especially on easy days.
If you haven’t mastered the basics of recovery yet, now’s the time you will really feel the lack. Put energy into your recovery, making sure that sleeping, rehydrating, and refueling are priorities from here on out.
2 Weeks from Race Day: The Taper
Much of the last two weeks of training is mental. The hay is in the barn, so to speak, and now it’s all about trusting that the magic will happen. Your fitness is there, so you just need to recover from the cumulative fatigue. That is where the taper comes in.
Tapering can be scary. The final two weeks before your race involves reduced mileage and intensity, and brings along with it a fear of the unknown. It’s easy to get spooked. You’ve invested significant time, money, and effort into this event. If it doesn’t go well, then it’s not like a 5K, where you can just find another race the next week. There’s a lot riding on marathon race day. Some common thoughts during the taper period include “I’m going to get fat!” or “I’m going to lose all my fitness!” or “Where did all these aches and pains come from?”
The truth is, you’re probably not gaining weight, you aren’t losing fitness, and you’re not injured. Our minds play tricks on us during this time.
The weeks of training that you did up to now have left your body feeling fatigued. The taper is designed to allow you to fully recover from all your hard training and reap the fitness that you’ve gained. Tapering is all about adjusting the frequency, intensity, duration, and type of running that you do. And it’s an art as much as a science. Decrease too much at one time and you get sluggish. Decrease too many of the variables for too long and you pass the point of recovering fully and go into detraining, losing those hard-fought fitness gains.
A good taper should be gradual, not drastic. A well-design program should gradually step you down in mileage and intensity so that you don’t shock your body by radically decreasing workload. Here are the taper’s basic guidelines:
- Keep the taper between 10 days and 2 weeks. Longer than that and you get sluggish and risk losing fitness.
- Do your last really hard workout about 7–10 days out.
- Keep the frequency of training days up.
- Reduce your volume by about 25 percent of peak mileage during the first week of the taper and then 40–50 percent the second week (not including the race).
A properly executed taper can yield a performance increase of 0.5 to 3 percent. For a 4-hour marathoner, that puts you at about 3:58 to 3:52. Does this mean that if you are training for a 4-hour marathon that now you can run 3:55 because you tapered? Unfortunately, no. But it will make a pace that felt hard during your tempo runs feel doable in the race. A proper taper that balances workload and rest can leave you feeling like a superhero come race morning.
The Last Few Days
Over the years, the Hansons coaches have adopted the saying “worry early.” What we mean by that is that it is important to tend to race-day details in advance to limit unnecessary stress on the big day. You’ve committed to 18 or more weeks of hard training, early mornings, skipped social events, and other sacrifices; don’t blow it by neglecting to iron out the particulars of the race well in advance.
There is no strategy that will completely eliminate race-day nerves, but there are certain steps that can put you ahead of those who aren’t prepared. From your pre-race meal to where you’ll meet your family at the finish to what shoes you’re going to wear, planning ahead will go a long way toward keeping you calm when it matters. Going into race weekend, your plan should be rehearsed and ready to be put into motion. When you’re relaxed at the start line, you’re less likely to make mistakes in the early stages of the race, keeping you focused and ready to follow protocol.
Don’t underestimate the amount of planning a marathon requires. Consider the following factors as you make your arrangements prior to race morning, remembering that your marathon will only be as good as your pre-race preparation, whether that is the training itself or getting to the start line on time.
Spectators (a.k.a. Support Crews)
Most marathoners welcome a friendly face along the course. Not only does it break up the monotony, it also gives you something to look forward to as you grind through the miles. Review the course map and figure out the best plan for friends and family to view the race. Not only do you want your fans and supporters to see you as much as they can, but it can also be a help to you. When my wife ran the Boston Marathon, I took the train out to the 16-mile mark. Ahead of time, we’d figured out where I’d stand so she knew what side of the road I’d be on. When she saw me, she tossed me the empty fuel bottles she was carrying and I gave her two new ones. This allowed her to get the fluids she wanted without carrying more than necessary, in addition to a few important words of encouragement.
Study the Course
Know the course. If your race is local, consider running sections of the course so you know what to expect come race day. Training on the route lets you learn the turns, the hills, and other details. With familiarity comes calm and control. The elite athletes in the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project often travel to the location of an upcoming race in order to run the course a few times before the big day. Doing this early in the training segment allows us to alter what and where we do our training to be fully prepared for the course. If you don’t have the luxury of running the course prior to competition, check the official marathon website, YouTube, and the blogosphere for course tours, an elevation profile, and other insights.
Use the evening before the race to get organized. Your race bag should be packed and ready to go, the timing chip already fastened to your shoe-laces, your clothes laid out, and your water bottle full. When you head to bed, sleep may be fairly hard to come by. Don’t fret if you are tossing and turning; you should have banked plenty of rest over the past 10 days.
If you do find yourself awake, consider grabbing an evening snack, like a meal replacement bar or protein shake with carbohydrates in it. While this isn’t necessary, the body burns through about half of the glycogen stored in the liver during the overnight hours. By eating a late-night snack, you further reduce how much you need to replace in the morning, potentially avoiding stomach upset. If you tend to get especially nervous right before a race, this is a good way to consume calories before the jitters set in. Instead of needing 300–500 calories in the morning, you may be able to reduce that to just 100–200 calories to top off glycogen stores.
Adapted from Hansons First Marathon: Step Up to 26.2 the Hansons Way by Luke Humphrey, with permission of VeloPress.