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Pre-Race Comments for Marathoners

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Most who are preparing to run a fall marathon in the next few weeks are either into or approaching their taper. I thought it might be helpful to touch on a few points that should apply to each of us as we go through our last minute preparations for our race. This isn't intended to be a complete script for preparing for and running a marathon. But, I would like to offer a brief pre-race checklist and a few things to keep in mind during the race.

Pre-race tips:

1. Set multiple race goals.....I believe in setting multiple goals for every race I run. This allows a "success range", rather than a single win/lose goal that you either meet or not. I suggest setting a primary goal based on what your training/racing tells you that you should realistically be capable of doing. Be honest with yourself. Don't let what you would like to do cloud your objectivity. Then, set another goal on either side of the primary one. One for the worst performance that you would be satisfied with if things go wrong or you run into bad race conditions. And another closer to the best you think you might be able to do if everything clicks perfectly. Design your race strategy around the primary goal. And, plan ahead to adjust your race strategy "on the run" after you are into your race, based on how your race unfolds.

2. Potassium-load.....Everyone is aware of the importance of eating lots of carbs and hydrating well in the last days leading up to your race. Not so widely known is the value of potassium-loading for marathons. Running low on potassium and other minerals, especially magnesium, which you lose through perspiration.....even in cold weather.....and the consumption of fluids by muscles to generate energy can contribute to muscle cramps late in the race. Extra potassium/magnesium stores going into the race delays the point where they run low and reduces the need to replenish them during the race from sports drinks and gels. Choose extra servings of potassium rich foods, such as bananas, oranges, spinach and other dark green vegetables, etc., during the last few days before your race. I also like to take a potassium supplement for 4-5days before a marathon....a tip I got from a prolific marathoner who is also a pharmacist.

3. Regimen for the last 36 hours.....It's more important to eat a high carb dinner and get a good night's sleep two nights before the race than the night before the race. It's best to eat a low fiber, light meal the night before the race to minimize the risk of "intestinal distress" during the race. If you do attend the customary pre-race pasta dinner the night before the race, go easy with it. Don't feel that you have to cram in as many last minute carbs as you can. Most of the fuel your body is going to draw on during the race is already stored away. What you eat 12-24 hours before the race won't add to it. In other words, your glycogen stores should already be maxed. And "overloading" the night before the race can lead to pit stops due to "intestinal distress" during the race. You only need to eat enough at this point to fuel your body through the night while you sleep. On race morning, what you consume the last couple of hours before the race and during it will contribute to your blood sugar level and supplement your stored fuel.

Race execution checklist:

1. "If I'm not concerned during the first 10 miles that I'm running too slowly, then I'm running too fast." Make this your last thought about your race execution when the gun goes off. And, keep it in mind through the first half of the race. It will go a long way toward keeping you from the most common marathon mistake....going out too fast. You will be pumped on race day. Lots of activity will be going on all around you. You will be excited. Your adrenaline will be flowing. I can guarantee that, because of your taper and adrenaline flow, the pace upon which your race strategy should be based will feel too slow in the early going....but it isn't. So, run the first 10 miles "too slowly". Any faster and you will pay a big price later in the race. Believe me, no matter how many times you hear that and think you understand the message, it's still very easy to be seduced into starting out faster than we should on race morning. I know....I did it for several marathons before I finally got it right. It's very easy to run the first half of a marathon 10-20 seconds/mile....or more....faster than you should and die in the last 6 miles. It's probably the single most common reason for disappointing marathons.

2. After a conservative start, permit yourself to start working harder in the middle of the race. A wise race strategy is based on negative splits. If you execute your wise strategy wisely, the first 1/3 to 1/2 of the race will be a little slower than your average race goal pace. Not a lot slower, though. 5-10 sec/mile slower than your planned average pace is good. Any more than that and it will be difficult to make it up in the mid and late stages of the race. (Of course, remember that course terrain/topography affects specific pacing.) And, if you wait too late to start increasing your pace, you won't be able to pick it up enough to reach your realistic goal. If you start properly, you should be quite comfortable at 10-13 miles. So, start gradually increasing the pace so that by miles 18-20 you are working fairly hard, but not struggling, and prepare to race the last 10k.

3. Push the last 5-6 miles hard by running on your upper body. No, I don't mean to invert yourself. By the time you are beyond 20 miles, your lower body will probably be in or approaching an advanced state of rebellion....maybe even the point of shutdown. If you still feel reasonably strong and in control of your pace at this point, congratulations.....you have run an excellent race to this point and are in an ideal position to run the last few miles like a hard 10k. Or, you might be starting to really struggle, especially if you forgot to start "too slowly" and ran the first part just a little too fast. Regardless of your condition, you can get the most out of your last few miles by staying relaxed, concentrating on your upper body and trying to ignore everything below the waist. Stay erect with your hips forward. Slumping forward at the waist, which we tend to do as we tire, decreases running efficiency and "squeezes the lungs", which restricts oxygen intake. Most important, if you can maintain, or increase, your arm swing, your legs must follow....no matter how they feel. So, keep your upper body relaxed and your arms swinging loosely. One way to do this is to concentrate on keeping your hands and jaw loose. The rest of your upper body will follow suit and you will be able to more easily and smoothly control your arm swing without tiring the upper body. Staying relaxed and pushing hard might sound like an oxymoron, but it really works. When the finish line is in sight, pump the arms to force your rebelling legs into a finishing kick.

4. Finally, don't miss any opportunity to drink both water and sports drink that are offered on the course. Drink both as early and as often as they are available. This, along with not running the first half too fast, are the most important things to do in any marathon, whether it's your first or hundredth. It will not only provide the replacement hydration, fuel, minerals and electrolytes you need to maintain the pace late in the race, but it will help to avoid the dreaded late-race muscle cramps.

Hope some of this is of benefit to someone. It's the last minute checklist I always use before a marathon. So, writing it is a good refresher for me. It's too late by the time we are in the last few days of the taper to worry about whether we did all the right things to prepare. That's past. We are as physically prepared as we are going to get. But, the job isn't over yet. Now, the focus must be ahead on getting the most out of where we are.....and enjoying it, of course.

Good luck to all in your marathons!!