The Finishing Touches
by Pete Pfitzinger, M.S.
If you are running a fall marathon, chances are that you are wondering whether you have done everything you can to prepare optimally. Following are a number of specific steps that you can take to eliminate the element of surprise from your marathon and ensure that your body can handle the demands of 26.2 miles.
- Learn as much as you can about the course.Find out if there are any significant uphills or downhills and where they occur in the marathon. Ask whether the marathon tends to be windy, and which sections are likely to have a headwind. Try to design your long runs to prepare for the nuances of the course.
- Prepare for the downhills. Veteran marathoners know that while uphills may be difficult, it is the downhills that will kill you. When running downhill, your muscles work eccentrically to resist the force of gravity, which causes microscopic muscle damage, and makes it more difficult to maintain your pace later in the race. The muscle damage from downhill running also causes inflammation and delayed-onset muscle soreness, which is why you need to walk downstairs backward for several days afterward. By incorporating downhills into your training and focusing on increasing your leg turnover and not leaning back, you can improve your downhill running technique, which will reduce the braking action and subsequent muscle soreness.
- Start to taper your training.It is almost always optimal to do your last very long run three weeks before your marathon. For experienced marathoners this would be 18 to 22 miles.
After your last long run, taper your training and focus mentally and physically on the marathon. The following two guidelines will help you design an effective taper: 1) Each hard day should be followed by two easy days; and 2) Both the hard days and easy days should decrease in volume as the race gets closer. A useful rule of thumb is to run 70–80 percent of your peak mileage the third week before your marathon, 50–60 percent the second week, and 30–40 percent for the six days leading up to your marathon.
- Find a comfortable place to stay. The importance of accommodations where you can relax is easily overlooked until you have the unfortunate experience of finding yourself on the first floor of a motel on a busy highway. Check with the race organizers or other runners to ensure you find a quiet, comfortable place to stay that is convenient to the start of the race.
- Practice drinking on the run.Taking in fluids and carbohydrates during the marathon is probably the most overlooked aspect of race preparation. Many runners have poor technique and can only take a swig if they stop to drink. With a little practice, you can master the art of drinking on the run.
Setting up cups at the track or on a short running loop provides a convenient way to practice drinking. It is important to practice while running at about marathon pace. If volunteers will be handing out water during the race, then have someone hand you cups during your practice sessions. Slow down slightly and try to move your arm back as you grab the cup so you don’t hit the cup at full speed. Squeeze the top of the cup closed so the liquid doesn’t slosh out, and take a swig. Take a couple of normal breaths between sips. When you’re done, accelerate back to marathon pace.
- Get used to race pace.Too many marathoners neglect to get used to their goal marathon pace. During the last month before your marathon, you should do at least two runs at your marathon race pace (MRP). Many runners find it helpful to do a run of six to 12 miles at MRP two or three weeks before the marathon to help learn what the correct speed feels like. As a final reminder not to go out too hard in the marathon, I recommend running about seven miles four days before the marathon with three miles at MRP.
- Make sure your racing shoes are up for the task. Regardless of whether you plan on wearing racing shoes or trainers, make sure to check that they are ready to carry you 26.2 miles. Your old reliable shoes may have broken down and lost much of their conditioning and support. If you will be wearing a new pair, then you should test them out in a tune-up race or tempo run as well as a long run. An important factor in deciding between racing flats or trainers is that racing shoes almost always have a substantially lower heel lift than training shoes and your calf muscles will likely rebel if you ask them to work through an increased range of motion more than 25,000 times during the marathon. A more supportive, but reasonably lightweight, shoe will generally be worth the extra couple of ounces.
- Reward yourself with a massage.Your weeks of marathon preparation have no doubt made some of your muscles tight and prone to injury. A massage a few weeks before your marathon will help ease those tight muscles. Just as importantly, a massage will make you aware of your weak links so you can work on them through self-massage and stretching. These steps will help ensure that a muscle spasm or strain doesn’t prevent you from reaching your goal.
- Pack and prepare for all possible weather conditions.Have you ever gone to a race and been caught off-guard by the weather? I have, and it is most likely to occur in the fall and spring, when most major marathons are scheduled. You should never allow yourself to be caught ill-prepared for marathon-day weather. Bring hats, gloves, rain gear, wind gear, and anything else you may need to be ready for whatever Mother Nature may throw your way.
Two-time Olympian Pete Pfitzinger is an exercise physiologist.