By Jason R. Karp, PhD
originally published in Pace Running Magazine Summer 2014
Most runners start a race without giving much thought as to how they’re going to run the race. They just pay their entry fee and run, without any intention to their actions, hoping for a good result. Running a successful marathon takes knowledge, planning, and execution – and a little courage. When you train smartly and effectively, when you develop and execute your race plan, you will achieve your potential and run a great race you can be proud of. Here are 10 strategies and tips for you to do just that.
10. Run More
Training for a marathon isn’t just about one long run each week; it’s about the total amount of running you do. Although you don’t have to run more than 100 miles per week like the best marathon runners in the world, you still have to run more than you probably are. Many novice runners don’t run enough miles during the week to support the long run on the weekend. You don’t want to run four or five miles for two or three days during the week and then shock your legs with a 15-mile run on Sunday. You may be able to get away with that once or twice, but do that week after week after week and you’re setting yourself up to get hurt. In addition to your long run, do a midweek, medium-long run that’s about 65 to 75 percent of the length (or duration) of your long run.
9. Long Tempo Runs
Long tempo runs (and their sister workout, marathon pace runs) are among the most important workouts of your marathon preparation. Too many runners, especially beginners training for their first marathon, focus too much on just the long run. If nothing else, complementing your long run each week with a long tempo run at a little slower than your tempo pace or at marathon race pace goes a long way (pun intended) toward preparing you for the marathon, both physically and mentally. Don’t neglect the power of the long tempo, which trains you for sustained, faster-paced aerobic running and hardens you mentally to hold a solid aerobic pace for a long time.
8. Work with a Knowledgeable Coach
A knowledgeable coach is the greatest asset you can have as a runner. A coach designs a training program for you, monitors what you’re doing, and motivates and inspires you to do things that you never thought possible. You will see much better results with a coach than you will training on your own.
7. Pace Yourself
Proper pacing is paramount for the marathon. If you start at a pace that’s too far over your head, it will come back to haunt you later in the race, as you run out of precious fuel. I’ve seen too many runners run a strong first half, only to crash and burn in the second half, being relegated to walking and even stopping to stretch and hydrate. The most physiologically efficient way to run a marathon is to run the first and second halves in the same time (or run the second half slightly faster than the first), with as little fluctuation in pace as possible throughout the race.
6. Consume Carbs During the Race
During the marathon, your muscles use carbohydrate at a faster rate than you can replenish blood glucose, but the trick is to try to delay running out of glucose for as long as possible. How you do it is a little bit science and a little bit art. Here are some guidelines:
Consume carbohydrate that’s quickly digestible and easy on your stomach, like gels, gummy bears, and liquid.
Begin ingesting carbohydrate about 30 minutes before you start to feel fatigued, about an hour or so after starting the race, so you can absorb it into your blood and use it for energy. Ingest about 100 to 120 calories (25 to 30 grams) of carbohydrate every 20 to 30 minutes or so to maintain blood glucose levels.
Instead of consuming a whole energy gel packet at once, which is a lot for your stomach to process, consume half at a time and chase it with water to speed digestion. You want to create a steady stream of carbohydrate coming into your blood to delay fatigue.
Dehydration can become a big problem in the marathon. You lose water by sweating much faster than you can replace it by drinking, so you want to do whatever you can to delay dehydration. Your performance begins to decline with just a 2 to 3 percent loss of body weight from fluid loss. As you lose water, your cooling mechanism also starts to fail, increasing your body temperature. If you want to run a better marathon, you must stay properly hydrated. Running slows the absorption of fluid from your stomach, so begin drinking early so the fluid is available later. Drink fluids with sodium because sodium helps you retain water. As a general rule, try to consume 5 to 6 ounces every two miles. If it’s hot or you tend to sweat heavily, drink more.
4. Don’t Do Anything New In The Race
One of the biggest mistakes you can make on race day is to wear brand new shoes. Even if your new shoes are the same type of shoes you’ve been wearing, don’t wear them in the race. Although running shoes are your most important item, don’t wear anything new in the marathon and don’t eat anything different the morning of the race. Practice wearing your clothes and gear well before the race on your long runs and practice different pre-race meals until you are comfortable with everything.
3. Eat Breakfast Before The Race
Unlike shorter races, the marathon challenges your fuel reserves. When you wake up on race morning, your blood glucose is low because it’s been about 9 to 12 hours since you’ve eaten.
Because carbohydrate is your muscles’ primary fuel when you run, you want to go to the starting line as full of carbohydrate as possible. One to two hours before the race, eat 300 to 400 calories of easily digestible carbohydrate and protein such as a nutrition bar, eggs, and toast with jelly. Avoid fiber and fat.
Thinking of running 26.2 miles all at once can be overwhelming, so divide the race into smaller, more manageable segments (each mile or each 5K) and focus on one segment at a time. If you are familiar with the marathon course, you can divide the race into sections based on landmarks, neighborhoods, or areas of the course. Don’t let your head get ahead of you. You can’t do anything about mile 24 when you’re running mile 3. Focus on getting to a certain checkpoint and don’t think about what is beyond that checkpoint until you’ve reached it.
1. Be Positive and Confident
One of the keys to running a marathon successfully, no matter what level of runner you are, is to focus on the task at hand and execute your race plan. It’s often easy to let outside influences or self-imposed pressures become distractions or to let your mind wander during a race. To instead focus on your performance to the exclusion of everything else enables you to perform at your highest level. Remaining positive when things don’t go as planned either before or during your race keeps you calm and helps you run a good race. At the starting line and when you’re in the middle of the race, remove all negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones.
Dr. Jason Karp is a nationally recognized running coach, 2011 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year, and owner of RunCoachJason.com. He holds a Ph.D. in exercise physiology and is founder and coach of REVO2LT Running Team™. He is the author of five books, including “101 Winning Racing Strategies for Runners.”