Top 10 tips to prepare for a marathon

The marathon season is pretty much upon us, with London, Paris, Brighton and Edinburgh and many more fast approaching, and there are ever more people pounding the streets and treadmills, trying to get in those final miles before the big day.

Runners cross Tower Bridge during the 2008 Flora London Marathon.

But it isn’t just about keeping to the training plan – you don’t want all your work to go to waste because you’ve neglected the other details. Having had this conversation a lot in the last few weeks, I thought I’d share some of my 10 top tips* to make sure you’re race ready here:

* Obviously the main prep for a marathon is your training, if you haven’t got one then it’s probably too late for the spring marathon season! Make sure you keep to it and taper properly before your race rather than being tempted to keep cramming in the miles to make up for lost runs.

1. Practice, practice, practice. Use your long runs to practice for race day – plan now what you’ll wear, what you’ll eat and drink before and during the race (and where you’ll carry it) and start practicing it all now. You don’t want to get to the start line and find your trousers are falling down with the weight of the gels in your pocket (I speak from experience!). And you don’t want to find that nice charity top you’ve been sent to run in really starts chaffing half way in.

What to eat and drink

2. Pre race dinner – have something fairly simple with lots of carbs, pasta is a good one, and (you won’t often hear me say this one) stay away from anything with too much fibre because you want your stomach to be as settled as possible. Don’t be tempted to over-eat though, you don’t want to wake up still feeling stuffed. Make sure you’re well hydrated and get an early night.

3. Race day breakfast again, have something with lots of carbs (around 80% of the calories in the meal) and not too much fibre. Stay away from too much protein and fat as they take longer to digest. Stay away from anything very sweet that will give you a short-term sugar high followed by a sugar low before you start running.

My personal preferred option is muesli (soaked in milk the night before to soften it if I want something easy to swallow and on my stomach, topped up with more milk in the morning). Other traditional options are bagels with peanut butter and/or banana, porridge with milk and fruit, or yogurt and toast with jam. If you know your stomach suffers on a run then liquid carbs (e.g. smoothies) can give you quick-to digest carbs, but have them well in advance so it’s not all sloshing around when you run (see below). You’ll probably have a spot of pre-race nerves so keep it simple. If you don’t normally have pasta for breakfast then today is not the day to try it! (Yup, I’ve done that one as well!) And as with everything, practice different options before your long runs so you know what, and what time, works for you.

4. When to eat – The ideal time for a pre-race meal is about four hours before so there’s time to digest but late enough that this energy won’t be used up by race time. But this is often not practical on race day, and you may be able to get away with 2 hours before. If you’re eating 4 hours before you want about 1000 calories, if you’re going for two hours before the start then aim for 300 to 400 calories (this is very approximate, actual numbers are dependent on your weight and race distance, but I think it’s more important to go with what feels right than forcing down the calories).

carbsonrun200

Make you’ve got enough gels, and enough pockets!

5. Energy on the run – Your body can only store enough energy (on average) for 90 minutes of exercise, so if you want to avoid ‘bonking’ or ‘hitting the wall’ you’ll probably want to use some gels. These are little sachets of sweet goo (or easily digestible carbohydrates) that you sip straight from the packet. Some of them have caffeine or other wonder products added. Again, try out various options on your longer runs to see what works for you (the directions on the packet will tell you how many you’ll need). On the race day you might want to time them just before the water stations so you can wash them down.

6. Drinking – Make sure you drink enough the day before and on the morning, but don’t overdo it, and sip little and often rather than guzzling. Aim for 500ml of fluid two hours before a run (water, a sports drink or diluted fruit juice) and then just little sips until you start so you don’t need to go to the toilet as soon as you set off (and make sure you leave plenty of time to go before the race, don’t underestimate the big queues!).

On the run just little sips but fairly often (if you’re not carrying water then try to remember when the water stops are) – from a comfort point of view you don’t want to drink more than you need. If it’s hot and you are drinking a lot you might want to add some rehydration tablets to the water (although if you’re using gels, they should do the job for you).

bridge7. Pre race prep – Look at the route in advance so you know how often the water stations are, whether they have toilets etc, and also to get a feel for the course so you know when you’re on the homeward straight. Work out your journey in advance and get there early to you’ve got time for last minute panics, and a warm up and some dynamic stretching. Get your stuff ready the night before, some things not to forget:

  • Race number and race chip (unless you pick these up on arrival, in which case do you need ID?) and safety pins (for race number)
  • Check the weather to make sure you’ll be wearing suitable clothes
  • Gels, water for before (and during if you like to carry your own)
  • Optionals: Sun cream, clothes and shoes to change into after, money, bum bag/arm bag etc to carry gels, phone etc, watch/ HR monitor/ GPS, an old top, or even a bin bag, to wear over your race gear and dump it in a bin at the start

8. Know your pace  – You should know your pace by now from your training runs. Work up from that rather than decide you want to a sub three hour finish and set your pace from that. Ideally you want to stick to your pace for the whole race (or if anything, finish faster than you started), if you go out too fast you’ll really stuggle by the end. If you’re planning to walk-run the race then make sure you’ve praticed this on your training runs. Many have pacers but dont rely on them as they can be hard to find, and remember to check they started at the same time as you, big races can take 30 mins to cross the start line so you dont want to stick with someone, only to find their finish time is based on a different start time.

9. Get the support crew sorted – If you’re lucky enough to have support crew  coming down, make sure you know where they’ll be on the course, tell them your approximate pace so they know when you’ll be coming through, and tell them what you’ll be wearing. That way hopefully they can spot you and you’ll spot them. If you haven’t got anyone you know watching, try writing your name on your front, you’ll be amazed how much support you get from the crowd, and what a boost it will give you.

10. Relax and enjoy it! – You’ve worked really hard to get this far, now just relax, and soak it all in.

Post race, make sure you get some carbs and protein (up to 20 grams) 20 mins – 1 hour after the end of the race (a recovery drinks or bar is often easiest). And enough water – at least around 500ml in the first 30 minutes after the run and then keep sipping little and often. Try and do a gentle recovery run, or failing that, at least some stretching and foam rolling. And then sit back, feel very proud of yourself and start planning the next one! 

What do you think? Have I missed off any big ones? Share your top tips, or things you wish you’d thought of, below.

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