There aren’t many pops of adrenaline like the one you get after realizing both your alarms failed to ring the morning of a marathon. Your eyes peek open, you notice the LED lights creeping toward a time long after the one you wanted to see, you hop out of bed, and the morning starts with a slurry of expletives.
Last April, two hours before the Big Sur International Marathon, this is how my morning began. I didn’t have time to fully slip on shoes as I sprinted out the hotel door in the pre-dawn darkness. I made the bus to the starting line with one minute to spare, totally unsure if I had packed both running shoes in my bag. I was flustered with a hummingbird heart rate. This, all coaches agree, is about the worst way to begin marathon morning.
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Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if you’ve spent almost four months training—sacrificing Friday nights for Saturday morning long runs, testing fueling strategies that won’t piss off your GI tract, wearing in the perfect pair of shoes. In the week leading up to the race, there is not much you can do to get fitter. There are, however, several things you can do to screw up race day. Here, running coach and founder of StrengthRunning.com, Jason Fitzgerald, tells you what you should and should not do the seven days before the starting gun goes off.
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One Week Before the Race: DON’T
Test your fitness: You are in as good a shape as you will be for the race, Fitzgerald says. Any hard effort you put in will only cause your legs to fatigue more. “A lot of runners end up doing their easy runs too fast while tapering,” he says. The taper is designed to make your legs feel fresh. You’ll start itching to see what they are capable of. Rein them in until race day.
Stay up late: According to Fitzgerald, the night before the marathon is not the most important for sleep. You need to focus on the two and three nights out to get the best shut-eye. He recommends giving up alcohol several days before the start, and trying to sleep up to 30 minutes to an hour earlier than you normally would.
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One Week Before the Race: DO
Take it easy, seriously: You don’t want any lingering fatigue in your legs the morning before the race, so any running you do this week should be relaxed, Fitzgerald says. “Anything you do the week before the marathon should be to maintain fitness and feel the best that you can, not putting yourself in any sort of fatigued position.”
Fine-tune your outfit: Your running shoes should be well worn-in by now, but this is the time to test your race-day outfit. If you’ve purchased that flashy new singlet or want to wear a hat with your name on it, bring it out on a few easy runs, just to ensure nothing rubs the wrong way.
Check the weather: Forecasts can change on a daily basis, so don’t put too much credence in predictions several days out. But, you do want to have a general idea of temperature and precipitation so you can start preparing a race outfit to match the weather.
Plan your pre-race dinner: If you are traveling for the race, research restaurants that offer food that will agree with your stomach. Nearby Italian joints will book up fast around major city marathons, so be sure to make reservations several days out.
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The Day Before the Race: DON’T
Fret about sleep: Nobody sleeps well the night before a marathon. Don’t sweat it. You should have banked a few extra hours in the week before, so even if you are popping awake in a nervous sweat every few hours, you should be fine.
Be a tourist: “I see this at the Boston Marathon every year,” Fitzgerald says. “People will spend all this time at the expo then walk on Newberry Street and the finish line. It’s a great weekend to be in Boston.” Except, hours before you run a marathon is not the time to soak in the sights. Arrive a few days early or suffer through sore legs a few days after if you want to take in the scenery. You need to stay off your feet as much as possible the day before.
Try the new Indian joint: Or for that matter,
any unfamiliar food. Play your pre-race dinner as safe as possible, aiming for
foods that you’ve already tested during training. “Street meat is not good,”
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The Day Before the Race: DO
Lay your race outfit next to the bed: “You want to do as much as possible to de-stress the marathon,” Fitzgerald says. That starts with preparation the day and night before the race. Having all your gear ready to go makes it that much easier the next morning, when you have to fumble in the dark to pull on your clothes.
Set multiple alarms: Your trusty phone alarm may have worked perfectly for years, and yet somehow, it seems to find a way to malfunction the one time it cannot.
Skip the expo (if you can): “I know expos are like Disney World for nerdy runners,” Fitzgerald says. Don’t be tempted by the stacks of shoes and aisles of free swag. Get in, get your bib, and get out. Hours wandering by all the booths will only add to the fatigue in your legs. Testing out the latest milk-based energy smoothie may cause your stomach to roil. Better to save the expo for two days before the race, ot spend as little time as possible navigating through the hordes.
Eat protein and light carbs: Your pre-race meal should be easy to digest and fast-acting. Fitzgerald prefers a lighter cut of meat like chicken and fish, a vegetable, and a light pasta without cream sauce. The idea that gorging on carbs until you burst will help you run better is a myth, so don’t over do it at the table.
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The Morning Before the Race: DON’T
Get too excited: You want to be less Rocky Balboa and more Mr. Miyagi in the hours before the gun goes off. This is not the time to blast your favorite pump-up playlist. Instead, Fitzgerald likes to joke around and stay as relaxed as possible. “The first 20 miles of a marathon should be boring,” he says. Too much adrenaline in the corral and you risk starting out too fast, which is one of the worst racing mistakes you can make.
Try and hold it: That niggling feeling that you may have to use the restroom should not be ignored in the hours before the race. Make sure everything has passed out of your system before heading to the corral, otherwise you may expect a pit stop inside a gross porta-potty a few miles in.
Stress about a crowded course: Your first miles should be relaxed anyway, Fitzgerald says, so there is no sense in trying to weave your way around people in the corral or during the first portion of the race. Don’t stress, take a deep breath, and be relaxed until the field settles.
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The Morning Before the Race: DO
Eat a substantial breakfast: “You can get away with eating a banana and then running a 5K, but you will need more to run a marathon,” Fitzgerald says. He prefers a bowl of oatmeal, a banana, and some sort of energy bar.
Wake up as late as possible: That is usually three hours before the start, Fitzgerald says. You want enough time to digest breakfast, but also get as much sleep as possible.
Complete a short, dynamic warmup: The vast majority of marathoners don’t need to do any warmup running before a marathon, Fitzgerald says. But he likes to prime the joints and muscles by doing five to ten minutes of dynamic stretching in the corral a few minutes before the start.
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