The final week before a marathon can be a daunting experience for many runners, so we've collated a list of 5 ways to help make sure you're prepared for running 26 miles & 385 yards (or 41.195km)...
The Do's and Don'ts
When you get into the final week before your marathon the hard work should essentially already be in the bag.
Anything you get up to in those final days should be focused on allowing you to express your fitness level to the best of your current ability on the day, nothing more adventurous or ambitious than that. Let's face it, miraculous improvements in your raw ability are highly unlikely to materialise in the last week.
But, there are plenty of pitfalls that can be avoided to ensure you do get to the start line in solid shape and with the best chance of achieving the time you want.
Here are a few do's and don'ts for those final days leading up to race day. They're based on what science has to say on the subject, with a healthy dose of practical experience from myself and, more importantly, from noted marathon running experts Martin Yelling (Marathon Talk) and Mario Fraioli (The Morning Shakeout), who were kind enough to share some of their hard-won insights with me.
The importance of sleep before a marathon
Nerves, dodgy hotel beds, time zone changes and an unsociably early wake-up call are just a few of things that might disrupt things on the last night and most are pretty hard to control.
Instead of worrying about these factors, I've always advised focusing on getting a really solid couple of nights' kip in 2-3 days out in order to ‘bank’ some sleep.
Mario Fraioli also agreed with this, saying "do what you can to stockpile sleep in the week or two leading up to your event, knowing that travel and/or nerves might prevent you from sleeping soundly the night or two before your race. Those one or two nights won't have a huge effect on your race, if any at all, if you're appropriately rested otherwise.”
I know that I’ve definitely experienced some shocking nights of sleep before big races in the past, yet still performed just fine on the day, probably in part due to not being too sleep deprived in the run up to the night before.
And there appears to be some scientific evidence to back this idea up. Proven ways to improve your sleep quality (not just applicable to the final days before a race) include:
- Going to bed early enough and at a regular time each night.
- Keeping your bedroom dark and cool (~18-19 C / 65 F).
- Avoiding using mobile devices immediately before bedtime and in bed itself.
- Avoiding caffeine and alcohol in the 4 hours prior.
- Reading a book before you crash out.
If you really want the lowdown on sleep science Why We Sleep by noted scientist Matthew Walker is highly recommended, maybe even as bed-time reading...
How to carbo-load
Your body can store ~500g of glycogen (mainly in your muscles and liver) and this is a critical fuel tank that gets used up when running a marathon. When it runs out completely, ‘hitting the wall’ can be the unfortunate consequence.
Most early protocols for carbo-loading were based on the work of a Swedish researcher called Gunvar Ahlborg. His advice included a "depletion phase" a few days before a race, where dietary carbohydrates were cut back and long runs were done on water alone to empty your tanks. Once you had really bottomed out of glycogen (and were presumably feeling like death incarnate and were falling out with everyone around you due to low blood sugar levels...) you went on a pasta and bread binge to re-stock and ‘super compensate’ with extra high glyocgen stores in time for the race.
More recent research has cast doubt over whether this "depletion phase" is truly beneficial, mainly given the drawbacks of feeling like crap for 2-3 days before a race. The consensus nowadays definitely leans more towards the idea that simply increasing your overall carbohydrate intake in the days leading up to a race is more than adequate for most athletes.
You should be tapering down your training in the final week and therefore using up less stored glycogen anyway, so a single extra serving of carbs with most main meals in the final 48 hours ought to be enough to make sure you toe the line topped up, but not bloated and excessively heavy.
“Don’t try to win the pasta party” is how Virgin Money London Marathon running coach Martin Yelling put it, citing the all-too-common trend for athletes to go a little bit crazy with overeating at the pre-race banquet, especially if it's an 'all you can eat' buffet!
If you know that you struggle with pre-race meals, then making sure you have a carbohydrate-based main evening meal on both of the two evenings before is a very sensible plan.
A secondary benefit to carb-loading - other than the effect it can have on stored energy levels - is that, for every molecule of glycogen you retain, 1-3 molecules of water are also held in the body. There's a plausible theory that once you start to burn through your glycogen stores, the water is released and becomes useful to your body to offset your sweat losses. So carbo loading can also indirectly help your hydration status on race day.
How much to drink
You’re going to sweat a lot running a marathon - even in moderate temperatures - so starting optimally hydrated is very important.
However - unlike with muscle glycogen - there's a very limited amount of ‘extra’ water you can hold onto over and above what's normally in your body on a daily basis.
So, whilst increasing fluid intake in the final few days is a good idea to an extent, if you find yourself peeing crystal clear urine and visiting the toilet a lot, it could well be that you're over doing it. Over drinking can potentially be bad news for performance and health, and a nasty condition called hyponatremia can be the ultimate consequence.
One viable tactic that can work really well before a marathon to increase your hydration levels is something called "sodium preloading". I’ve written about how to start hydrated and why that's important in more detail before but, in short, it involves taking in some extra sodium in the final 24 hours before your race. This is what our 1,500mg electrolyte supplements were primarily designed for.
This helps your body retain more water in your bloodstream and top up your tanks before the start. It's especially useful for those with a higher sweat rate, for crampers, for older athletes and for anyone competing in hot or humid conditions. For some personalised hydration advice on what, when and how much to drink before, during and after a marathon, take our free online Sweat Test.
We used this tactic a few years ago with Mike Ellicock, whom I helped to pace to a marathon world record whilst carrying a 40lb (18kg) military-style backpack. He ran 3 hours 25 minutes and change - an impressive effort with that kind of weight on your back! Preloading is something lots of our athletes have success with and it helped Mike to drink less than he otherwise would have needed to on the day and meant he was still in good shape when we met Richard Branson at the finish line...
How to taper for a marathon
Getting to race day feeling rested, relaxed and 100% ready is often an art as much as it is a science.
Every athlete and - to a degree - every race build-up is different, so a high degree of individualisation comes into planning your pre-marathon taper. Which makes the topic beyond the scope of this blog, but I'll give you my high-level take on tapering...
The starting point of most traditional tapering strategies encompass the fairly universal themes of reducing training volume - sometimes quite dramatically - whilst maintaining (or even increasing) the intensity of key runs in the last week or two.
Mario's advice is to “keep the rhythm of your workouts leading up to race day. Remember, there's no appreciable fitness to gain in the 10-14 days before your event, so no need to do a huge session that'll take you half a week to recover from. But the body craves consistency, so try and do an abbreviated version of your normal workout(s)”.
This is to try to reduce residual fatigue - often a by-product of higher volume training - whilst preventing a significant drop-off in fitness and avoiding the feeling of stale/soggy legs that can occur if you back off too much or too soon.
Doing some faster sessions in the final days stimulates your cardiovascular and energy systems whilst also keeping an adequate amount of ‘tension’ in your muscles so that they're responsive and lively on race day and, as a general rule, all of that makes a lot of sense to me.
In the final week before a race I personally feel that one of the most important things is to try to think confidently, no matter how you actually feel and NOT try to test yourself to check how you're going.
Martin Yelling agrees 100% with this, saying that you shouldn't panic in the last week and go out to try to reassure yourself of your fitness level by pushing too hard and clocking impressive times that only you'll ever see.
Believe in the work you’ve done and in your ability to pull it out of the bag on the big day and you won’t run the risk of over-tiring yourself, or picking up a niggling injury by leaving your best miles out on the roads immediately before race day.
Tapering is a meaty topic and we've got five top tips for tapering.
Plan properly and pace yourself
Martin Yelling is a big advocate of a “no surprises” approach to the immediate run up to a marathon and, interestingly, Mario used exactly the same phrase when I asked him what not to do during the final few days.
What I think they both mean by this is that you should definitely not start introducing new things - be it kit, food, drinks, training sessions or anything else that's not tried and tested - in the final weeks before your race. And especially not on race day itself.
Martin cited the example of his wife Liz (a 2 x Olympian and 2 hour 28 minute marathon runner) going as far as taking her own rice cooker to events all over the world to make sure she had access to her preferred pre-race meal, no matter where she was!
Whilst this level of attention to detail might seem a bit excessive for most of us, simply pre-planning all of the major factors like what kit you’re going to wear and what foods and drinks you'll use at least a month or so out from the event is a very good habit to get into. Mario summed this up by saying “Take confidence in your routine and knowing that you're not doing anything that you haven't done - and mastered - before.”
Ok, so now that you've prepared as well as you can for your race, here's a bonus tip to help you avoid one of the common marathon pitfalls, bad pacing...
Pace judgement is a key skill for any endurance athlete to master, but it's never more important than during a marathon.
“Very rarely do you ever hear a marathoner say, "I wish I had gone out a little bit faster"" is the fantastically succinct way Mario put his thoughts on the subject to me and I could not agree with this sentiment more.
The classic pacing error that many athletes fall foul of is, of course, going out too hard in the early miles and then paying the price with a big slowdown later on.
There are many reasons why this happens and understanding them is the first step to putting a plan in place to stop you from doing the same.
Firstly, there's the fact that you'll more than likely be feeling really good once the gun goes off on the day. If you got the taper right, you'll have a lot of energy and this - coupled with the extra adrenaline that'll be flowing through your veins - can dull your sense of effort dramatically. As a result, you can go off considerably faster than you're likely to be able to sustain without noticing it.
The best antidote to this is to not only have a slightly conservative pacing plan for the early miles, but to tell yourself that it should definitely not feel like hard work in the first few minutes. If you're feeling remotely like you're pushing on to begin with, you're probably really overcooking it.
Secondly, there can be a strong temptation to try to get to halfway a little bit ahead of your goal time to give yourself some room to slow down later on and still hit your target. Whilst this feels logical, it’s generally more productive to aim for an even split (i.e. the same time for both halves of the race) or even a negative split (running the first half a touch slower than the second).
Whilst world records and big race wins don't always happen this way (sometimes to make a big breakthrough, or to defeat others, elite athletes have to ‘throw down’ and take some calculated risks with pacing), if you're aiming to put out a ‘safe’ and solid PB then doing it in a conservative manner gives the best odds of success in most instances.
Enjoy your race and do let us know how you get on...