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Marathon Running Preparation
Practice Makes Perfect

by Claudia Piepenburg - from Road Runner Sports Run Today Newsletter

It’s a good idea to do a trial run a few weeks before your big race on the race course or a simulated course -- this is particularly important for a marathon.

The Marathon Course

Do a trial run on the course if your race is local. If you’re gearing up for a marathon, run just the last 10-12 miles. The purpose of the trial run is to become familiar with the course. You don’t want any surprises on race day! (Like a mile long hill at the 20-mile mark of a marathon or a hairpin turn you weren’t expecting.)

If the race is out-of-town you have two alternatives. Get a course map indicating elevations. Most races, marathons in particular, publish course maps on entry forms. Course maps are also usually published online. Contact the race director if you’re having trouble finding a map. Once you have the map find a course near you that’s similar. If you live in a part of the country that’s flat and part of the course is hilly, you’ll have to improvise – try running the route on a treadmill. On the other hand, if you have the time (and money!) to travel to the race destination city a few days early, you can practice on the real thing!

Do Your Trial Run at Your Pace

Except for the last few hundred yards when you can pick it up, run your trial at the same pace you run your easy days. Remember, this is a run designed to familiarize yourself with the course. It isn’t a time trial.

Know the Marathon Starting Time

Begin your run at race time. If the race starts at 8:00 a.m. and you’re planning on getting up at 6:00a.m. on race day, get up at 6:00 the day of your trial run. DO EVERYTHING ON TRIAL RUN DAY THE SAME AS YOU’LL DO IT ON RACE DAY. In other words, if you’re planning on eating prior to the race, eat before the run. Drink the same liquids you’ll drink on race day. Lay everything out the same way you’ll lay things out on race day. If you’re one of those people who likes to take a shower before the race, take a shower trial run morning. Your objective is to mimic everything on trial run morning you’ll be doing on race day.

A runner asked this question during a pre-race clinic at the 1988 Boston Marathon: "What’s the best way to train for this race?" The answer from an elite athlete on the panel: "Train at noon on a Monday in the middle of April. Run a course that drops significantly in elevation for the first 16 mile, has four big hills from miles 17 through 21, and flattens out again the last four miles." Probably not practical, but you get the idea.

Going for Time

Many runners like to so a time trial before their big race. When you do a time trial depends on the distance you’re running. If you’re running a marathon or half-marathon, you’ll want to do your time trial no later than three weeks out. Run at approximately half the distance of the goal race at race pace. Six or seven miles for a half marathon and no longer than 12 if you’re running a marathon. Ideally, you should run a race at race pace three weeks out. (A 10K for a half marathon or a half-marathon if your goal is under 3:00 for the marathon.)

Tapering: The Most Important Part of Your Training

A good taper can make all the difference in your race performance. Elite runners plan taper weeks into their schedule as part of their training. (If your goal race is less then the half-marathon distance, you won’t need to taper.)

Don’t make the mistake of thinking if you drop your mileage from a high of 50 to 60 miles to 35 or 40 the last few weeks before the race you’ll lose conditioning. Quite the contrary! Provided you’ve put in the hard weeks for several months prior (three to six depending on your fitness level when you started training,) the last few easy weeks will leave you refreshed, well-rested and ready to race. Tapering prepares you mentally for racing. Tapering also prepares your muscles for racing: they’re storing as much glycogen as possible to use on race day.

Keep in mind that the taper will feel a bit strange to you, but it’ll be a "good" strange. Not getting up before dawn every Saturday or Sunday to do a long run will throw you off-kilter. Remember: We’re creatures of habit. We get used to doing the same thing at the same time week after week. Even running for two hours! The first week you’ll feel something is missing. But by the second week, you’ll begin to enjoy the springiness in your step! Make no mistake, you’re going to feel anxious, nervous and jittery. It’s normal. Don’t try to assuage the jitters with unnecessary miles! Relish the rest time.

How long should your taper be? Mark Conover, winner of the 1988 Olympic Marathon Trials and coach, suggests that two weeks is an appropriate length for the half-marathon. In the book "The Runners Book of Training Secrets" by Ken Sparks, Ph.D. and Dave Kuehls (Rodale Press, Inc., 1996) several elite runners shared their tapering secrets. Most marathon-trained for three to six months and then tapered for two to three weeks depending on the number of weeks they built-up to the race.

This is important! Plan the taper as part of your training. If you’re scheduling a twelve-week marathon build-up, two to three weeks of twelve is for your taper. If you didn’t plan a taper into your schedule, it’s still possible to do one. You’re better off shortening your build-up, doing one less long run and getting in two weeks of rest.

Marathon Eve: The Night Before

What you do the night before depends to some extent on what distance you’re racing. You’ll eat differently prior to a 5K than you will before a marathon. Pre-race meals are the only variable; otherwise preparations are the same for any length race.

  1. Try to stay off your feet as much as possible through the early evening before you go to bed. You want to have "fresh" legs. If you’re going to do an easy run, do it early in the day. (It doesn’t hurt to do an easy jog of two miles or so, even before a marathon.)
  2. Drink throughout the day and into the evening. Drink until your urine is clear. If you’re urinating every hour, you’re well hydrated.
  3. Lay out your clothes. If you already have it, pin your number on your shirt. Put your socks in your running shoes. Lay everything out on the floor or an extra bed, starting from your head down so you won’t forget anything: hat or visor, sunglasses, singlet, gloves, shorts, tights, everything you'll be wearing.
  4. Gather together other race sundries: lubricants, gels, powder, whatever you’re going to need in the morning. Put it somewhere you’ll see it immediately. You don’t want to spend any valuable time race morning searching for a jar of Vaseline!
  5. Set aside some time to meditate and visualize the race. Take as long as you need. If you’ll be at home, let your family members or anyone else who shares your home know that you’re going to need some "quiet time." If you’re staying at a hotel away from home, don’t "hang out" with other runners in the lobby. Go to your room and rest. Leave the socializing for after the race.
  6. Set as many alarms as makes you feel comfortable even though you’ll probably wake up early. If you’re staying in a hotel, don’t rely solely on a wake-up call. Set your running watch and the radio alarm.
  7. Don’t worry if you can’t sleep well. You should have slept well in the two night’s prior. Pre-race jitters are common. The harder you try to fall asleep, the more you’ll stay awake.

The Main Event!

After months of preparation, you’ve finally made it to the big day. Here are some tips to remember:

  1. Drink at least one quart of water in the last two hours before a marathon or half-marathon. You won’t need as much before a shorter race, but you still must be well-hydrated.
  2. Don’t bother with a warm-up run. Do a few easy strides and some easy, short stretched. If you’re too warm, you’ll start out too fast.
  3. Monitor how your body feels. Whether you’re running a 5K or a marathon, you need to be aware of what you body’s telling you. Respond accordingly.
  4. Unless it’s an extremely hot day, you shouldn’t need water in a 5K or 10K. Any distance over 10K, even if the day is cool, plan on taking water at every aid station.
  5. Be aware of your pace. 5K through 15K, you’ll probably want to run an even pace. In the marathon and half-marathon, you’ll need to be patient. For the first six to seven miles of the half, and the first ten miles of a marathon, you should maintain an effort level that feels like you’re out for a fast, long run. You shouldn’t be working or breathing hard.
  6. From miles 11 to 20 in the marathon, look for runners up ahead you can pass. At mile 20, shift your focus to racing and start pushing the pace.
  7. No matter what distance you’re racing – think positive thoughts!!

Critique, but don’t Criticize

No matter how your race turned out, you should do a post-race evaluation. It’s important whether you ran a PR or had a bad day and DNF’d. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Was I fully prepared, mentally as well as physically?
  • If I lost my focus, did I lose it long before race day or did it drift away during the race?
  • Did I peakt oo soon? Was I over-trained going into the race?
  • Was I excited, but not too nervous at the start?
  • Did I start out too fast?
  • Did I feel strong and in-control throughout the race? If not, when did I start to falter?
  • Did I start having self-doubts about my performance at any time during the race?

Once you’re answered those questions, follow them with these:

  • What will I do the same or differently next race to prepare myself mentally and physically?
  • Will I train exactly the same for the next race?
  • Will I do more visualization and practice more affirmations?
  • Will I practice more relaxation techniques?
  • Will I run more mileage or less? More speed-work or less?
  • Will I rest more? Will I do more cross-training on my non-running days?
  • Will I eat differently? Will I drink more?

Write the answers to the questions down. You may come up with others. Use the answers to help you train for your next race. Tape them to a mirror or your refrigerator. Put them in your running log. Use them to help you get better. Don’t be too critical with yourself; your critique should be positive. You probably did many things right. Focus on those things and move forward.

Claudia Piepenburg has been running for 21 years and is the current editor for Peak Running Performance. She holds or has held state age-group records in Michigan, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Virginia. In 1990, she was ranked 18th fastest masters woman in the world and 8th fastest masters woman in the U.S. in 1990 and 1991. She competed in the 1988 Olympic Marathon Trials, was 20th woman overall in the 1987 Boston Marathon and women's winner of the 1986 Virginia Beach Marathon. She has been coaching running since 1984. You can reach Claudia at cpiepe@roadrunnersports.com.

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