7 tips from the pros for running your best marathon
November 2 will mark the 44th running of the New York City Marathon. But whether you’re participating in the 26.2-mile, five-borough race on Sunday or in any other upcoming marathon this fall, the angst and uneasiness of the unknown on race day is ever-present. All runners – from the average first-timer to the seasoned professional – need ways to calm their nerves and boost their confidence before the running starts. You’ve put in the training hours. You’ve got the perfect shoes. You’ve had your race-day outfit picked out for weeks. But in these last few days before you take to the starting line, what can you do to help perform your best when you take the stage? Edge turned to two elite marathon veterans – Olympic medalist and U.S. record holder Deena Kastor and pro marathoner Lauren Kleppin – to get the best last-minute tips for the hours before the race to help you run your best 26.2 yet.
“It is important to gradually increase your long runs each week, get up to a 20- or 22-mile run and to practice goal marathon pace,” says Kastor. “In the week leading up to the marathon the most important things are rest and believing you are ready to reach your goal.” The time during the final week and few days prior to race day is known as the “taper,” when the volume of workload and training is cut down and more time is spent prepping the body for the intense challenge to come. "The majority of the work is already done," Kleppin says. “Nothing done this week in terms of training can add to your fitness for race day performance, no matter how well or terribly the weeks of training beforehand panned out." She suggests spending the extra time you may have from a lightened-up training schedule focusing on sleep, good nutrition, extra stretching and a little bit of speed and quick feet in the form of strides. “Treat your body with quality, embrace the unique qualities that got you to the starting line and reap the benefits from quality care and preparation to get you to the finish,” says Kleppin.
“The night before the race is definitely not the night to experiment with new flavors,” says Kleppin. For a pre-race meal, she suggests fairly bland foods with minimal spices that won’t irritate or upset your stomach. Kastor also avoids anything that is too spicy and says her go-to meal is salmon, pesto pasta and a salad, or a wood-fired pizza with a protein and vegetable on top. Kleppin prefers rice or quinoa with chicken, or if it is going to be a hot day, a brothy soup, which is rich in salt to aid in hydration but very light on the stomach.
Just like the night before, the morning of the race isn’t the time to experiment with new foods. Still, breakfast is essential, no matter how queasy or uneasy you feel. Kastor says she enjoys a combination of carbohydrates and protein, like oatmeal with nut butter blended in or a couple of eggs and toast. “After breakfast I make sure I’m alternating between sipping on water and Cytomax, the carbohydrate solution I drink during the marathon,” she says. Kleppin says she has to force herself to get up early just to get some extra fuel in, “usually in the form of peanut butter, a banana, and a sports bar -- all things I am used to running on.”
Outside factors such as weather and travel can dictate how much water your body needs, Kastor says. A lot of runners carry around water bottles, but you also have to drink what is in the bottle! On average, a person can consume four to six ounces of fluid every 20 minutes. "For me it is most challenging to drink water when it is cold outside," says Kastor. "A good rule of thumb is to practice drinking on your long runs. During the race, find a fluid station around every 20 minutes so you can drink some carbohydrates." Kleppin says she carries her water bottle around everywhere she goes in the couple of days prior to race day as a reminder to stay hydrated. And for an electrolyte-packed dessert the night before a race, Kleppin skips the ice cream and goes for a glass of Pedialyte.
The pre-race butterflies can keep you up the night before, but the pros suggest finding your favorite method of calming the mind and body. Kastor says a warm bath, a good book, lavender oil on your pillow or a soothing-scented candle can all help to ease your jitters, but Kleppin also recommends laying off of the extra cups of coffee and tea on the days leading up to the marathon. "A couple days’ worth of a caffeine-free cleanse will have me welcoming my bed and some shut-eye on race night," she says. "You should also talk to friends and family before race day. Late night good luck texts are nice but a flashing and vibrating phone is not a welcome addition to an already restless night!"
Fall marathons usually mean early morning starts when the sun is just warming up and the temperatures are much more brisk. The trick is to dress in layers and be prepared to peel them off on the run! Since the most body heat is lost from the head and hands, Kastor recommends hats, gloves and arm warmers. “They’re easy to throw to the sidelines after you warm up and they help trap body heat,” she says. Kleppin says she plans on getting to the starting line with some of the same accessories so she can “brace the cold without losing any energy trying to stay warm.” And don’t fret about discarding the clothes either – many marathons (including the NYC Marathon) donate the abandoned clothing to charity.
"If you expect to run a full 26.2 miles and have the entire experience go as perfectly as planned, you are in for a real sour treat," says Kleppin. "Go into race weekend with expectations and goals, but also with forgiveness and the ability to adapt!" If the 26.2 race seems daunting, Kastor likes to think of the marathon as eight water bottles long, or for New York, the five boroughs. ”You can do anything to the count of five!” she says.