So you want to run a long race that takes months to prepare for? If you’re a first-time marathoner, chances are you’ve heard conflicting pieces of advice throughout your training. And if you’re a seasoned marathoner, chances are you’re still hearing contradictory info.
“Marathons, like all sports, are kind of rich in rituals,” says Jonathan Cane, a marathon trainer and the founder of City Coach, a company that trains beginners and athletes in running, swimming, and cycling in New York City. And like all good rituals, there can be a lot of debate over which ones to observe.
Should I load up on carbs the night before? How much water should I drink before, during, and after? What does recovery look like? We sat down with Cane to learn his last-minute tips for the big day. From first-timer goals to diet to avoiding distractions, here’s how to cut through the noise and get to — and recover from — 26.2 miles.
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1. Set Conservative Goals as a First-Time Racer
As a first-time marathoner, it can feel exciting to focus on run times, but according to Cane, the focus should be on the basics.
“For first-time marathoners, my goal as a coach is to get them to the starting line. If you train and get to the start healthy, you’ll finish,” says Cane, who trains between 30 and 50 people of all different levels and backgrounds for the New York City Marathon each year.
According to Cane, the reason many runners don’t make it to the start and finish lines of a race is that they let their ambition get the best of them and do too much too fast — either in training or on race day — and then experience injuries.
Training time for a marathon fluctuates, but it can average from several months to a year to prepare, depending on the runner’s level of experience, he says.
“For a first-timer, 20 miles [in training] is a good goal,” says Cane. “Typically, you do that three weeks out. Then you start to do what’s called tapering, giving your body time to recover so that 20 miles can realistically grow to 26.2 on race day.”
Even though reaching 20 miles before race day is an ideal training goal for beginners, research has shown, coincidentally, that running 20 miles or less in training creates a strong risk of “hitting the wall” at any time of the marathon. The greatest point of risk appears at mile 21, with a steady decline.
Cane notes that it’s important for beginners to be diligent with training and get as close to a 20-mile race before the marathon as possible, so that you have the best chances of making it to the finish line.
“For the first one, don’t be overly consumed by time. Take it in. Enjoy it,” advises Cane, who says he’ll talk timing with runners who go on to a second marathon.
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2. Avoid Additional Stressors, and Don’t Leave Anything to Chance on Race Day
Preparing for a race that lasts several hours can be as challenging mentally as it is physically. The good news is there are things you can do in the days leading up to a marathon to mentally prepare yourself.
“I think it’s important to study the course, to know where the challenging sections are physically, because those typically turn into challenging sections mentally,” explains Cane, ”and then go in with a plan.”
Cane has a ritual of running the last 10 miles of every marathon alongside his runners the week before the race to help them feel familiar with the most challenging part of the course — the end of it.
“I’ve seen really smart people do really goofy things on race day, and usually that’s tied to not having everything planned out,” says Cane. “It’s an inherently stressful day.”
Stressful situations can cause impaired decision-making and potentially lead to greater risk-taking, according to research.
Cane relates this research to runners who change their pace on race day because it seems right in the moment, even though it will cause harm at the end. “Just because you’re feeling good doesn’t mean you should deviate from the plan and go faster, because that will come back to bite you.”
Cane suggests having all of your bases covered by having every moment planned out, from what time you’ll be waking up on race day to what you’ll wear if it gets chilly.
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3. Don’t Let Cheering Crowds Make You Go Faster
It’s the start of the race, the crowds are cheering, and you feel invincible — so you pick up the pace. Wrong. Cane strongly urges marathoners not to be fazed by large cheering crowds, which are inevitable at large races like the New York City and Boston marathons, where hundreds of thousands of people gather to show support.
One study found that runners who began a marathon at a pace that was too fast to maintain throughout the event slowed down throughout the marathon.
“You’ve got plenty of time to make up for a start that’s too slow, or you have plenty of time to regret a start that’s too fast,” cautions Cane. “If you let that crowd get the best of you and you start running faster than you intended to, you will pay for it in the end.”
Cane recommends channeling the feeling of adrenaline and cheering crowds during stretches of the race that are quieter and can be more challenging mentally and physically.
“Early on, appreciate the crowds but don’t let them take you out of your game. Late in the race, that’s when to let them be your friend, then you feed off their energy and let it pull you through,” he says.
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4. You Don’t Have to ‘Get Ahead of’ Hydration
An ongoing debate in the world of marathons is how much water to drink, and when. According to Cane, a large concern used to be dehydration, because runners would skip water stations to avoid losing time.
“Once the negative effects of dehydration on health and performance became well known, the pendulum swung in the other direction and people began overhydrating, known as hyponatremia,” he says.
Hyponatremia can occur when too much water is consumed and dilutes sodium levels in the blood, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can cause swelling in the body and lead to life-threatening health issues.
Cane recommends trusting your thirst to gauge when you should drink, unless you’re competing in extreme heat, in which case you should get ahead of your thirst. You can get ahead of your thirst by monitoring the rate of sweat loss and grabbing sips at water stations every mile or two. If you notice that you are sweating more than usual and still finding yourself thirsty, you should increase that rate.
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5. You Don’t Have to Deplete Your Carbohydrate Storage and Then Overload the Night Before
According to Cane, a common misconception when preparing for a marathon is that you have to “empty your tank” and then overload on a carbohydrate-rich diet 24 hours before race day to reach optimal energy storage.
While research shows that a prerace diet rich in carbohydrates can positively influence a marathon runner’s performance, experts say you don’t have to deplete your storage; rather you should actually increase your carbohydrate intake several days before.
According to Everyday Health’s nutritionist Kelly Kennedy, RD, the body stores glucose from carbohydrates in the muscles and liver in the form of glycogen. This glycogen is what’s used for energy when you exercise, and it can help to delay fatigue.
“Several days before your race, increase your carbohydrate percentage from about 55 percent to 65 to 70 percent of your diet. This doesn’t mean abandoning protein and fat in lieu of carb-rich foods,” explains Kennedy. “You can simply increase your carb portions slightly at meals and decrease your protein and fat slightly.” This maps to joint guidelines recommended by three different national organizations that include registered dietitians and sports medicine experts.
Kennedy encourages marathon runners to keep in mind that quality matters, and to focus on carbohydrates like whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and dairy foods.
“You won’t be able to stock up on glycogen in one big meal, so one big bowl of pasta won’t cut it,” she cautions. “It’s also a good idea to have your largest meal of the day at lunch and have a lighter meal at dinner … and consider adding a carb-rich bedtime snack as well. This will give your body time to digest everything.”
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6. Have a Recovery Plan for the Day-of and Weeks Following the Race
Cooling down and stretching-it-out are common practices when recovering from a workout, but recovering from a marathon is a bit more complex. It can be helpful to go in with a recovery plan the same way you would with a race-day plan.
How long should recovery be? Cane recommends following the rule of one day per mile raced, so for a 26.2 mile race, almost a full month of recovery.
“Take the next few weeks easy. That doesn’t mean be sedentary, but it means you’re not going to do any strenuous activity for at least a couple of weeks,” says Cane. “You need to be respectful of the challenge that you gave your body and the recovery it needs.”
Some of Cane’s Recovery Tips
- Immediately After the Race Continue moving to keep blood circulating and to prevent blood from pooling in the legs.
- First 30 Minutes to a Few Hours After the Race Replenish glycogen by eating carbohydrates and protein. Drink to replenish liquids. Ice if your muscles hurt.
- One Week After the Race Continue eating a healthy diet and getting plenty of rest.
- Three to Four Weeks After the Race Refrain from a challenging workout or run. Walks and light jogs are okay.
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