Perhaps this is an odd time of year to be writing this post, but I have been contemplating the lessons I have learned over the last year and how I can build on them for the new race season. So, here are my five marathon top tips for those who, like me, feel they have no clue what they are doing.
I’m not some super-athlete who is fine tuned and has all the coaches, nutritionists and physios I could ever want at my beck and call, although I wish I did! I am just a formerly very-overweight and very inactive person who decided to make a change and, with no idea of the unwritten rules in this sport, forged my own path via trial and error.
1. Trust your training
You put in the time and miles in training, so trust it. If you know you did all you could and all that you were expecting of yourself, you’ll be fine on race day. Don’t be tempted to go a bit longer than the longest run on your plan or push yourself when you should be tapering – you chose a plan, see it through to the end. And the end means race day.
2. Don’t do anything new on race day
This is so important, I cannot stress it enough. You will question everything when you start your taper; “is my fuelling strategy right, should I eat more on the morning before the race, I’ve heard coffee is good so I’ll have one before the race.” STOP! This follows on from point number 1. Trust what you did as preparation. You should’ve tested out fuelling strategies on long runs and so whatever you settled on, stick with it. And do not, under any circumstances, wear something new on race day. Even if you have a special outfit or fancy dress, don’t keep it until race day, give it a try on a long run and test it out!
3. Set three goals
This one will improve your enjoyment of race day itself. Start with a huge goal, the thing that would make you the happiest if you completed it, for me this would be completing the race in a certain time much quicker than my PB. (Edit – As correctly pointed out to me, if it is your first marathon then it will of course be a PB for you no matter the time, this is just the example I am giving to provide some context to what I mean – which I used in my third marathon!)
Then have a second goal that you would be happy with if you achieved, which is sort of an insurance plan should your first, big goal go out the window early on. For me in this instance it is getting a PB, which I would be happy with even if I don’t quite hit the time in goal one.
And finally, have an achievable goal which even if the wheels fall off you know you can make and would be happy with – this to me would be to just finish the race.
I employed this strategy in my last marathon in Las Vegas – I was aiming for a good for age time, which after a few miles with terrible stomach cramps I realised wasn’t going to happen. So I amended my pace and went for goal two – any PB. As the cramps did not subside, after a few more miles it became apparent that goal wasn’t going to happen either. So out comes goal three – just get to the end. Forget times and pace, the goal became to finish. This allowed me to slow right down and take the pressure off myself without feeling like a failure, knowing that I could walk if I needed to and still get to the end. If I had only one goal, which left me at about mile 3 or 4, I would’ve lost motivation and dedication – nobody wants to run 22+ miles feeling like a failure.
4. Have a mantra/strategy to get you through the tough bits
There will be tough bits, anywhere from around mile 22 for me I lose sight of why I decided to do this to myself. It really helps to have a mantra or strategy in your back pocket at this stage. You have to find what works for you and, sometimes, you don’t know what will help you out of that hurt locker until you are in it for the first time and your brain creates something you can use. I have heard of a few strategies I am happy to share.
Firstly, a mantra you can repeat over and over again can work. Some people repeat words such as ‘strong and steady’ to themselves, which becomes almost meditative when you say it over and over again.
Others use diversion tactics – I think I read that Paula Radcliffe will count backwards in 3s from 200 and if she falters or gets things wrong, she starts again. I suppose it depends on how your brain is wired. I think I would get even more frustrated with that!
I have mantras which are personal to me (I have ones which are training-specific, ones that are race-specific, ones for hill reps – you name it!) But on race day, when the going really gets tough the thing that works for me is to tell myself ‘you’ve got this mile and then 4 more’ so that after the mile marker you can tell yourself ‘you’ve got this mile and 3 more’ and so on. For some reason it works for me. I think it is because it lets me mentally reduce the number of miles left helping me psychologically somehow.
I’d suggest using a long run to think about what is helping you through the tough times and see what mantra or tactic comes to you.
5. Don’t go out too fast
This is my golden rule that I am still trying to implement myself. I have zipped out of that starting corral way too fast in four of my five marathon+ distance races. And guess which one of them all was the one where I finished with some gas left in the tank and the biggest smile on my face? Yep. The one where I set off steadily and ran with a pacing group.
I cannot get self pacing right, even though I know all the theory behind it and know that it will be better in the long run (pun intended – ha!) I still mess this up regularly. So take note and try to start as you mean to go on. And if you crack this, let me know how you did it!