I coach runners from all backgrounds ranging from elites to beginners, those seasoned club animals chasing a PB, right through to the nervous first timer looking to get round 26.2 miles whilst fundraising for charity. We all dream of crossing the finish line many times between now and Race Day, and the Marathon is now almost upon us. Suddenly my email inbox, Twitter feed and phone are alive with the magic question and the usual pre-race dilemma, “how should I run or race this marathon?” It’s a question I get asked hundreds of times in the build up to big any races but the marathon evokes particular fears, stories and memories and we need to be clear about our strategy on the start line if we want to see success.
I want to talk about the way to run your perfect marathon in this article but the reality is that these suggestions and top tips will relate to most racing distances. We don’t want to focus on the taper or pre-race experience; there is lots out there for you to read on this. Instead, we want to focus on the moment the gun goes until the moment you cross the line with arms raised in a blaze of personal glory.
It’s time to find that perfect racing strategy for your autumn marathon…and we are going to split our race into 3 sections making sure we help the first timer happy to get round safely, PB hunter and first timer looking to hit a goal. All require a little thought but above all else, its time to believe in this strategy when you wake up on race morning. Yes you will be nervous but make sure you take your normal pre long run/race breakfast, remain hydrated and enter the start pen on time knowing exactly what you want to do…then make it happen.
Part one – The B of the Bang
Ok so the gun sounds and adrenalin surges around your body like liquid gold. You may have felt sluggish and pretty average to be honest on many of your training runs during the taper and this is totally normal. Your body was clever and protected its energy stores already saving itself for the big day.
Suddenly its here though and it’s game on!
However, this is almost the most dangerous point of the marathon and any race. Adrenalin can take over but it’s time to hold back almost taking a step backwards before going forwards. For the first timer looking to get round smiling and enjoying the day don’t worry about the pen being crowded and the slow walk to the start line. Your time starts as the chip sounds and you cross the line. Your aim is to gradually pick up your pace when there is space and spend the first few miles getting into your stride. You may be going slower than you planned, but don’t panic, we have plenty of time.
For the PB and time hunter you are probably anxious and ready to hit that first vital split to tell you all is ok and you are on target. Actually, you have plenty of time and should avoid zig zagging in a panic because the road is slow and crowded. Your first few miles are about warming up and getting to mile 3 feeling good and achieving the right pace at this point. Any seconds lost can easily be made up gradually in the next 10 miles.
Part Two – cruising and killing time
The marathon begins at 20 miles….
It’s all about how to run, control and enjoy the race from mile 3 to 20. It’s time to listen to your body, keep the focus, and take a drink if needed. I would recommend a gel every 30-45 mins but in reality it’s all about recreating whatever worked for you in training. Don’t change your nutrition or hydration strategy now just because others around you take on more or less.
For the experienced campaigner you are now on PB target pace, ticking off the miles and running pretty close to the marathon target pace you became familiar with in those long training runs. Watch out for the pinch points where the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and you feel like an Olympic champion with the crowds screaming. Tell yourself to slow down and keep to that pace maybe chatting, taking in the atmosphere or remembering your best training runs.
For the first timer wanting to conquer the distance, it’s time to make sure you can still chat easily to the person next to you. We call this running at the speed of chat and it’s a safe way to check you are not pushing too hard. If you can’t chat to the runner next to you then you are definitely running way too fast! If you had planned to walk for 5 minutes every 15 minutes, 5k or 30 minutes then stick to this…it is your day and your race strategy that counts.
Having tapered the legs will still feel light and you will feel as though you are flying along. Many push too hard at this mid point of the race, but I advise you to back off, keep to the plan and enjoy the moment…the real fun lies just a few more miles up the road I promise!
Part 3 – chasing those vests and keeping that focus
If you have read the script and followed it then you should arrive at mile 20 working hard but in control. For the experienced the real racing starts here and now as you begin to laser in on those vests further down the road. The last 10k should see you up your game gradually as you increase the effort to hold the pace. Its now time to stop worrying about your mile splits and start GRADUALLY chasing down the vest in front, then the next and so on. This is your strategy to see you home in the final 6 miles and it’s time to forget about the pain or what happened in your last race. Focus only on racing and chasing down those next vests and mile markers. Draw on the best long runs you banked and how they felt…you are great shape and you can do this.
I wouldn’t even look at your watch, be brave and save that for when you cross the finish line. You don’t need to know what it is telling you at this point as you are now racing those around you and keeping it simple and pure.
For those who are entering the final third of a marathon for the first time it’s the moment to remember a few things and break the race into smaller chunks. You may still chase the vest around and ahead of you but it’s also time to remember all the long runs completed, training sessions and early mornings spent out in the park. This was what you trained for and you feel fantastic.
Focus on positive thoughts and maybe even remember how your best long run felt, or that training session that you nailed a few weeks ago. Tick each mile off and think only about the mile you are in not worrying about the next few…they will all come and pass. Keep to your strategy and keep chatting, if feeling great take out he walking sections, if feeling really tired change things and maybe run 5 mins/walk briskly 5 mins but keep going …the aches and pains will be there, the legs will feel heavy but this is what makes the marathon and you the marathoner.
The finisher’s medal is earned in the last 6 miles not the first and this was what you trained for.
Position your family and friends at key mile markers or landmarks and look forward to seeing them. Make sure your name is on the vest and the crowds will cheer you every step of the way. Maybe dedicate each mile to somebody special in the second half of the race…you won’t want to let them down.
Good luck, be patient and happy hunting.
What if I haven’t trained enough, will I be ok?
The simple answer to this is yes if you are sensible. A close friend of mine completed New York last year in 5 and a half hours off a longest run of just 10k and weeks of injury. She desperately wanted to race in memory of her dad and we advised her to set off running 5 mins very easy/5 mins brisk walk alternating right from the start. She took on gels every 30 – 45 mins and sipped water every 5k and felt great. The last 6 miles were tough but she even managed to run the last 5k without stopping in Central Park. Such was the buzz and perfect pacing she arrived home in 5 hours 27 minutes overtaking thousands who tried to run until they couldn’t run any further.
The simple lesson is, adjust your race day goal if you are behind on training and be realistic. We can all feel great in the first 10k but getting to 20 miles with energy and being ready to play is what counts. Set a realistic strategy and pace and enjoy your day. You can maybe train for a PB or run the whole way next time but you cant cheat a marathon…26.2 miles must be respected, so have a strategy.
What if I hit the wall?
Ok, just for the record, the wall doesn’t exist. We put it there by running too fast, not eating enough pre and during the race, not training correctly or starting the race tired from over training. If your strategy is realistic and you stick to a plan you will get to 20 miles feeling tired but strong and ready to push on.
If you do hit the wall, or create the wall, then it’s time to protect and shut up the shop. You will feel exhausted, empty and probably very light or fuzzy headed. Slow to a walk (you wont have a choice) and take on gels, sweets and sports drink. You need the sugars and keep walking. You may be able to pick up to a jog and a strategy of walk a minute/jog a minute or similar could work but its time to stop pushing or trying to. The wall is a tough tough place and you just need to get home slowly eating as you move…
Best advice….dont hit it…simple.