For so many runners the world over, the arrival of Spring means at some point, somewhere they will be lining up on a starting line ready to give it their all. The many hard months of training are in the bank and now it's time to make sure you put all that to best use and get the result you deserve!
With just a few weeks to go before some key races in London, Manchester, Brighton, Edinburgh, Paris, Boston and Liverpool to name a few, I thought I'd give out my top tips that will get you to the starting line in the best shape possible.
So as usual, in no particular order, here's my take on key things everyone should be doing in the final few weeks leading up to the race.
Tapering - I could write a whole article on this alone, and it will mean different things to different people, but essentially the purpose of the taper is to reduce the accumulated fatigue that has built up in the legs over the past month by decreasing the training in the final few weeks leading up to the race. Ideally the overall volume will come down but your intensity will remain the same to ensure that your fitness level doesn't drop (so keep going with your weekly interval sessions). Another good way of keeping the intensity high without adding too much mileage is by doing strides. These are just short bursts of 100m that can be tagged onto the end of an easy training run which will help open up the hips, increase stride length and get the body used to running quickly, without adding much stress to it. In terms of reducing volume, as a general guide, two weeks out try to reduce your weekly mileage by 40% and the week of the marathon try to reduce it by 60% (not including the race). Use your biggest training weeks as a guide.
Carb loading - The age old myth was to eat a bowl of pasta the size of your head the night before the race and magically you'll have enough fuel to run the 26.2 miles a few hours later. This is terrible advice! You'll end up feeling bloated and sluggish on the start line. What I tend to do is increase my carb intake on Thursday/Friday, then eat as normal on Saturday, with a normal high carb meal the night before, but around 5pm. Most healthy sources of carbs, are high in fibre, which have the potential to give some stomach issues so I tend to opt for the regular pastas, white rice, mash potato, white bread, plus nuts and plenty of fruits and vegetables, usually the type of veg that grow underground. Then I have some snacks to graze on for the rest of the evening. Don't consume any more volume of food than normal, just up the % of carbs that are on your plate.
Getting kit ready - Decide exactly what you are going to wear during your race, at least 7 days in advance. Everything from socks, shorts, top, hat, shoes, sports bra (for the ladies!)... everything you will be starting the race in. Lay it out on the floor. Then go for a test run in it and make sure everything works together, no rubbing, no chafing, no blisters. Then stick to it.. don't be tempted to add anything new thinking that it will make you run quicker, because chances are it won't!
Plan your travel to the start line - more often than not, races tend to be in a place that you don't know that well, whether it is the other side of your town, in a completely different city or even a different country! Make sure you're organised with regards to your transport to the start line. If you are staying nearby then I'd always advise going down to the start line the night before so you know exactly where to go in the morning and how long it takes, especially if using public transport in a place that you aren't familiar with! Allow yourself a bit of extra time as it will likely be busier than normal and then you can arrive early feeling calm and relaxed, plus you'll get to beat the toilet queues!
Last long run - For most first timers over the marathon distance, this traditionally is a 20 mile run, 2 or 3 weeks before race day. It will most likely be your longest ever run, so take it steady. If you don't want to take food or water with you then plan a few places you can stop off at on the way. This is a key workout for spending time on your feet, getting your body used to being out for a long period of time.
Set 2 goals - I firmly believe in setting two race goals. An A goal and a B goal if you like. Your A goal will be if everything goes perfectly and your B goal will be something you'll still be proud of. There are many things that are out of your control on race day, it could be very hot or very cold, it could be raining, you could get tripped, get a stitch, you might have to help another runner in distress.. all things that you can't really prepare for. We'd all love to smash our ambitious goals, but don't put yourself under that amount of pressure. Just finishing a marathon is a huge achievement in itself and for many that will be the main goal.
Practice with nutrition / research what the course is giving out - Try to find out what nutrition is on the course and in what form (gels/drink etc). Then practice with it. Even if it's up and down your street, practice drinking from a cup and running, practice taking a gel, practice drinking some of the provided sports drink if you are going to rely on that. Plus the golden rule, never consume something that you haven't already tried when running. Don't be that person in Tesco on Saturday night, buying a pack of gels, when you've never ever taken them!
Chill the week before - In the week leading up to your race, try and keep a clear calendar. Leave work on time if you can and try not to get suckered into after work drinks and late nights! I know it's easier said than done but it will make all the difference on race day when you've had a few good nights sleep leading up to it. It's widely said that the two nights before is the key night to get as much sleep as possible (because it's unlikely you will the night before due to nerves!) so make the most of that quiet Friday night in!
Hydrate - Try to drink extra fluids in the week before so you are optimally hydrated on race day. People often worry about their nutrition but then neglect the hydration part, which is equally if not more important! It's always good to get into the habit of drinking a pint of water as soon as you get up in the morning before you do anything else. Also try if possible to avoid alcohol in the build up to the race as it will just put your body under additional stress that it just doesn't need. Save that beer for the celebrations after the race!
Breakfast - Try to eat something 3 hours before the race start as your main breakfast. I usually have 2 bagels, peanut butter and a banana, with a pint of carb drink followed by a banana and an energy bar an hour later. This gives my body enough time to digest the food and can start feeling fresh. I then sip on some carb drink in the build up, consuming about 1.5L over the 3 hours in the build up. I take an electrolyte gel 15 minutes before the start, then it's go time!
Warm up slowly on race day - Many people get paranoid about the amount they walk before the start of a race let alone going for a small run as they think it'll use up too much energy. It's a good idea to do some dynamic stretching and then a short super easy run. I would usually do about 2km just to get the key muscles activated, blood flowing and joints moving nicely!
Have a plan and stick to it - It's amazing the amount of people who suddenly change their target time on the morning of (or usually during!) the race, thinking they can run X minutes quicker. This rarely ends in success and usually just results in going out too fast and hitting the wall. You've no doubt trained with a particular goal in mind so stick to it! If you think you can run faster, you can do it in the next one!
Race morning kit - There can sometimes be a lot of standing around after you've handed your kit bag in, so always take an old sweatshirt, poncho, foil blanket.. anything you can easily throw away just before the race starts.
The hay is in the barn - As a general rule, the fitness you have two weeks out from race day, is the fitness you're going to take into the race. If you've suffered with an injury or illness in the build up, it's common for many to try and make up for lost time but there is no point! It's unlikely you will see any benefit until after the race anyway. So take it easy, practice some marathon pace short sessions to get used to running at your race pace and be confident with the training you've achieved.
Visualisation - Finally, spend some time actually imagining yourself crossing the finish line, picturing what the clock says, the smile on your face, receiving your medal and meeting your friends/ family afterwards. Think about overcoming potential problems that might arise during the race, a sudden rain shower, a twinge in your calf, your shoe laces coming undone and picture yourself dealing with these events successfully. It can be very powerful to get yourself in the right mindset come race day.
All the above might seem like a lot to take in, but its all straightforward stuff when you break it down. And if something does go wrong, don't panic! In the London Marathon 98.7% of everyone who crosses the start line in Greenwich goes on to finish the race at The Mall in central London. At the end of the day, it's just running! It should be fun and for the vast majority it will be a day they'll remember for the rest of their lives. Enjoy, good luck and I hope you get everything you want out of race day!