Running your first marathon at York this Sunday? Starting to feel a bit nervous? Imagining you’re coming down with all sorts of ailments, aches and pains? Wishing you’d trained more and eaten less cake over the last few months? Don’t worry – this is all perfectly normal! It’s sometimes known as ‘maranoia’ or ‘tapermania’ and we all get it – even those of us who’ve been through this a few times. When I stood on the start line of my first marathon in 2013 I had no idea whether I’d make it to the finish; but I did, and you probably will too. Running your first marathon is a huge learning curve, and there are lots of things I know now that I wish I’d known then. It would have made things a bit easier, although running marathons never gets easy! So although I’d never claim to be an expert, I have a few tips that might help if you’re a first-timer. I’ve learned some of them the hard way, so maybe you won’t have to!
Hopefully your training has gone well, – but if you’re behind for any reason, don’t try to make up for it this week; it’s too late to reap any fitness gains now. The best thing you can do is just have a couple of short, gentle runs to keep your legs turning so you’re as fresh as possible on the day. If you have to readjust your time goal due to missed training, so be it – there will always be other marathons.
Eat a healthy diet this week to fuel your efforts. Personally I like to eat more protein, fruit and veg at the start of the week, then more carbs and less fibre in the last two or three days. I find if I eat too much fibrous stuff it can have (ahem) digestive repercussions, so I stick to very simple foods in the last couple of days, with no fruit other than bananas. I’ve only ever had the runner’s trots once, in Berlin, but I never want to go there again! But that’s just me – obviously everyone’s body is different. On a similar theme, keep off the booze if you want to perform at your best. The effects of alcohol can still be felt by your body a few days after drinking, so even if you don’t feel hungover it can still be making running harder than it needs to be. You can celebrate when you’ve crossed that finish line!
Get plenty of sleep. Most of us with busy lives never really get enough, but catching a few early nights this week will help your body to prepare for the effort ahead. You might not sleep well the night before the race if you’re nervous, so it’s good to get a few extra hours’ kip in the bank.
Sort out your race day logistics well in advance. The last thing you want on marathon morning is to be stressed by having to organise things at the very last minute. Make your transport arrangements, and if you’re planning to meet up with people at the race finish (which may be a bit chaotic) settle on an actual meeting point. Also, lay out all your kit the night before so you aren’t running around looking for things in the morning. Make a list if it helps. And don’t forget to fill in the back of your race number!
Carb loading the day before the marathon is important, but you don’t need to go crazy with it. It’s more about changing the composition of your meals than eating loads more than usual. Eating steadily throughout the day is better than having a massive pile of pasta for your evening meal. Here’s how I would normally prepare for a marathon food-wise.
Day before: toast or bagel for breakfast with peanut butter and Nutella; banana for elevenses; fish finger sandwich on white bread for lunch (nice, light protein); cake for afternoon snack, pasta with tomato sauce and just a bit of chicken for dinner and maybe a small pudding. This is certainly not a day when you want to be feeling hungry. If I feel I need an extra snack I like pretzels, as they are carby and salty, but not fatty. In general, just aim to eat plenty of carb-rich foods, but not to the point where you feel stuffed. I’ll also have an electrolyte drink at some point, especially if the weather forecast is warm, in order to try and prevent cramp, which I suffered from once in a marathon.
Marathon day: as soon as I get up I have a pint of electrolyte drink to get me well hydrated. My breakfast is always porridge with maple syrup, because I find porridge much easier to digest that wheat-based things. If I’m away from home I take instant porridge pots. I have breakfast at least two hours before the start, preferably a bit more, as I like to make sure I have plenty of time to visit the loo in a number two fashion(!) before I leave the house. If you’re reading this I’m sure you’ll appreciate how important this is! I also have a coffee. After my breakfast I don’t drink anything else until about ten minutes before the start of the race. I’ve found this is the best way to avoid having to stop for a wee en route. I think if you’re constantly sipping on drinks in the hour or so before the start you’ll need to stop and go to the loo at some point; but if you have a drink just before you set off you’ll sweat it out instead of storing it in your bladder. There’s always plenty of water on the course anyway. About an hour before the start I might have a very small snack like a tiny banana, depending on how I feel.
Having a fuelling strategy during the race is important if you’re going to avoid hitting the dreaded wall. Obviously everyone has their own favourite energy products, and you will hopefully have been practising with them in training. Your muscles can store enough fuel to keep them going for about an hour and a half, so you’re going to need to take on more energy before you run out. I like to start about an hour into the marathon. My favourite fuel is Clif Shot Bloks, mainly because I find them easier to carry and deal with on the run than gels. As a general rule of thumb, you should aim to take on a gram of carb for every kilo of your body weight per hour. So, for example, if you weigh 65kg you’ll need to take on 65g of carb per hour. This sound boring, but it’s very effective. The first time I ever bothered to actually work out how much fuel I should be taking on during a marathon I took about ten minutes off my PB, so it’s definitely worth doing the maths! All energy products will tell you how much carb they contain on the pack. An important point to note is that taking extra gels etc is not a subsitute for lack of training. If you take on more stuff than your stomach can process you’ll just end up feeling sick.
Lastly, stick to your race plan. At the beginning of a marathon you should be both trained and rested, so you’ll feel great. It’s tempting to set off like a greyhound, but if you do you’ll pay for it later – as I did in the first York Marathon, when I ended up with a stitch at mile 18 that wouldn’t go away, meaning I had to jog/walk the last six miles. If you feel really good at about mile 24 – which, to be honest, is doubtful – feel free to go for it in the last couple of miles.
Please remember all of this isn’t gospel – it’s all just what works for me. What works for you may be different, but the above advice might be worth a go if you don’t have a clue – as I didn’t the first time I ran a marathon! I hope some of it has been helpful to first-timers anyway. Feel free to add your own top tips below. Best of luck if you’re running at York this Sunday – do come and say hi if you see me!