A COLLECTION OF RACE DAY STRATEGIES FOR YOUR BEST MARATHON
by Andrew Kessinger
Here are some helpful race day strategies that I’ve organized into a document from advice and pointers that I have heard over the years from my experience and believe these “tips” can benefit you too!
You have put in the work and trained hard, done all the long runs, speed work, & tempos…You are now tapered, rested, and ready to run your marathon. You want to lay down a top performance and want to be organized. Now it is time to focus on your strategy for actually running that race and achieving the finish goal you’ve set for yourself at the beginning of your training cycle!
What follows is race day planning that is not new or unique. However, I find it helpful to mentally run through this plan for nutrition, hydration, pacing, and race tactics a few times in the final weeks leading up to a big event. Hopefully this will help you to do your best, come marathon game day!
Race Night Eve & Morning Pre Race:
Be sure to prepare your kit and lay out everything you need for your race the night before. Having a sound mental state when you get up is part of the race day strategy. Don’t wait to pack or get organized the morning of your race! This includes: Your outfit, your bib & safety pins, your gels/other nutrition, throw away/ warm up clothes, your bag and everything you place in it. Essentially anything you need to be comfortable race morning! In races like Boston, Chicago, New York (big events), you need to account for things like: What will I sit on for 1-3 hours? I bring a trash bag, blanket, or find a piece of cardboard so I do not have to sit on a wet, cold ground.
Know & study your race course. Know where the hills are, tricky turns, any marked impediment, etc.
Prepare your body for the work ahead by getting up early and eating a good breakfast to top your liver and muscle fuel stores. Hopefully you have been practicing and experimenting on what food sources work for you by eating before your long runs and have learned what your body will tolerate.
Rise early enough to eat. I like to fuel exactly 2 hours before race start. 2-3 hours works for most. Favor digestible carbs such as cereal, bagels, toast, bananas, or yogurt.
Today is not the day (nor was the last few days for that matter) to eat anything new or introduce something to your diet you haven’t tried in a while.
Drink plenty of water with breakfast. 16-24 oz.
Drink water/sports drink/caffeine drink just prior to start and during warm ups. 8-12 oz.
Try to get a warm up (up to a mile) in before the start of the race. This gets the blood pumping and warms up the muscles. Get some strides in and make sure you go through a stretching regime that works for you.
Go to the bathroom early and often. Don’t be the guy in the corral that takes a piss. Literally.
Don’t overdress. How many Kenyon runners wear tights during their race? If it is really cold, wear a top that you can discard at the corral area.
Race Start – Easy does it.
I know. Easy to say, but hard to do! I try to relax and think of all the training runs, go Zen-like in the brain and mentally thank the folks that support me and allow me to do this crazy thing we call Marathoning!
In big races you may not get to a normal running stride right away so be careful and stay out of trouble.
Don’t panic and zig zag wildly in the first few miles to get ahead of any pack. This is a race of attrition and you need not worry about staying with a Pace Group or pack in mile one or two. Be patient and look for small seams in the runners ahead where you can move through without significantly breaking your forward path. This will help you conserve energy and glycogen which you will need later in the race.
And have you heard this? It is often helpful physiologically to run the first few miles a few seconds per mile slower than your planned pace as you ease into your race.
Pacing patterns…Even Splits Traditionally = Best Results.
You should have accurate pacing for yourself through your training.
Use your mental discipline to hold back in the early miles when the pace feels easy and others are going out seemingly too fast.
Don’t be too chatty during the race. You’ll need every ounce of energy in your final push. I find it incredible that people want to talk about all kinds of things during the first half of a marathon. Don’t take the bait and converse with these folks. You are not being rude you are sticking to your race plan.
You may have heard the cliché of “Putting Time in the Bank” by going out faster than your race pace. This is bogus strategy for most. However, you will pay back time for any fast miles with double or triple the time in the final 10k! So stick to even splits!
Hydration: Do it.
In warm conditions at racing intensities you may lose between 1 and 2 liters of fluid per hour.
Research states that dehydration can lead to increases in heart rate and core body temperature, decreased blood flow to skin and working muscles, increases in muscle glycogen utilization, increases in exercise related to discomfort, and decreased performance. And when you first realize “The wheels may be coming off,” it’s too late. So plan at the onset to hydrate early and often!
For most runners under normal conditions, water intake somewhere between 14-24 oz. per hour, should be sufficient. This is about the amount in one water bottle. Try and hit every aid station and slow to a jog or walk if necessary to get the water in you and not on you! 4 aid stations in an hour = 4-6 oz. per stop is a great strategy.
Carbo Replacement can be from Sports drink, gels, or other easily digestible products. I carry 3 GU gels with me for a marathon and try to hit a sports drink every 4th aid station. Water, water, water, Gatorade! Water, water, water, Gatorade!
Focus on your own race and not what is going on around you.
Mental checklist of systems: Periodically assess for any niggles, tightness, fatigue, thirst, and make minor corrections as needed. Smooth light turnover and normal cadence.
Break your race into smaller chunks: If you are just ticking off splits one after another this can be mentally exhausting.
I don’t like the typical two chunks you mostly hear about. These being: Try and run two 13.1s Negative Splits or the 20 & 6.2…” Because at 20 is where the Race Starts?” I love the Cbus Marathon, but the dreaded 13.1 mile marker where you keep running straight and the “Halfers” get to turn home and be done…Can be mental anguish if you allow it to be! And if the race started at 20 mile marker, then they would only call it a 10k. But runners work themselves into a tizzy getting to 20 and then fall apart. Don’t get yourself to the “Wall of 20” and then mentally start to fizzle.
I use these strategies when “chunking” my marathon: These strategies eliminate the bogeys of the 13.1 and the 20 mile markers and hopefully help you stay mentally fresh when others with no plan find themselves in no man’s land.
“17, 10k, 5k.” There you go. It’s my Boston strategy. Go through the first 17 miles smooth and easy - to Newton. Focus on your next 10k through the rollers and umm Heartbreak Hill, come out strong and have a strong 5k to the finish!
“5 x 5 miles with a 1.2 miles cruise to the finish.” Tricking the brain to run your race like a workout works too. Strategy may be to hit the 5 intervals in 33 minutes each.
“Family, Friends, and a 5k!” Position most of your support base at mile 23. For the Cbus Marathon, my support group has hosted a Marathon Party at the 23 mile marker. The entire race I tell myself to keep it together and look good for your kids, sig other, and all your friends. Then cruise to the finish with a fast 5k!
Caution to the wind. Yep. Animalistic instincts baby! In the last 3-5 miles, if you are racing this sucker, you may have to go with a competitor when you least expect it. Have this arrow in your quiver and don’t get caught off guard by a major move. If you are in any small pack at this stage, coyly access your group and try to calculate anyone making some type of move. Expect it and be ready to match, punish, and lay down with a respected competitor. Most races have “official bikes” marking the overall & age group leaders (in Boston, if you placed in the top ten in your age group for qualifying times, you have the pleasure of attaching a second bib on the back of your singlet to let everyone know you are age group worthy. I liken this experience to a bullseye). Look out for these or similar markers and keep pace if a money prize or age group prize is an ambition.
Throughout the Race:
Positive self- talk: Remind yourself you have trained and are well prepared for this race.
Draft or tuck in behind other runners to let them act as a wind block for you…Especially in long straight-aways.
Run the tangents or the shortest lines along the course, inside curves.
Have a mantra for your race. Something to help you focus and is simple to repeat.
Keep your brain in the race. Nothing is ever as good as it seems. Nothing is ever as bad as it seems. Don’t get overconfident and don’t panic just because you are having a tough patch. If this game was easy, you wouldn’t need 12-18 weeks (or more) preparation. Be ready for the tough patch.
Remember to treat the Marathon with respect. It is a beast of an event, but will reward you with life changing positive experiences! The pain goes away, your PB is here to stay.
Follow these guidelines and you will have done your best to run an optimal race!