Since most of you are in the heart of your fall marathon training, I thought that it would be a good time to talk about training with a focus, and also share a few tips for the weekend and day of the BIG race.
For starters, let's talk about the biggest mistake I see when doing long runs in training for race day. Many times people feel so great as their long runs build, that the 2nd or 3rd real long run (let's say 18 miles or longer) ends up turning into a race effort. The weather is turning cooler, and the body is rested "enough," so they begin like all other runs at a relaxed pace and feel pretty darn good. Slowly, they ramp up their pace a tad more than normal, and the miles are just clicking off! As they near the 14-16 mile mark, they either continue to click those off, or they ramp up the pace even more. Sometimes, because they're feeling so good, they even decide to add a few more miles. They think, "How could it hurt?" It ends up in many ways being the near-perfect race effort or at least considerably harder than their normal training run. However, they end up doing too much work where they can't recover enough to do their normal weekly runs or even impacting their next long run. Then their fitness falls and they lose their build. On race day, they are just "flat," not horrible, but not great. If they go out a tad fast and push the limit, they may crash and burn, never once suspecting this all started on a long run a few weeks back. They actually reference this run as being the reason why race day should have been even better. They think, "Well heck, I can't believe I wasn't faster than a few weeks ago in a training run. Things were going great. I should have been able to run even faster in the race based on that training run!"
My best advice is to AVOID racing your training runs! Save racing for race day. (This can be harder to grasp as faster long runs don't exactly seem like race pace even when they are.) To clarify and give perspective: if you run a 4-hour marathon and you are running a long run at 8:55-9:05 you ARE running at RACE PACE! This reality is harder for most people to grasp compared to say a 5k where they run a race in 21:30 and they know race pace is 7 min/mile, and it's pretty obvious they shouldn't run training runs at 7-minute pace. (Actually, it's almost impossible to do more than one of those!)
Learning to run at race pace is important, but it should be practiced more on the Wednesday mid-week long run (many times that is the 6-10 miler). These mid-week long runs are long enough for that pace to be a bit challenging with the weekly mileage but not long enough where you end up "racing" your long runs. They will teach you pacing, help your body become more efficient running at these paces, and you'll be able to recover in time before your long run. You could also run a 12-16 miler and do 3 x 3-4 miles at race pace with a few slower miles (1-2 minutes slower per mile depending on your experience and ability) to recover a bit and keep you from "racing" the entire long run.
Another mistake I see people making--especially with big races like Chicago, New York, and Marine Corps Marathons, and other large attendance marathons--is that they underestimate how different the 24 hours before the start of the race is from their typical long run training experience. They get in their groove with a routine on their weekly long runs: They go to sleep easily (no fear of the long run or anxiety). They have their pre-run routine and nutrition figured out. They eat "x" at this time, the drive is "x" long, and they know there is a port-a-john at the start (or where to stop before they get to the long run location). They know exactly how much sports nutrition they need before the run and at what interval to start and maintain the feeding & hydration. They know how much time they need to drive, get a pre-run stretch in, etc. All of these are part of the tried and true routines that work. Then, all of a sudden, when race day comes, they must get up extra early to drive downtown and add in lots of unknowns such as bathroom locations, traffic, drive time, parking, etc. All of these things are hard to predict, so they can't figure out how to manage their aforementioned standard routines. Or they stay downtown the night before the race, and they also have a bunch of new unknowns - what time to get up, food (what, when and where), where they can use a bathroom. What if they are used to not talking to anyone and now they have plenty of people distractions? Are they not used to their spouse, parents, or kids being along? Do these non-racers' needs interfere with their routine and needs?
As you can see, there are tons of new variables. Add in corrals and a long wait before the big race and the anxiety can increase significantly. If they have a goal that they are shooting for, are they nervous? Have they been running a higher heart rate for the last 24 hours, or is it really pretty high the last 2-3 hours before the race? Did they have to walk 10-20 minutes before they get to the start? How does all this impact their nutritional needs? Have they changed their fueling and feeding plan to address this? I think everyone can see the potential new obstacles. If the fueling is not good the morning of the race due to the change from a "normal routine" or nerves run high, and heart rate and energy demands are higher, then they end up in trouble with fueling and energy. Once the gun goes off, even if they pace correctly, they can end up behind in the fueling. If they let the excitement get to them and they go out too fast or skip their first feeds, then things can get even worse quicker.
Consider their energy stores may be more depleted at gun time from the increased heart rate and metabolism from nerves. Taking their first feed at 30 or 45 minutes means they may be already closer to glycogen depletion (usually we have 90 minutes of stored glycogen when starting fully fueled). Add in missing the first feed due to excitement or going out too fast, and the wheels can fall off easily by mile 8-13 for many. In these cases, knowledge is power, and with some planning and educated guesses, they can mitigate most of this. These additional issues can also explain why people who run a big marathon like Chicago miss their goals and then choose to run a smaller race where they can walk to the start, etc. There is less hype and no family, and boom, they run at (or faster than) their initial goals 3-5 weeks after what they thought was their "A" race. If we add in the decreased personal pressure, it's even easier to see why the second race goes so much better. In theory, the first race should be the one you do best in, but when some or all of the scenarios mentioned above play out, it's easy to see why the second marathon 3-5 weeks later is the better one for many people.
I encourage you to think through your entire plan for the 24-48 hours before the "A" race marathon and avoid all of the issues I mentioned above. Especially if your "A" race is Chicago, New York, or Marine Corps Marathon. These huge races can definitely make it tougher to have a perfect race day. I have seen many people plan around these issues with great success!
If you find you have trouble mastering this and still would like to run these big races for fast times, then I suggest the following: Sign up for other big races like Shamrock Shuffle, Rock' n' Roll Half Marathon, and similar races throughout your summer and even year-round where you can practice developing a routine which will work for you at these types of events. This extra practice will make these events feel more normal. That will remove much of the nervous energy, which raises heart rates. The 24-48 hours will become more routine, and you'll end up with better outcomes!
Remember to practice all the things you plan to do on race day ahead of time. Make sure you get used to the nutrition and hydration you plan to use. If you have plans to feed on the course, then practice fueling with what they will provide. If you're carrying fuel and hydration, practice wearing and using what you intend to use on race day. Get up and run downtown once or twice and develop a routine, or at least get rid of any predictable mistakes that you could make on race day. (Try waking up at 3:30 or 4:00 in your suburb, eat and drive downtown, park on the lake, and do a run along the lake, even if it's an 8-12 mile step-down week. Just get an idea of drive time, and where you can stop to use the bathroom, etc.). If you plan on staying downtown, then Priceline a night downtown, spend a night in the city with your spouse or kids, and get a little idea of how things will go on race day. Fix what you didn't like. Again, I suggest doing these on shorter long run weeks as it's easier to deal with fueling during the run and other issues.
I coach athletes for many events ranging from 5Ks to marathons, Ironmans, big epic running and mountain bike races like Leadville, along with cross country ski races and kayak racing. They all have many common threads, but one that sticks out week after week, all year no matter the event, is that those who have the best races are the ones who have a predictable, practiced routine for the 24-48 hours before the race, and they have a plan going into the race that's thought out. Then they stick to the plan the best they can. Those are the people who consistently have great results! I realize your plan may not ever be perfect, but it's a valuable guide to keep you from making big mistakes.
Good luck and health to you this marathon season!
(Remember, don't race in practice! Train in practice and save racing for race day!)
This article was originally published in the September/October 2019 edition of the Alpine Runners Newsletter.