The marathon is such an intriguing event for coaches and athletes. As a coach, I must admit that marathon preparation is a bit intimidating because so much can go wrong, even for the prepared athlete, during the marathon. That said, athletes who have done intelligent marathon training for several months and who are willing to commit to a race plan have a very good chance of running a quality race when the gun goes off. Here are four lessons to learn before you toe the line on race day.
You Can't Run Faster Than Your Fitness
The first thing to remember about the marathon—and this goes for any distance as well—is that you can't run faster than your level of fitness. This becomes a bit tricky in the marathon because when you have the fitness to run the 26.2 miles in 3:30, the 8-minute miles that are associated with that pace will feel really slow the first few miles. You might even get to the 10-mile or 15-mile mark and still feel good running at 7:40 or 7:45 pace per mile (or 3:23 marathon pace). But if you're in 3:30 shape and you try to run significantly faster than 3:30, you're going to "hit the wall" hard in the late miles.
It's not uncommon to see marathon runners have a good race through 18 or even 20 miles at PR-setting pace, but then slow horribly, maybe even to a walk. There's nothing like a few miles of walking to take you from a slight PR to a time that you're embarrassed to share with your training partners.
So be honest about your fitness. What was the pace of your marathon-pace runs? How have your long runs gone, and what was your pace? Have you done Yasso 800s to get an idea of what you might be able to run for the full marathon distance (though you need to be careful with this predictive workout—it only works if you've done all of the other necessary marathon preparation)?
Now, please don't take this advice as me telling you not to try for a PR. If the course is flat and fast, and you're fit, by all means, figure out that PR pace and get into a groove … and then grind it out in the final miles. Even though there will be a ton of excitement on race day—who doesn't get pumped up when they're playing good music at the start line—you need to stick to your pre-race plan, a guide that is based on your current level of fitness.
Don't Go Out Too Fast
Don't go out too fast. If you do, bad things will happen later in the race. In many ways this lesson is similar to the first, but it's an important one. If you've run several marathons and are shooting for a small PR, you're always better going out a bit conservatively and then grinding out the final miles to set a PR. You want to run an even pace or a negative-split race, where the second half is faster than the first half. Again, this may be subtle. For our 3:30 marathoner, he might hit 8-minute miles on the nose for 20 miles, then speed up just 5 seconds per mile for the final 6.2 miles. But, if he does that, he'll run a 30-second PR—certainly something to celebrate post-race.
This lesson is hard to put into practice, especially if you've done solid training and have completed an appropriate taper. Your legs should feel great come race day, and since your aerobic "engine" (your heart and lungs) are ready to go, it's going to take some concentration to hold back and run your pace for the first 15 to 18 miles of the race.
And maybe the biggest thing to remember within this lesson is this: Most everyone who runs the marathon will slow down in the second half of the race. This means that you must resist the urge to get sucked along with those around you, most of whom will end up slowing down later in the race.
For some racers, this is where the pace packs really help. You'll see a pace team leader holding a sign printed with their goal finish time above their heads. If you want to break 3:30, run with that 3:30 group for 18 or 20 miles, then gently start to speed up, moving through those final miles faster than the 3:30 group.
Hydration and Fueling Are Important
Two simple facts to remember. When you run the marathon, you start to run slower when you lose too much water. Thus, you need to replenish this lost water at the aid stations. Second, you don't have enough stored glycogen in your body to finish a 26.2-mile race. While your body will tap into fat stores to help you run the race, you'll be well served to take in sugars, either in the form of a sports drink or in the form of gels, during the race.
So here's the deal: You need to practice these two things before the big day. The best time to practice them is on your long run. There are many solutions, with perhaps the easiest being a "fuel belt" that has little bottles you can put water or a sports drink in, and a pouch that could hold a couple of gels. Another way to practice is to find a loop—say 4 miles—and simply set up cups or bottles on a car or even a folding table, and practice running by and learning to drink from an open cup (this will allow you to practice drinking from an "aid station" several times during a 16- or 20-mile run).
Some people will simply run the race with their belt, while others don't want that extra weight and are comfortable taking liquids from the aid stations. Either way, you need to hydrate and fuel during the marathon, and you need to practice this skill before race day.
You Will Likely Have a Couple of Rough Miles
Even the best marathon runners in the world report having a bad mile or two during the marathon, even when they go on to win or set a PR. This is different from other distances, such as the 5K or 10K, where PR days usually come when you gradually feel less comfortable as the race goes on, but you usually don't have a middle mile that goes poorly.
So just roll with it. Be mindful of your respiration, and if you're really hurting, try to find someone running your pace and get near them, then just follow along. If you can stay focused for that mile (or two), you have a very good chance of feeling better.
And with the earlier point in mind, stay patient for a mile or two after an aid station for your body to process the fact that your brought some sugars on board. The body responds positively to bringing in fuel during the marathon, yet for most people there is a bit of a delay before you feel better.
The marathon is a great challenge for all runners, but you need to be mindful of a handful of lessons to run to your potential on race day.