Getting it right on race dayMay 3rd, 2010
by Amby Burfoot
You've trained, tapered, and overcome your share of bumps in the road. But there's still a lot you need to do right on marathon day. The experts who share their hard-won wisdom below have run hundreds of marathons between them. They know more about the ins and outs of race day than anyone around. Except you, if you read on.
- Don't do anything new. Race day is not the time for new shoes, new food or drinks, new clothing, or anything else you haven't done on several training runs. Stick with a routine that works for you. "I learned the hard way that when you try something new on race day, you often end up regretting it," says Russ Pate, who has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology and qualified for three U.S. Marathon Trials in '72, '76, and '80. "I eventually developed a routine that I followed ritualistically before all my races."
- Eat first thing. Too many marathoners skip breakfast on race day, opting for just a cup of coffee and/or some sports drink. You need more than that. "From the time you go to bed until the start of the race is usually eight to 10 hours," says Ken Sparks, who has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology and ran a personal best 2:28 at age 46. "In that time, your liver glycogen — which is stored carbohydrate — gets depleted. If you don't have a simple, high-carb breakfast, you're going to be in trouble at 20 miles." Bananas, bagels, or energy bars are good picks.
- Don't overdress. Marathons often start in the cool of early morning, and it's easy to overestimate the amount of clothing you'll need. As a rule of thumb, it will probably feel 10 or more degrees warmer once you get going, and temps will rise as the day goes on. If you wear too much clothing, you're carrying extra weight, and will sweat more than you want, possibly increasing your body temperature and risk of dehydration. "If you overdress, you create a microclimate around the skin that induces sweating," says Mel Williams, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist, author of The Ergogenics Edge, and veteran marathoner who expects to run his 30th-straight Marine Corps Marathon on October 30. "The best clothing allows for some heat loss, but not so much that you become uncomfortably cold."
- Prevent chafing. "During a marathon, every moving body part that can chafe will chafe," says Williams. And nothing is more irritating and painful than skin rubbed raw. To prevent this, make sure your shoes, socks, and clothing have no raised seams that will rub against the skin. Also, use Vaseline, BodyGlide, or something similar in key locations, including your armpits, nipples, and inner thighs.
- Wear sunscreen. Marathoners sometimes don't think about the fact that they're in the sun long enough to get sunburned. This is particularly true if you finish in four or five hours, which takes you into the high-sun time of the day, or if you run the Boston Marathon, which starts at noon on a course with little shade. "I used to run with a cap on my head, but then I decided that the cap was holding in too much heat," remembers Williams. "So one year, I ran without the cap. I got sunburned so badly, it turned into one of my most painful races. Now I put a nongreasy sunblock on my head, my shoulders, and my lips."
- Pin your race number on your shorts. That way you can fiddle all you want with your upper-body apparel. If the temperature rises, you can peel off the long-sleeve shirt that kept you toasty for the first three miles. If the wind kicks up, reach for the shirt that's wrapped around your waist. "When you put your number on your shorts, you can add or subtract layers as needed to adjust to changing conditions," says Greg Crowther, a 2:22-marathoner with a Ph.D. in physiology and biophysics. "On a hot day, you could even exchange a sweaty shirt for a dry one. The easier you can vary your torso covering, the better."
- Go for the jolt. Twenty years ago, researchers thought that caffeine helped runners burn more fat, thereby sparing precious glycogen. That theory has been mostly disproved, but caffeine does make the marathon feel easier. "I did a caffeine-endurance study with some researchers at Yale, and we didn't find any difference in fat burning," says Hal Goforth, who has run the last 28 Boston Marathons in a row and has a Ph.D. in kinesiology and a marathon PR of 2:28. "But the exercisers on caffeine had higher levels of beta-endorphins and a lower perceived effort." So drink your normal amount of coffee before the race. Or, if you want to be more scientific about it, Goforth suggests taking caffeine tablets 60 to 90 minutes before the marathon at a dose of three milligrams per pound of your body weight.
- Top off your tank. Most marathoners know enough to stay well hydrated in the days before their race. It's tough to superhydrate, however, because your kidneys have time to release any excess water you consume. But in the final minutes to half hour before the start, you can trick your kidneys by sneaking in a late drink. (Your kidneys will mostly shut down once you start running hard.) "I carry my Gatorade to the starting line, and keep sipping it as long as my stomach feels comfortable," says Williams, who also eats pretzels before the marathon, figuring the extra salt will help him retain the fluids he consumes.
- Keep your warmup short. It makes sense to not warm up much before a marathon. After all, you want to save energy. But you'll actually run more efficiently if you first loosen up your leg muscles. "I do a warmup just to the point of a very light sweat," says Kitty Consolo, who has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology and a marathon best of 2:42. "I also use my warmup to gauge the weather, to see how I'll need to adjust my pace to the conditions."
- Run even pace. This is possibly the oldest and most important of marathon strategies. "Both the laboratory data and experiences of countless marathoners show that even-pace running is the optimal approach," says Pate. "In my best marathons, I almost felt that I was running too slow the first five to 10 miles." Exercise physiologist Phil Sparling, Ph.D., concurs. "You have to run so slow that it feels like you're holding yourself back," says Sparling. "Later it feels so good when you're going strong and passing people."
- Fix it sooner, not later. You might notice that your shoelace is beginning to come untied. Or you're starting to chafe in that one particular spot. Or a pebble has taken up residence in your left shoe. These things don't go away on their own. And the sooner you deal with them, the better you'll fair over the distance. "It's like the old saying, 'An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,'" says Crowther. "Only in the marathon, it's more like an ounce of cure early is better than a pound of pain later."
- Drink early — and late. When you're aiming for a fast marathon time — say a sub-three-hour —every ounce of fluid you consume helps maintain the blood flow to your skin (for cooling) and to your heart and muscles. Since running hard slows the absorption of fluids from your stomach, you need to begin drinking early to have the fluids become available later. That said, Crowther says drinking at the 24-mile mark also helps. "There might not be time to absorb all the water and sugars, but some can get into your system, and this will help you in that last tough mile." (Important note: If you expect to run four hours or slower, be careful not to overdrink and develop hyponatremia. Drink when you are thirsty, and stop drinking if your stomach becomes uncomfortably full of fluids.)
- Use some gel. Sports drinks contain carbohydrates and other good stuff, but gels provide a more concentrated source of carbs that can prove especially helpful in the last half of the marathon. Williams carries four gel packs, and takes them at miles 10, 14, 18, and 22. "I'm trying to get about 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour," says Williams. "That's about the maximum the body can handle."
- Draft off someone. Hey, it works for Lance Armstrong. The drafting effect isn't as strong in running, but it's still there. "I always tried to tuck in behind someone in my marathons, because it's so much more efficient to follow," says Sparks. "I'd often pick one of the first women. They'd usually run a strong, even pace." Just be decent about it and don't follow too closely, or better yet, agree to take turns leading so you're working together with this person. Alternative: Find a marathon that offers pace groups, and join the peloton, just like Lance.
- Don't charge the hills. The goal in marathon running is to maximize your efficiency over 26.2 miles. That's why drafting works. And it's why running hard up the hills doesn't work. "From an energy-output perspective, you gain more speed by putting your effort into the flats than the hills," says Crowther. "When you're on the hills, just relax. Don't worry about those people who are passing you. You'll get them back later."