Fall marathon season is in full swing, with one of the world's biggest races, the TCS New York City Marathon, taking place in just six (!) days. I'm running Sunday's event, and while this is my sixth marathon overall, and my fifth time toeing the line in NYC, I have to admit I'm more than a little bit nervous. You see, I haven’t run 26.2 in two years, so I feel kind of like a newbie. And if I’ve got butterflies, I am sure many first-timers out there are feeling even more jittery.
That’s why I decided to reach out to former competitive runner Andrew Kastor for some advice and calming words. Not only does he coach his wife, Olympic bronze medalist Deena Kastor, he's the coaching director for the Asics L.A. Marathon, and head coach of the Asics Mammoth Track Club in Mammoth, California. Basically this guy knows what he's taking about.
He reminded me of a few basic but incredibly important things to remember during the final countdown to a marathon.
Trust your training
If you’ve done what you were supposed to do, then you've put in several solid months of practice. Have faith in your hard work. Now is not the time to try and “make up” any long runs or push yourself. Log those last few easy runs, per your training schedule, so that you can get to the start feeling your absolute best.
Just add (a little) salt
Believe it or not, sodium is crucial when it come to hydration. This electrolyte helps regulate your fluid levels. When yours are depleted, you may experience cramping (or worse, a dangerous condition called hyponatremia), neither of which are things you want to deal with on the course. “No need to down a salt packet or anything,” Kastor says. “Just make sure you are adding it to your meals in the days leading up to the marathon.” In other words, sprinkle a little here and there on your grub or eat some pretzels throughout the week.
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There is no reason to eat your weight in Fettuccine Alfredo the night before the big day. A sensible portion of pasta will do. More importantly, your goal should be to begin stockpiling carbs little by little this week. “It’s the best way to carbo-load because it is the easiest on your system,” explains Kastor. “Stick to things like pretzels, bagels, and high-carb fruits,” starting Wednesday or Thursday.
Steer clear of sample foods at the expo
The expo is like the Garden of Eden for runners: there's so much great stuff at every turn and exhibitors will try to reel you in with all of those tester bites and sips. Resist temptation, warns Kastor. You don’t know how your body will react to that stuff and the last thing you want is to spend most of your 26.2 miles running to a porta-potty. “Make your expo visit a quick one,” says Kastor. “Pick up your number, quickly peep at booths, and get out of there!”
“If you don’t have bedsores by race day, then you have not rested enough,” Kastor jokes. The goal is to spend as little time on your feet as possible, especially the day before the race. And try to log as much sleep during the week as you can. Those pre-race jitters the night before may keep you up longer than anticipated.
Dress warmly at the start
While you may have trained during those hot, humid summer months, the forecast for a fall or winter marathon is typically chilly. For the TCS New York City Marathon, you could be sitting on Staten Island for up to 4 hours in frigid temps before you even step foot in the corrals. That means you’ll want to layer up to keep warm, especially since shivering expends energy, and you want to save all of that for the actual race. My suggestion: Use those old, holey sweats and don’t-quite-fit coats that are taking up room in your closet. Or head to a Goodwill and load up on some warm, inexpensive threads. Whatever your choice, make sure they are things you don’t mind discarding before the start or along the course (bonus: many races collect these items and donate them). Another handy tip: “Rub Vaseline on your hamstrings and calves to keep them warm,” advises Kastor. “A nice layer of petroleum jelly goes a long way.”
Don’t do anything new on race day
If you follow no other rule, be sure to follow this golden one! Race day is not the time to test out a new breakfast option, that cute little tank you bought at the expo, or even a new energy gel flavor, reminds Kastor. This is the day to do exactly what you have practiced on all of those long training runs: “Eat a faithful breakfast you’ve been practicing with all season long. Wear the shoes and socks you’ve been training in all season long. Wear the outfit you’ve been training in all season long. Don’t do anything new!” warns Kastor. The slightest change in your routine could lead to disastrous results.
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Stick to your pace
At the start of the race your adrenaline will be high—after all, you’ve been training for months for this day. Once that gun goes off, you’ll likely want to take off at warp speed. Don’t. No matter how excited you are, don’t push the pace. In fact, hold back the first mile or two. “You’ve been training for a specific pace, so stick to it,” says Kastor. When you start out faster than planned, you’re more likely to peter out in the later miles—and nobody wants to hit the wall.
Visualize your finish
Your body may be facing a difficult test, but your mind can make or break your race as well. That’s because running is a hugely mental sport. So many things can go through your noggin when you're pounding the pavement, making it easy for you to get in your own way. The thing is, worrying wastes valuable energy, and can turn your 26.2 miles into a major downer. Kastor’s suggestion: “Visualize yourself coming into Central Park [or wherever your race ends], hearing the fans cheering and screaming for you, feeling strong, and celebrating at the finish line, hands thrown up in elation.” This should help power you through those tough miles.
Good luck everyone, and remember to run smart and kick hard!