It’s easy to get worked up about a big race, particularly one you’ve invested so much training time into, and many spring marathon runners are now into that uneasy period we call tapering, which is often full of maranoia, or feelings of self-doubt and last minute panic training. I got my taper for my first ever marathon completely wrong – I did hardly any running, I gorged myself silly, and I ignored niggling injury. But having made these mistakes, I feel like I now can share my top tips for how to get this tricky period right.
So what should your last week of marathon training look like? Here are my top tips.
- Relax. All your hard work is done. Those months of training miles have made you a stronger runner, with plenty of endurance. There is absolutely no point trying to cram in a last long run – you’ll either injure yourself, or leave yourself worn out for the race itself. Training tends to have around a 3 week lag, so most people tend to do their longest run 3 weeks before the marathon, then spend the few weeks before recovering, reducing mileage volume, and allowing their bodies to consolidate all those training miles ready to go into the race refreshed with fresh legs. With this in mind, relax. If you’re worrying, do some yoga or some simple breathing exercises to clear your mind. A great exercise to help you relax is to sit somewhere quiet with your feet on the ground, breathe in through your nose to the count of 5 paying attention to how your diaphragm raises as your lungs inflate. Hold that breath for the count of 6, then exhale slowly through your mouth for the count of 7. Close your eyes and repeat as needed, visualising yourself feeling strong in those last few miles.
- Eat well. Most importantly, eat normally. Don’t make drastic changes to your diet in the week before a marathon, because this will upset your delicate digestive system which could end badly on race day. Don’t be tempted to carb load with enormous quantities of pasta the night before the marathon either – if you’re eating sensibly during the week, you can add in very small additional portions of carbohydrate that your body will happily store ahead of those 26.2 miles without bloating you or making you feel lethargic and nauseous. Nobody needs toilet trouble the morning of the marathon so stick to what you know. The same goes for breakfast the morning of the marathon – if your usual pre-run breakfast is a bowl of porridge and a crumpet with a cup of coffee, then stick with that. You know it works. By now, you should have practised your race day nutrition on a long run, because this week is not the time to try anything new. Stick with what you know.
- Reduce training volume to about half your weekly mileage, but there’s no need to slow down as that will be counter-productive. Practice your marathon training pace during shorter runs to boost your confidence. Add in some strides (short, faster bursts with exaggerated technique) at the end of your shorter runs to keep yourself feeling springy and reminding yourself of good running technique.
- Don’t compare yourself to others. Everybody is different. Everybody approaches, and responds to, training differently so don’t compare yourself to that person who’s been smashing out 20 mile training runs every weekend for the past 2 months at quicker than your 5k pace – it’s irrelevant to your performance at the marathon and will only cause you unnecessary worry and stress.
- Have a practice run in your race day kit, to make sure there are no areas chafing or socks causing blisters, then give it a wash and get it all ready for the big day so you’re not worrying about it the evening before.
- Keep active. Don’t use taper as an excuse to stop running and put your feet up – you’re simply reducing mileage volume to give your legs a chance to feel fresh on race day but you should still be running regularly. If you normally swim, cycle or do weights at the gym, don’t stop this, just carry on as normal but reduce your training load slightly. At the other extreme, now is not the time to try that new HIIT class, or climbing place. Save that for afterwards.
- Get some quality sleep. Sleep is really important to runners – it’s when most of our recovery occurs to our muscles, it keeps our nervous and immune systems healthy, and it keeps your energy levels up. Getting a few good quality nights of sleep the week before your marathon will be crucial to good performance on the day. If you’re struggling to sleep: ensure your bedroom is dark and quiet to encourage the production of melatonin; try the breathing exercise in point 1 as you lay in bed; ban technology and blue screens in the bedroom (yes that means TVs and your smartphones!) and an hour before bed; and try a hot bath an hour before bed too. Don’t worry too much about the night before the marathon, just focus on getting quality sleep a few nights beforehand.
- Stay away from germs. Maranoia may be a made up word, but it is a very real feeling indeed. After months of training, the last thing we want to do is pick up an injury or worse, a cold! Avoid shaking hands with people if you can, and pay attention to hygiene in general, such as regular hand washing or using an alcohol gel.
- Don’t obsess over the weather. What will be will be – remember that the forecast is usually only accurate a couple of days before but if rain is expected, pack a poncho or bin liner to wear at the start line to avoid getting wet and cold before the race. Otherwise, make sure you have sunscreen!
- Check the race information now and work out how you are getting to the start line – be organised, and this will help you to feel prepared and ready. If friends and family are supporting you on the day, look up the route and plan where you will see them. Many races also offer live online tracking for friends and family not at the race.
- Relax! Yes I know I’ve mentioned this right at the top, but this is the most important point. A relaxed, happy runner will have a relaxed happy race.
Enjoy and best of luck! I hope these tips are useful – please let me know how you get on at your marathon.