The key to running a strong first marathon is to remember the three "P's": Preparedness, Patience and Perseverance.
Here are 13 tips to help you run your best first marathon.
Communicate With Your Family1 of 14
There's something funny that happens about two weeks out from the marathon, a well-documented syndrome called "taper madness," when the training mileage decreases and you have way too much time to think. This condition creeps into your life like a snake in the grass. The symptoms include:
Although taper madness can be unpleasant, I believe it's a survival mechanism to prevent us from doing really stupid things like dancing on the tables the night before the race. It's wise to have a talk with your family a month out from your marathon and warn them that you'll be on edge and if they want to talk to you about anything important, they should wait until after the race. Oh, and let them know that it's nothing personal; it's just taper madness.
To keep yourself on track during this time, review your training plan and have faith in the preparation—it's what got you here and what will help you reach the finish line on race day.
Set Healthy Expectations2 of 14
Even the most seasoned marathoners have no idea what their marathon times will be. Think about it—setting a finish time is a little like picking the winning lottery numbers because there are so many variables that can affect your performance: wind, rain, cold, heat, humidity, etc.
The best way to go into the marathon is with healthy expectations. This means aiming for a strong finish and being open to what the day may bring. It rained, sleeted, and snowed on the day of my first marathon, and the Gatorade was frozen at all the aid stations. Had I been racing for a time or had specific expectations of the day I would have been upset—but my goal was to finish upright and I did just that.
Running your first marathon is all about conquering the distance, not beating the clock. It's a way to establish your marathon fitness, which you can continue to build on and improve in future races.
Taper Your Training3 of 14
Most people think the longest miles are the toughest part of marathon training, but I believe it's the taper. At about 3 to 4 weeks out, you've run your longest run, your mileage and intensity are gradually dropping, and you find yourself with much more time on your hands. It can be tempting to add more mileage to your training plan for insurance, but doing so will only risk you leaving your best miles on the training path.
Follow a gradual taper and rest up so you can run the distance on race day with fresh, strong legs. It may seem counter intuitive, but it works, and it will leave you chomping at the bit to start the marathon (exactly where you want to be).
Go With What You Know4 of 14
The number one rule in racing is to avoid trying anything new on race day. The most frequently asked question I hear during race week is, "what should I eat?" My answer: eat what you've eaten all season, go with what is tried and true and consume a slightly higher ratio of carbohydrates.
Your nerves can work against you and cause you to question everything you're doing, from which shoe to put on first, to what you should wear and what you should eat. Stick with what you've done all season in long training runs (dress rehearsals).
From an upset stomach from eating too much broccoli to hypernatremia from drinking too much water, you can get yourself into a heap of trouble trying to change things up during race week. Keep it simple; stick with what your body knows.
Make a List and Check it Twice5 of 14
If you're anything like me in the morning, you could easily forget to put on your running shoes on race day. One of the runners I coached once showed up for a race in his wife's shoes because he forgot to pack his own. It takes me a while to wake up and function properly in the morning, so I create a go-to list 2 to 3 weeks out (before taper madness kicks in) of all the things I'll need for the race. This way, all I need to do race weekend is take out my list, check it twice, and lay my things out the night before.
Review the Course6 of 14
Make use of the extra time you'll have before the race and download the course map and get familiar with it. You don't have to memorize the route because you'll be following thousands of runners, but studying it prior to the race will help you develop a visual picture of the start and finish locations, the turns, where the aid stations are located, and the sites you'll see along the way.
This is also a great way to develop a mental strategy to help you complete the course. Break the total distance into smaller, more digestible pieces, or what I like to call eating the elephant one bite at a time.
Some courses look like a figure eight and you can break them down into two big loops or four legs. Others are one big loop where you can find locations on the course or designate your pieces by mileage (miles 7, 14, 20 and the finish). There are a lot of ways to mentally digest the course and half of the fun is figuring out what works for you.
Avoid Unnecessary Stress7 of 14
Arrive at least one hour before the start of the race to find the gear check, use the bathrooms, and get into the starting area on time. There's nothing worse than sprinting to the start of a marathon because the parking lot was full and you had to find a place 10 blocks away from the start. Save yourself the stress and get there early.
When you arrive at the start, take a minute and focus on your breath. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Close your eyes and focus on the course and your mental game plan. This pre-race meditation will calm your nerves, focus your mind, and help you run a strong race.
Run for the Win (Finish) Rather Than the Time8 of 14
I'm often asked, "What pace should I run my first marathon?" My response never waivers: the pace that the day gives you. As I mentioned earlier, it's a challenge to select a perfect pace or finish time for any marathon, let alone your first. The best way to finish strong is to pace from within using your breath and your body.
Keep it simple; tap into your inner GPS. Run by color and tune into your breathing, heart rate and perceived effort (how you feel on race morning). For the first 14 miles, run at an easy, conversational pace, or in the Yellow Zone. If you're unable to talk while you're running, you're going too fast.
From miles 15 to 24, dial up the effort to what I refer to as the Orange Zone, or the pace where you can talk but only in 1 to 3 word responses (not full sentences). For the final 2.2 miles, you'll have the energy to push hard to the finish and hit the Red Zone. This is only possible if you conserve your energy early in the race and avoid going out too hard—which happens to be the number one mistake most runners make on race day. Be the tortoise not the hare; start off slow and steady.
You can entertain yourself and keep your pace in the final 10K of the race by going "fishing". Cast your invisible fishing line and hook a runner ahead of you who went out too fast. Reel them in slowly, staying in the Orange Zone, and focus on the next person. There's nothing more empowering than passing people (nicely) in the second half of a race. It keeps your mind mentally activated, focused, and allows you to run stronger than you could ever imagine.
Pick a Few Mantras9 of 14
Having a few power words or phrases can help you through the distance by holding you back in the beginning (slow and steady wins the race), and empowering you to push through the end (one step at a time). Bring out your mantras to keep your mind focused on the positive and to diffuse the negative gremlins that can sit on your shoulders with their doom and gloom messages of defeat.
Perform Head-to-Toe Form Check10 of 14
Form can fade as fatigue sets in, and a slower pace and higher levels of effort will follow. Maintain good running form by tuning into your body at every aid station. Think from head to toe: head is over the shoulders, shoulders are relaxed, arms pump like a pendulum and should not cross the center line of the body, hands are relaxed, hips under the shoulders, and feet land with short, quick strides.
You'll be amazed at how powerful this form drill can be in revitalizing your energy as you make your way to the finish line.
Dedicate a Mile to a Person or Cause11 of 14
At some point you're likely to hit a rough patch. It's OK; it's all part of the challenge. After all, if a marathon was easy, that finisher's medal you can wear and brag about in the office would mean nothing because everyone could do it.
In these moments, it's helpful to run for something outside of yourself. Dedicate a mile to a loved one, charity, friend, animal or even your favorite fictitious character. It will help you focus on something greater than yourself and pull you through the tough spots.
Walk a Minute Every Mile12 of 14
I'm often asked, "What happens if I go out too fast or have a tough race? Is there a way to save the race?" Yes, there is! If you find yourself in this situation, add walking intervals in with your running. Some runners do well by walking for one minute at every mile marker, as this adds a reward for reaching the milestones along the way.
Other runners do better with shorter intervals, like walking one minute after every song or every 3 to 5 minutes. Whatever the predicament, walking intervals help you move forward and keep you focused. This strategy also allows you time to recover so you can avoid having to walk the rest of the way to the finish line.
Celebrate and Recover13 of 14
Take the time to truly relish in your accomplishment. You trained hard, dedicated your time, and achieved your goal. No matter your time, you're a marathoner and that is special.
Incorporate a recovery program or reverse taper for the next 3 to 4 weeks. For the first week rest and give your body time to recover. If you do workout, choose gradual, low-intensity activities like walking, elliptical or yoga.
During the second week, if all feels well, start back with running at an easy effort for 30 to 40 minutes. Run a little longer during the third week but keep the effort easy. If you feel up to it, you can add in some intensity during the fourth week.
There is nothing quite like running your first marathon. You only get one chance, so make it count!