So this is it. 4 weeks to go to the marathon. 28 days to bring all of your hard work and training effort to a fine state of readiness as you launch your personal assault on the 42 km race course. Based on experience, most of it painful, some of it personal and some of it from injured runners, I would like to offer 10 tips on things to do and not do to get the most out of your marathon run.
#1: Continue your planned and progressive runs leading up to the 42 km distance event. Planning and Progression helps to reduce Pain, and with 4 weeks to go, you should have been able to complete a long run of about 30km to feel comfortable that things are on track. If, because of work, travel, and a myriad of other reasons, you have not reached this point yet, DO persist with a progressive mileage increase up to the last week before the event. If you have completed a long run of 38-40km by then, you should be in good shape.
#2: Pay attention to maintaining your glycogen levels during these last 4 weeks of training. Glycogen is your body’s energy store, and this gives you’re the fuel needed to sustain your training runs as well as the actual marathon run. If your glycogen levels are not replaced after each training run, you run the risk of starting your next run (and all the subsequent ones) at an energy-depleted state. This will not only reduce your performance, but you may also get discouraged that you are not meeting your anticipated training goals as well. Glycogen replacement starts immediately (within 1-3 hours) after your last training run, and continues into the runs themselves.
#3: Replace energy and fluids during your training runs just as you would during the actual marathon. This is a first step (pun intended) to helping the glycogen levels stay in a healthy state. But more importantly, it ensures that you are not turning up on that early morning in December carrying energy drinks, bars or gels that you have never consumed before during exercise, and all carried in some container that you have not adjusted to your running style in earlier runs. This could well lead to you feeling physically sick as you try to eat/drink during the marathon, while putting up with sores from an unaccustomed drink and food carrier. So in these last 4 weeks, sort out what you are going to carry for energy and fluids, and how to carry it. And then build this into your training.
#4: Remember to taper off your training and runs in the last week before the marathon. Your last long run should probably be about 4-6 days before the event, and then you should spend the days leading up to the marathon focusing on your recovery from the last run, pre-race nutrition, and perhaps a few short easy runs to keep limber. Rather than an all-out carbohydrate loading routine starting with a glycogen-depleting workout at this time, do feel free to consume carbohydrates (especially the complex ones such as rice, pasta, noodles, bread) to ensure that those glycogen stores are topped up. Keeping yourself well hydrated too means that you can start the marathon with literally a full fluid tank.
#5: During the marathon, do expect that the run pace you have practiced so carefully in your training may not be possible!! You see, there are about 29,000 other intrepid runners alongside you and that may see you starting out at a walking pace and slow jog for quite some time until everyone spreads out. Although you may feel that this is not imposing a physiological load on you, it is!! And as the sun comes up and the day heats up, you will be losing fluids and electrolytes as you deplete your energy stores. So do stop regularly at the drink stations to consume both electrolyte drinks as well as water. Do also remember to eat those Power Gels and Power Bars that you brought along, and do so regularly. You do not want to dehydrate and deplete glycogen stores before deciding to consume drinks/energy foods. If you keep this until too late, you will feel a drop in your running comfort (what they call hitting the wall), and may increase your risk of developing a heat injury.
#6: As you build up your running volume in the last 4 weeks, resist the temptation to suddenly increase your run frequency, distance, and/or duration. This is especially important if you have not been able to adhere to your planned running schedule as a result of illness, injury, weather, or travel. Sudden increases in running volume may set you back seriously as they can overload the body, and place you at greater risk of injuries. An injury is what you don’t want to develop in the last 4 weeks before the marathon.
#7: With the realization of just how long 42 km is, and the pressure of completing in the run in a respectable time, runners often have anxious moments with 4 weeks to go. They then turn to a number of hopeful performance enhancers in an attempt to make things more certain and a little easier. One of the things runners may do is to change their usual running shoes to a different model, one which promises lighter weight, and therefore less effort. Don’t do it!! Don’t change your usual running shoes in these last 4 weeks unless you feel that your current ones are wearing out. And if that is indeed the case, then replace them with the same model and size that you have been successfully training in all these past months. Changing shoes at this late stage, especially to a lighter and less supportive model, may result in injury from altered biomechanics of your running gait as well as reduced shock absorption over the more than 42,000 steps you take in the race.
#8: If you have started to develop aches or pain that seem to be related to your running, don’t ignore them or simply manage this with pain killers. Now is a good time to visit your sports doctor and have him check this out. Having an injury with 4 weeks to go to the marathon does not necessarily mean the end of your marathon attempt, but an injury that is left unmanaged at this stage can increase in severity threatening both your participation much less your completion of the event. Injuries are not like fine wine: they don’t get better with age. So don’t delay getting a possible injury reviewed, treated, and act on advice on how to manage your running preparation for the marathon so you can finish the race with as little worry as possible.
#9: In their enthusiasm to achieve the best possible performance in the December run, marathoners – particularly first-timers – start to meet a lot of other runners, and hear a lot of new advice and well-meant running tips. One of the things which lands a lot of runners in the doctor’s clinic or physiotherapist office is changing their running style. While you can experiment with this at other times, please don’t do this with a month to go. Altering your running style places the structures of your leg (muscles, tendons, bones, ligaments, joints) under different stress than what you are accustomed to. All those faithfully build up training runs can now be unraveled by changes in the forces through your legs that result in strains, sprains, and even bone stress. Change your running style? Sure. But not now…
#10: As all your running plans and preparations come to a heady swirling focus amidst the similar exertions of the tens of thousands who have joined you on the day, don’t forget to enjoy the experience!! No matter how crowded, noisy, slow, fast, wet, hot, etc it gets: the marathon is not an event that just anyone can complete. The journey is as important as the event. So remember it, record it, log it, and when you next do it again, don’t forget to reflect on all those wonderful and powerful lessons learned. And then go write about it !!