So you decided to take the plunge into the world of marathon running. Congratulations! Covering 26.2 miles by foot will not just change your athletic abilities, but it will also change your life.
Many highs and lows come with training and even more so on race day. But, if these ups and downs are managed effectively, then the finish line becomes a near guarantee.
So, under the assumption you’re currently training, tapering, or finished with training, this post will be your guide to a successful race day experience. These 26.2 running tips are designed to guide you through the course effectively and get you across the finish line of your first marathon in one piece.
If you already have marathon experience, these tips will help make race day go a bit smoother. Unfortunately, however, marathons don’t always go according to plan. You could have quit during your first attempt. Or maybe you finished but only after a devastating painful day. Either way, I’m here to tell you a marathon can be far less painful and much more enjoyable if you show up prepared.
A lot of energy can be wasted the morning of the marathon and even more so during the marathon. Our enthusiasm and energy can be a gift and a curse on race day. So be careful where you direct it.
Listen, you’ve made it to the starting line, you’re here, you got to the island and burned your boats. Now it’s time to stay focused; it’s time to pace yourself, and it’s time to develop a new understanding of what the word “POSSIBLE” truly means. So without further ado, here are 26.2 tips to put you on a direct path through the entire 26.2 miles and over the finish line of a full marathon!
1. Read Up On Location
First, visit the marathon website and read up on LOCATION. Be sure to find the answers to questions like, “Where is parking?” and “Where is the starting line?” If you’re taking public transportation, then find the closest bus or subway station. Catching an Uber? Be cautious, the surrounding streets will be blocked off so decide on the best drop off spot on race day morning.
Coming from out of town? Be sure to learn which hotels are recommended and exactly where they are located in relation to the start line. The last thing you want to do is walk 2 miles to the starting line then run an additional 26.2 miles. Only 3 more miles and you’re an ultra runner!
Planning to drive to the starting line? Be sure to consider irregular traffic patterns. Your GPS might calculate 30 minutes the night prior, but, drive the morning of with heavy traffic patterns, blocked off streets, and closed down exits and quickly watch 30 minutes jump to an hour or longer! Talk about a quick way to catch a case of the pre-race jitters. Remember, preparation is the key to an excellent race day performance.
2. Visit The Race Expo
What is a race expo? Picture the entire running industry packed and condensed into one large convention center filled with hundreds of vendors promoting everything from hydration gear to the cure-all for runners knee. That gives you a pretty good idea in what to expect.
But, most importantly, it’s where you pick up your bib, race tech shirt, and bag of race day sponsored goodies.
Also, underneath all the bells and whistles, the race expo is an excellent way to become familiar with the area, especially if you’re coming from out of town. It’s a great opportunity to check out the starting line area and verify the LOCATIONS you confirmed from the website.
Oh… and don’t forget to pick up a few extra marathon t-shirts and a 26.2 magnet for your car bumper. WHEN you complete the marathon, there’s no harm in showing off a little. You definitely will have earned it!
3. Read Up On The Aid Stations
This one is critical. For most new marathon runners it’s crucial to know where each aid station is located. This could be the difference between hitting your time goal or hitting the wall. By knowing the mileage of each aid station, you can plan your fueling strategy accordingly. Make a plan on where to drink water, where to work in electrolytes, and where to take gels, blocks, or whatever other fueling supplements you may use.
If you fuel all natural, then find out if any real food is available. After your first marathon, come back and check out my article on ultra running and fat adaption. This may provide you with a brand new outlook on fueling and change your running world upside down.
4. Read Up On Elevation Gain
There’s no escaping the hills. They are very patient. No matter how long you wait, they will always be there. I choose to embrace them.
Understanding the elevation gain of the marathon course serves two purposes. First, you will know what kind of elevation to train on. Already done training? Great! Reading up on the course’s elevation will show the size of each hill and where they are located. Typically, you’ll catch a relatively larger hill by the end of the half marathon and one towards the end of the full marathon. Race directors like to keep the best for last. Remember, it’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon, so pace yourself and use your energy wisely, especially uphill.
5. Keep Uphill Strides Small & Quick
While we are on the subject of hills here’s a tip: keep your uphill strides small and quick. Think about it. If you put a pair of weights in your hands and walk uphill, what’s easier? To lunge or take quick, short steps? Hills can be a great change of pace and a chance for different muscles to be activated. Hills can be your best friend or your worst friend — the choice is yours.
6. Bring A Portable Charger
Ever go on a run only to realize your watch is running low on batteries? Or for you music lovers like myself… there’s nothing worse than being halfway through a run when your iPod or phone runs out of batteries. I remember one time I bought a new iPod shuffle that stated a battery life was 9 hours. It died in 2! So I sang to myself for the remainder of the run. Sure, I didn’t mind my singing, but I’m sure others did. My musical talents don’t stretch too far beyond the morning shower. So on race day be sure to bring a portable charger. This way you can grab a quick charge before the race or better yet, let me borrow it and avoid hearing my spectacular vocal variety!
7. Don’t Stress About Sleep
Sleep the night before is not as critical as people make it out to be. The key is to get plenty of sleep the week building up to the marathon and especially two nights before.
Personally, I expect little sleep. Excitement and nervousness the night prior is just as common as drive and determination on race day. From my experience, lack of sleep does not affect race day performance if you make it a point to sleep well the week before.
It’s funny, by not stressing the night before you will likely end up with a few good hours anyway.
8. Change Your Mind Set
When you first begin running, the marathon appears to be for the fast, tough, and strong. But, although it takes much physical strength to get you there, the truth is, the mental strength will get you across that line before the physical ever will. Marathons are filled with runners of all different ages, different shapes, and different sizes. They push themselves, educate themselves, and most importantly, they believe in themselves and with that anything is possible!
9. Get To The Starting Line
We often fail before we ever begin. I’d say most of the time it’s from focusing on fears we’ve created from thin air; for example, causes of failure or being unworthy. But what’s incredible about becoming a runner is that it literally ONLY takes one step forward and poof – you’re a runner. We naturally develop excuses during training to stop us from even getting to the starting line. Discussing your excuses with someone else may only provide more comfort to quit before you even start. Your friends and loved ones mean well. Unfortunately, however, it’s difficult to understand someone’s motives to run a marathon unless you’re a runner. I’ve learned to try and recognize excuses for what they are–excuses–and keep moving forward to race day. Because there’s one thing I know for certain: if you look for reasons you will always find them. Remember, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear!
10. Choose Your Pre Race Meal Wisely
I’ll never forget the day of my third marathon. For some reason, I made the “smart” decision to eat an entire box of Fiber One bars before the race. I didn’t get to see all the sites that day, but I sure saw all the porta potties. I finished but learned a valuable lesson. Eat light and don’t deviate from your pre-run training meals!
11. Arrive Early!
Speaking of porta potties, be sure to arrive early for the bathroom lines. Sometimes you wait in line for 20-30 minutes. Excessively long bathroom lines are common in big city marathons. With 30k plus participants anxiously waiting for the gun to go off, using the bathroom becomes more of an art form than a form of excretion. Too early and you may need to go again, too late and the gun may go off midstream.
Also, as mentioned, roads and highway exits are typically shut down. Remember, unless it’s a trail marathon, we are running through blocked off roads and intersections. This will cause definite delays in the morning. So, leave with time for unusual traffic patterns, alternate routing, and unexpected stalls like security lines. Better an hour too soon than a minute too late.
12. Go Through A Head-To-Toe Mental Check List
Personally, I run through the same mental checklist before every race. It’s now become a pre-race ritual.
Here’s what to do — Once you are dressed, run through a list from head to toe to make sure you do not forget anything. Start with your head and work your way down to your toes: hat, check; headphones, check; compression shirt, check; you get the point. Write it down at first if it’s easier. After a few races, it will just become routine. Either way, it only takes a few minutes and saves you from that gut-wrenching feeling during a race when you realize something significant was left behind.
13. Bring Extra Gear
This is when just-in-case packing comes in handy. Sometimes, you don’t realize how cold or hot the day is until you’re outside standing around. With extra gear, you can make any last minute wardrobe change. Also, your gear may be broken and not noticed until race day morning. Trust me, you don’t want to find out your hydration pack is broken, or your socks have a hole in them on race day morning with no backup. I’ve been there far too many times. Or here’s a good one — You arrive at the marathon, not a cloud in the sky, and then, suddenly, you’re struck by a severe downpour with no rain jacket. Yes, that was a “joyful” morning. Or the time I didn’t realize my headphones were broken until I plugged them in. Or when I pulled my laces too tight causing one side to rip off. Or when I was running a trail marathon, and the strap on my gaiter was broken. The list goes on.
I only tell you these experiences to save you from the many race day stresses… and to laugh at myself… because…well, why not. The point is if you bring extra gear, you will reduce race day stress and focus on what’s most important — running.
So where can you leave your bag? Marathons typically have a bag check-in station; however, I recommend you have a family member or friend with you. It’s much easier to hand them the bag as you make your way to the start.
The point: bring extra gear and reduce unneeded stress.
14. Where A Throw Away Shirt & Gloves
Layers can always be removed during a marathon. Depending on the weather, most runners wear a cheap long sleeve shirt and gloves to toss on the sidelines once their bodies warm up. If you’re debating on whether to wear that extra shirt, just do it. If you overheat take it off and throw it aside. The beginning of the course is filled with throw-away shirts and gloves. So make sure it’s a shirt you don’t mind losing. If it’s a big city race chances of seeing that shirt again are slim to none. If it’s a shirt you can’t part with, then meet a friend a few miles along the course for the hand-off.
15. Meet At The First Aid Station
Here’s a good tip for marathon day: have a family member or friend meet you at the first aid station with your race day bag. Maybe you forgot to apply vaseline or suntan lotion. Or, maybe that winter hat suddenly seems like a good idea once you feel a cold breeze on the course. You may even forget something crucial like your fuel. Or, maybe your hydration belt breaks once you begin. By meeting a family member or friend at the first aid station, you can get the problem fixed early on and keep your head in the race.
16. Make Sure Your GPS Watch Is Charged
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve witnessed runners stressed out about their GPS watch on race day morning. Most of the time, it has to do with little or no charge. If you absolutely need your GPS watch on race day then be absolutely sure it’s charged and works properly. If your watch does fail here’s the good news, most marathons have a time clock set up every mile or so. This makes it easy to keep an eye on your pace.
To calculate your pace on race day, just take the total distance you’ve run thus far and then, divide it by your current running time. For example, if you reach the 10-mile marker and the clock reads 1:20:00, just divide 80 minutes by 10 miles, and your pace is eight minutes per mile.
If you forget the formula or like me, you prefer writing out equations to calculate… just ask someone! Most runners will have a watch on and know their pace, so if you’re running next to them, then your pace is the same. So relax, take your time, and enjoy the race.
17. Prevent Chaffing
Lube up all friction spots. You will thank yourself later in the race. Reapply during the race if needed and more so if it’s raining. Compression gear can also help. A little chaffing during a 6-mile run will do no harm, but chafing at 6 miles with 20 miles to go will disrupt your pace and eventually become painful. So lube up and enjoy a smooth ride.
18. Start Slow
When the race begins, it’s common to get a rush of adrenaline, and you may not even realize it. This causes a much quicker starting pace. If you give in, it will certainly catch up with you later in the race. I remind myself of this rush at every new starting line. I stay in tune with my body and back my pace off slightly. Personally, I do not wear watches. I run on feeling. From experience, I’m usually able to notice the difference between an adrenaline pace versus a race day groove (usually!).
During one of my first marathons, I noticed a super-excited guy running next to me. He was smiling, waving to all the bystanders, and jumping around for a number of miles. I remember thinking to myself, “I hope he’s conserving some of that energy.” Up by mile 16 I saw the same super-excited guy lying flat on his back on the side of the road. Unfortunately, he dropped out.
19. Run Your Own Race
There are many runners of all different shapes, sizes, and speeds. Try not to get caught up in attempting to run faster than the person next to you. It’s a long race and this common mistake can cost you a high amount of energy too fast. It’s a tough and lonely place to be out of energy on your 16th mile with 10 miles to go. Remember, the real race is with you. Let your internal control affect your external environment, not the other way around.
20. Fuel The Same Way As Training
It’s a good idea on race day to fuel the same way you’ve fueled during training. I seldom ever try something new on race day. I’ve learned the harm from this first hand. Race day is not the day for experimentation.
One race, before I started fueling all natural, I used whatever was handed out at the aid station. Between this, the heat, and hydration issues I pushed myself to a point where my body control was lost and I forgot who I was. I literally couldn’t tell you my name or what I was doing. I finished, but it was dangerously difficult, and it took several days to get myself back to normal. This is a worst-case scenario, but the point is to be careful and stick to the plan.
21. Don’t Wear New Shoes
Stick with what works. Race in the same model shoe you trained in. Sure, a new model shoe may feel fine during shorter runs, even when you taper. But sometimes issues with a new shoe aren’t unmasked until you run longer mileage. Plus, purchasing a new pair of running shoes with the pressure of race day around the corner is never a good idea. With as much uncertainty you face during your first marathon, add some certainty, and wear a shoe you can absolutely rely on, the shoe you know best.
Also, if your shoe has 150 miles or more on them, it may be time to pull out a fresh pair. The marathon will most likely be your longest run of the year, so the more cushion, the better. I typically rotate two or three pairs during training to prevent this issue. Also, I sometimes bring out a new pair when it’s time to taper. This keeps your shoes relatively new for the marathon, but with just enough wear to mold well with your stride.
22. Race Day Goal: Cross The Finish Line
It’s tempting to go after fast times and placements, but for your first marathon, I strongly recommend to avoid these temptations. I tell you from experience, make your one and only goal to finish. Once you have the first marathon under your belt, your aerobic base is built, and your confidence is high. Then go for a PR. By making your goal to finish, you will avoid energy-wasting behaviors and get yourself across the finish line in one piece.
23. Pick A Mantra & Use It!
Create a strong and purpose-driven mantra or find a quote that sincerely moves you. When times get tough on the course and trust me, times will get tough, start repeating that mantra in your mind or say it out loud over and over again. This is a great way to pull you out from those race day lows.
Or better yet, add a song on your playlist that truly inspires you, you know, that song that gives you the chills every time you hear it. Once you’ve decided on the song, create a new playlist. Next, add the song 20 times. This way, when you slip into a low point of the race, that unavoidable valley, turn on the song and play it over and over again until your back up on a peak. Sing if it helps! Running with high spirits can change your entire marathon race day experience.
24. Visualize The Finish Line
Visualization is a powerful skill set to have. When you picture yourself crossing the finish line over and over again, it can have powerful effects. There’s a system in our bodies called the “reticular activating system” which helps our brains decide exactly what it should be focusing on. For example, ever decide you want a particular car then start seeing it everywhere you go? That’s your RAS at work.
When you have a purpose and focus solely on achieving your goal with complete certainty, you will influence the RAS system, and you will begin to pay special attention to the things that will help you achieve it. So visualize the finish line, see it, and watch it happen.
25. Arrange A Meeting Spot After The Race
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked around aimlessly after the race searching for friends or family. After a marathon, especially a big city marathon, the majority of bystanders will be huddled around the finish line. The chances of your friends and family seeing you cross the finish line reduce as the crowd becomes larger. So, coordinate a time and place to meet after the race and wait; trust me, your legs will thank you for it.
26. Take In The Moment
This is your first marathon, so smile, and take it all in. Take in the sites, take in the sounds, and take in the experience. It’s hard to believe it, but race day will be over before you know it.
The next morning comes fast, and soon enough you will be lying in bed with a sore pair of legs thinking back on your experience. So make the race consist of triumph and joy instead of pain and regret. Force the issue. Look, you only run your first marathon one time, so make every minute count!
26.2- REMEMBER TO HAVE FUN!!!!!
Let’s Bring It Home
I remember the first step I took as a new runner and my last step before finishing my first marathon. At the time, it sure seemed like a whole lot of ground to cover. Now, between training and races, I’ve run nearly 100 marathon & ultra marathon distances.
But it’s never been about the race to finish. It’s always been about the journey to travel. You will have bad days and good days; slow runs and fast runs; tough races and easy races. But you will only have one journey. Sure the path may get challenging, but isn’t that true for all roads less traveled? Remember, when you finish a marathon you enter into the .5% club. Only .5% of the population has finished a marathon. If it were easy everyone would do it.
Most of the time when we are new to running, somewhere around mile 18 is where the real challenge begins. This is where you may have the pleasure of meeting “the wall”. This is where the pain really sets in. Here is when your mind tells you to STOP!
“Come on, what’s the point?” “Why are you running this thing anyway?” “Who cares if you quit?” “18 miles was a good effort, let’s call it a day!” But know this: the same wall that blocks disappointment is the same wall that blocks our triumph. The same wall the blocks failure is the same wall that blocks our success. And the same wall that blocks regret is the same wall that blocks our dreams. Luckily, the moment when your body gives up is the exact moment when your heart gives more. It tells you to run for something greater, something worth the pain and worth the struggle. It reminds you of those long months, those tiring days, and those weekend sacrifices. It reminds you how bad you want it and how bad you DESERVE it.
Yes, the wall is a tough barrier to break the first time, but it’s absolutely doable. If you keep pushing yourself and you break past that wall, guess what? The dynamics change completely! All of a sudden, as you move forward you don’t just RUN to the finish line, you GRAVITATE towards it! Those last few miles feel like you’re flying as the crowd gets larger, and the cheers get louder, and the finish line comes into vision. Then suddenly all of those questions of “is it worth it?” and “what’s the point?” instantly disintegrate along with all the other excuses that tried stopping you from reaching this victorious moment. And then it happens, you cross the finish line, and suddenly, it all makes sense. Suddenly you come to realize that you didn’t just run a marathon to better your running, you ran it to better your life!
REMEMBER… our enthusiasm and energy can be a gift and a curse on race day. So be careful where you direct it. And don’t forget to check out 10 Incredibly Useful Running Tips For Beginners!
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