Marathon day. 20 miles in. Hitting the wall. Slowing down. Struggling. It’s going to look terrible on Strava!
So what on earth does one have to do to finish strong? While I have no perfect recipe, I can offer a few tips that worked for me and helped me achieve an evenly paced marathon (consisting of two 1:40 half marathons).
Now enough boasting, here we go:
A well-paced marathon seldom happens naturally. In my experience, it requires a thought-through plan that is executed with precision.
First of all, ask yourself: What is my target time? Be realistic, but ambitious. I, for example, aimed for 3:25, however, my secret target was 3:20. So I trained for this pace. Not only I did runs entirely at this pace (anything from 5K to 10 miles in the peak week), I also incorporated this pace into my long runs, especially towards the end when my legs were getting tired. An example of such a workout would be: (5K easy followed by 5K marathon pace) x3 = total 30K. There are numerous variations you can come up with.
- Be smart
Once you have a race plan – stick to it! Chances are, that at the beginning, your target pace will feel like easy jogging. That’s actually a good sign! Do not perceive it as a permission to speed up. I appreciate it’s hard not to start too fast. At the beginning of your marathon, you are buzzing, so are the runners around you, the crowds cheer you on and you feel amazing. Don’t get carried away and start running at a pace you won’t be able to sustain. Stay smart!
I know I just advised you not to get carried away by cheering crowds, but once things start to get tough, use the crowd to motivate you if that sort of thing works for you. Perhaps have your name on your vest so they can shout at you, or wave and they will cheer you on.
To be honest, I am not really a person who looks for support of crowds. (Unless they are kids. I usually go out of my way to high five kids.) Instead, my motivation rests in my carefully selected playlist. (Check the race instructions to see whether headphones are allowed so you don’t get disqualified!) I have a marathon playlist that I run to during my training block and then I listen to it during the race itself. There must be some sort of science behind this, because my body seems to respond in a positive way when my songs come on. In the last 5 miles of a marathon, it’s not the crowd, it’s my music that keeps me going.
Obviously, everyone is different so figure out what motivates you once things get tough and use it.
- Nutrition & hydration
First of all, you need to start the race already fully hydrated, with glycogen stores topped up and electrolytes in balance.
During the race, you will need to keep replenishing your carbohydrates. My top tip is to consume a source of carbohydrates every 30 mins and most importantly, before you even feel you need it. Once you feel you are getting sluggish, it might often be too late. For me, this meant I consumed six full gels during my marathon.
Carbs alone are not enough. You need water for your body to carry on functioning correctly. If the conditions are cool enough and you don’t sweat much, you are in luck. I don’t think I drank more 350 millilitres of water during my marathon, if that, but I would have needed way more if the temperature went above 15°C. Little and often is always better than downing a pint of water on the verge of collapse. Have several mouthfuls at each aid station.
I also replenish my electrolytes through the race. Sucking on Crampfix once your muscles start to sieze up is, in my opinion, a little too late. I swear by Totum sachets. I have one at the start line and one approximately every hour. Especially during the later stages of the race, I notice my muscles feeling fresher once I take Totum, and this boost is not only physical but also mental.
If you are going for a sub-4:30, sub-4 or sub-3:30 marathon, chances are that there will be a pacer you can follow. This saves you a lot of pacing and strategising. For me personally, following someone you trust is a great way of saving mental focus on running itself, rather than on thinking about pacing.
Having said that, pacers are just people so do not blindly follow them (unless it’s your mate who you trust). A lot of running watches these days have built-in pacing, but for me it’s not the same as following the person ahead of you.
- Long runs
Now we got to the arguably most controversial point. You might not like what I am going to say:
Most training plans peak with a 20 mile long run. Let’s be honest – unless you start far too slow, your marathon will not have even splits if 20 miles is the longest run you do beforehand. Period.
To carry on at a target pace all the way to the finish line, your body needs to be conditioned for this and sadly, one 20 mile run will not accomplish it. I took eight minutes off my marathon PB in six months by simply increasing the distance of my long runs and incorporating marathon pace (or some sort of effort) in most of them, including my infamous three blocks of marathon pace during a 50K ultramarathon. It might sound like total madness, but training like this clearly works for me and gives me confidence and advantage in the later stages of a long race.
Now, before you set off on an ultra challenge, let me point out that most coaches would discourage you from doing any runs longer than 20ish miles as a part of your marathon training because the risk of getting injured offsets the benefit of this training. So you have to figure out for yourself what your body can handle… The bottom line is: don’t let a training plan limit your potential 🙂
- Mental toughness
Finally, your brain and mindset play an enormously important role in whether you finish strong or crumble. Besides running itself, I also practice discomfort which is a normal part of my training. I consciously place myself in uncomfortable situations. I run hard up hills; I run in rain, storm, mud, snow and heat; I try to get some trail runs and cross-countries in; I acknowledge and embrace pain. If your attitude to discomfort is “bring it on” as opposed to “poor me”, you already have a massive advantage. So tell yourself: bring it on! Put your heart and mind into your race, not just legs, and most importantly welcome some discomfort during your training because it will make you tougher and faster on a race day.
And what are your tips? ⬇️