1. Don’t neglect the taper
A marathon taper is a funny old thing. You spend the months leading up to the taper looking forward to the rest, imagining lie-ins at the weekend instead of 6am alarms to fit a 20-mile run in. But come the last 2-3 weeks before the marathon when you drop your mileage, you can start to feel a bit lost. You’ll feel aches and pains that weren’t there before. You might wonder if you’re coming down with every bug and virus around. You’ll convince yourself that you can’t possibly run a parkrun, let alone 26.2 miles.
Welcome to ‘maranoia’ – a strange experience when running your first marathon. Taper is a key part of your training. When you’re training week in, week out, your body is accumulating fatigue. You never properly recover from one session to the next. The taper is the chance for your body to heal, so when you start running on marathon day, you feel ready to go. You shouldn’t just stop either; decrease your mileage a week at a time for the last few weeks. If you have just done a 20-mile run, your next long run will probably be about 12-15 miles, and then 8-10 the week after before the marathon. You can still run the same number of times a week, but keep the pace easier and the miles lower. You will feel the benefits on race-day, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. Trust your training!
2. Watch your nutrition
In the last couple of weeks before your first marathon, keep an eye on what you are eating and drinking. You don’t need to go overboard on carbs or change your diet drastically. Just make sure that you are feeding your body good, nutritious food to help it with the healing process during your taper. Lots of fruit and veg, with a wide variety of colour. Eat high-quality grains and pulses, good fats and lean meat. Drink plenty of water daily too. The aim is to keep your body well hydrated in the weeks leading up to the marathon. And don’t try anything new! You don’t need an upset stomach from eating something that doesn’t agree with you this close to race day.
3. Get some rest
You will probably find it hard to sleep in the days leading up to your first marathon thanks to a combination of nerves and excitement. Make sure that you get plenty of rest and sleep in the weeks before instead, so that you are refreshed and you’re giving your body the best chance to re-energise after months of training. Try to go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every day. Keep a couple of evenings a week free of any training and put your feet up. Now’s a good time for a Netflix marathon! You will be grateful for a well-rested body when it comes to the big day.
4. Stay positive
Our heads can be our own worst enemy and your mind will probably do its very best to convince you that the marathon will go badly. It’s not uncommon to keep visualising scenarios where you get ill or injured in the lead up to the race. Or you may have dreams about missing the start, forgetting to get your bag on the baggage truck, leaving your number at home… This is all quite normal – we’ve all had the inexplicable marathon dreams! Instead, try and remain positive. Visualise the positives instead: how will you feel when you cross that finish line? Look back at your training and remind yourself that you have put the work in.
5. Get organised
One way to lay some of your mind demons to rest is to start getting organised for race day early. Make an extensive list of everything you need for running your first marathon. You should also consider all the logistics, such as travel time, hotel check-ins, number collection. Make sure you have a detailed itinerary of where you need to be and when. The more you can plan, the better, as you know that you’ve thought about every detail and there is less to go wrong.
6. Test your kit
During your taper, do a couple of runs in your full marathon kit – yes, even full-on fancy dress if that’s what you’re wearing! It’s best to find out now if your combination is going to be comfortable – you don’t want chafing to ruin your big day. Check the weather forecast and have back-up layers if you might need them, but do test runs in those as well. You want to know that everything from the hat on your head to the socks on your feet are well-suited to marathon day. And don’t forget to pop it all in the wash in plenty of time to be ready for marathon day. A last-minute scramble through the laundry basket won’t help your nerves.
7. Practise your food
It’s likely that you’ve been training with fuel in your long runs and you already have a nutrition strategy for the race. If you haven’t done this already, then leaving it to the last couple of weeks is not ideal. You should know what you are going to be eating and drinking when you’re running, and at what intervals you will be taking on board fuel. One thing you can practise now is what you are going to eat the night before and the morning of your race.
Try a couple of different dinners and see how you feel the next day – many runners rely on pasta, so try a few different combinations to see what you fancy. Similarly, think about breakfast and what works best for you. Make sure you have all the ingredients in and to hand for the last week, so that there is no need for a dash to the shop. You don’t need to overeat the day before a marathon, as you could end up feeling bloated and lethargic. Eat your usual amounts, but just make sure you eat regularly with the right food and keep drinking.
8. Stretch, stretch and stretch
During your taper, don’t forget to stretch! As your runs get shorter and shorter, you might find it easy to do away with the stretching after a session as you will feel less tight. But now is not the time to give up on your post-run routine. Always follow a decent core stretching programme and keep your body flexible and injury-free. The last thing you need now is to pick up an injury because your over-tightened muscles cause problems. You could also treat yourself to a couple of nice hot baths, with some salts in to help relive sore muscles. Some runners get regular sports massages, so if you are used to them, make sure that you have one booked in for your taper weeks.
9. Set your goals
You probably already have an idea of what your goal is for race-day, but the taper period if a perfect chance to evaluate your training and set your targets. It’s perfectly okay to have a specific time goal that you would like to achieve, especially if it is something that you’ve been working towards since the beginning.
However, 26.2 miles is a long way and there is always the chance of the unexpected occurring. It’s worth having a B goal and even a C goal that you can fall back on if you need to, so that you can adjust your running on race-day if you need to (and hopefully you won’t). Your A goal is the goal you would love to achieve, the best time you think you are capable of. Your B goal might then be a more conservative time goal, and your C goal could be to simply finish and cross the line with a smile on your face. For many people, the latter is their A goal!
10. Don’t forget to enjoy it!
Marathon training can be very all-consuming. We can get caught up with the numbers, the pace, the miles, the route, the routine, the logistics… and forget to be present in the moment. Soak up every minute of your race experience – you only get to do your first marathon once. Take pictures, make notes… whatever you like to do to record your memories. The start line can be an emotional place, especially if you have picked a big city marathon for your first. The running community are a friendly bunch, so chat to your fellow pen mates as you wait for the gun to go off. Then relax, follow your race plan and off you go. Good luck!