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The Ultimate Marathon Race Plan

By Patrick McCrann
Marathon Nation

For Active.com

Getting ready for the big dance, the full 26.2 miles, is a huge undertaking. As the day approaches, the true significance of the event becomes readily apparent by virtue of just how panicked you become. Not all of the worry is necessarily bad, but it can lead you down the path to some poor decisions and ultimately take away from your ability to run the race you have trained for. With the right planning, you can avoid this state of pre-marathon paralysis and be ready to have you best race possible.

Pre-Marathon Paralysis

It affects 8 out of 10 marathoners, and typical onset occurs about four weeks out from race day. Right around the time of the last long run. Of course, I am making this up, but if you have ever experienced this situation you know just how real the nerves and worry can be.

All of a sudden you find yourself worrying about things that you had never even thought of before:

  • Are your shoes light enough?
  • What will you wear in the corral as you wait?
  • Should you carry your own fluids if the aid stations are too crowded?
  • Your friend is bringing some Advil and a cellphone…should you?

At some point you just have to wonder what ever happened to just running 26.2 miles?

Training + Execution + Preparation

Based on my years of coaching experience, very few "great" races just happen. These races are the result of a lot of hard work, an incredible attention to detail, and healthy dose of serendipity.

All of this nervous energy coursing through your body is really a function of your desire to have the best possible day. The increased adrenaline and rapid breathing response are cues from your body that it’s getting ready to race…but unless you are mentally doing the same thing, the odds of your best race happening are pretty darn slim.

Let’s walk through these three components of the ultimate race to find out where you can improve.

Optimal Training: Everyone has a training plan (even no plan is a plan) and you have done your best to prepare for the big day. But understand that very few, if any, folks consider their marathon training to have been “optimal.”

The training window is too long, the work of running is so stressful on our bodies, the demands for rest and recovery are so high that almost all of us experience a dip in our ability to train. You might not have hit every workout, or do that one long run when you were sick, but if you are like most marathoners you have done enough to be ready for the race day journey.

Once you have completed your last long run, there is very little work to be done to prepare you for the big day. How you taper is a function of your training plan (so start there!) but know that the primary goal of this final phase is to prepare you to race. And the best way to get ready to complete 26.2 miles is to rest up. When in doubt, take that extra day off and begin the process of wrapping your head around how you are going to pace and prepare for the day itself.

Proper Race Execution: Everyone has their own approach to the big day, and Marathon Nation is no different. We have written at length about how to properly pace a marathon, as this is a huge step that many runners overlook. To be 100 percent clear, picking a goal pace out of the air and writing the splits down on a band around your wrist is not strategy! Instead, we advocate conservative early pacing for the first six miles, followed by a steady block of running at or just faster than your goal marathon pace. This gets you to about mile 20, and what happens then is up to your mind, body, and soul.

Final Preparation: With the training done and race execution being finalized, the last piece of your marathon puzzle then is preparation. There’s nothing worse than having your race fall apart for a simple mistake — say dropped nutrition — because in the split-second you had to make that decision, you weren’t ready with the answer (Note: always stop to pick it up).

Your goal here is to create a state of “relaxed preparedness” — one where you are as confident about your race as you are excited about your race. Here is a short list of things you should consider as you head into the final 48 hours before your race. For a complete list, download our FREE Marathon Race Planner PDF.

One Day Before

With less than 24 hours to go until race day, there is minimal training to do, if at all.

  • Wake Up Time:  _______    (Sleep as late as you possibly can).
  • Early Morning 30-minute run?   Yes / No  (Find safe location)
  • Check In / Registration Tasks?  Yes / No  (Get done early)
  • Dinner Reservations?   Yes / No  (Better to have a space at an early time if required.)
  • Race Gear Laid Out?    Yes / No  (Want this done pre-sleep so you can wake & go.)
  • Schedule Wake Up Call?  Yes / No

Race Morning

Your goals are to get fueled up, get dressed up, and get all systems to go. Please carefully consider your breakfast plan as well as any other early morning relevant information.

  • Breakfast Plan: _________________________
  • Extra Gear:  Yes / No  (To stay warm or dry pre race.)
  • Timing Chip: Yes / No

The Actual Race

When the gun goes off, it’s time to get down to business. Everyone starts moving like cattle, watches beep, and the run-around-other-people dance begins.

  • Pacing Plan: _________________________
  • Nutrition Plan:  _________________________
  • Hydration Plan: _________________________