Our first marathon should always be about reaching the finish line in however long it takes, relishing every painful step along the way and soaking up the experience. When you come to run your second long race, providing you have trained without breaks, you can afford to aim for a target time. However, you’ll need to change the way you race and find the right balance between pushing yourself and conserving something for the later stages. Run with these race-day guidelines in mind and you’ll stand the best chance of hitting your goals.
You need carbs to fuel a faster marathon, but to make things tricky, the harder you’re working, the harder it is to stomach gels and drinks. Nevertheless, some extra fuel is essential, so make sure you’ve practised taking on gels or drinks in your training runs, and on race day, aim to have two to three gels or one litre of isotonic drink every hour that you’re running. Make sure you’ve had a decent, carb-heavy breakfast two to three hours before you start.
The most important rule to remember when you’re aiming for a marathon PB is that you need to stick to your pace plan. That means you need a realistic plan based on your performances in training and in warm-up races (ideally using a recent half-marathon time to help predict your marathon finish goal). Then you need to stick to it – learning to run by feel so that you’re not constantly stressing out over GPS signal or wavering heart rate. Most marathons are marked every mile so use these signs in conjunction with a simple watch to check you’re on track– use your instinct, learned over weeks of training, to stay on pace in between markers.
Caffeine has been proven to improve running performance, and it’s a valuable tool during a long race. It helps to reduce your perception of effort and makes you feel mentally brighter and more alert, perfect for the second half of a race. Don’t overdo it but use a couple of caffeinated gels during your race, or even cola if it’s being handed out on the course.
In your first marathon you may have enjoyed chatting to other runners, stopping to high five children on the sidelines, and going with the flow of the race. If you are aiming for a faster time, you need to take a harder line. That doesn’t mean scowling at everyone, but stick to a simple wave and “Hello!” and just keep running at your designated pace. If you become aware that you’re stuck in a pack of runners going below your pace, try to work your way out without expending too much energy (for example, by hopping up and down curbs) or getting in anyone else’s way. Find clear space ahead and run on through.
Music has been shown to improve running performance. Make sure it’s allowed in your race and, if you’re clear to go ahead, make a playlist to take you through quieter parts of the course or tougher sections. As with any race-day trick, try it out in training to make sure you find it motivating rather than irritating.
No daydreaming allowed when you’re shooting for a PB! You need to harness all of your mental strength to stay on pace, even when the going gets tough. In the early stages of the race when you’re keeping your effort steady, it’s fine to distract yourself with the scenery and crowds, but later on, try focusing on your breathing and your form to help you stay on track. Have a plan ready for the inevitable difficult stretches in the race, so that when your knee starts hurting you’re not stuck thinking about it – instead you can think, “I can push through this!” or “I am strong, I can do this.”
You can save yourself a couple of minutes over 26.2 miles just by running the shortest route possible. You may have no choice but to weave around in a crowded race, but whenever the road is clear, take the tightest line around corners and run in a straight line. In the Virgin Money London Marathon, the shortest route is marked by a blue line around the course – stick as close as you can to this and save seconds as you go.
You’re bound to have sorted out your running shoes, sports bra and leggings for the race – but have you thought about the little things? Minor irritations can become major obstacles over a marathon so make sure there’s nothing that can get in your way during the event. Whether it’s carrying a spare hair band in case yours snaps, making sure your earphones stay put, or tucking a blister plaster in your pocket just in case, be prepared for every eventuality so you can stay comfortable.
You know how essential it is to stay on target with your pace in order to bag that PB – so don’t let yourself be distracted by the heady combination of race-day adrenaline and crowds of runners. Even if you’re feeling great on the morning of your race, don’t be tempted to speed up and run with faster runners – even if you’re running with friends who decide to make a break for it. Be true to your own race plan and you will avoid limping to the finish.
No matter how well you have trained and prepared for your marathon, achieving your full potential on the day is going to be tough. That’s why you’re doing it! So be prepared to push yourself to the limit, right to the finish line. Be ready to quiet down the negative voices in your head from mile 20 onwards, to silence your screaming legs as you reach the end of your energy reserves – it will all be worth it when the medal is around your neck and the finish clock is below your magic number!