Wednesday, March 7, 2007

How to run a marathon: tips for race day

If you're reading this article, you already know that training for a marathon is not easy. You've probably spent nearly every day for the past six months hitting the road or the treadmill with your favorite running shoes (likely having gone through multiple pairs), not to mention the "long runs" which have consumed your Saturdays or Sundays. You've probably sacrificed time with your friends and/or family as well as social engagements.

Hopefully, you've modified your diet to reduce fat and sweets in exchange for nutrient-dense carbohydrates. Maybe you've spent your non-running hours reading Runner's World, books about marathons or perusing training programs on the Internet. Perhaps you've read blogs of other marathon runners and even connected with them via online networking. 

Turning Anxiety into Energy
You've put a great deal of effort into months of training, and finally the big day is here. Whether it's your first marathon or your 21st, you're both anxious and excited about how you will run these 26.2 miles. If it is your first marathon, you may have never run this distance before.

Many training programs recommend that your longest run is 20 miles, so you may fear that you won't be able to tack on another 10K. Learning to channel your anxiety into a positive, energized mindset is key, and that's where most of the day's focus should be: on your mind.

Today, there is no more training that you can do to build endurance and strength. You've already spent months preparing yourself physically. Today, the most important thing you need to concern yourself with is your mind. You have to remember that you've trained well for this race and that your body is capable of running the full 26.2 miles. Even if you are worried that you might not finish or that your time might be slower than your goal, you cannot let those thoughts enter your mind on race day.

There are many numbers out there about the percentage of the marathon that's a mental challenge. Some people claim it's half mental, half physical. Some people claim it's as much as 90% mental. On race day, it's 100% mental. There is nothing more you can do from a training or physical standpoint to succeed. Yes, you do need to put one leg in front of the other and run the darn thing, but for someone who's been training, this motion is second-nature.

You must constantly remind yourself throughout the race that this challenge is 100% mental and you will do well if you "run it with your mind". You have more control over your mind than your body, so focus on what you can control. During my last marathon, here are some thoughts that helped me set a new Personal Record:
  • Run this race with your mind because you are a smart runner
  • There is nothing else you'd rather be doing right now than running this marathon
  • You're so good at this!
  • Here you are at mile 21. You love this mile. You paid $5 just to run this mile
  • This is really fun!
  • (When my legs started to hurt) That's not pain—that feels good! It actually feels like a massage. I'm going to pretend that someone is massaging my legs
  • There is no such thing as a wall. The wall does not exist for you.
  • If you stop now, it's only going to make this race last longer, so stopping won't do you any good. 
Talking to yourself as a "you" is helpful because it gives the feeling of you being your own running companion and having your own personal coach.

Each Mile is its Own Challenge
Marathon runners love the feeling of accomplishing their goals. For many people, marathon running is less about the athletics and more about personal fulfillment through achieving a difficult goal.

There is no need to wait for the finish line to feel a sense of personal achievement. Each mile is its own special accomplishment. The general population cannot even run short distances of three, four, or five miles. Every time you come to a mile marker, it's important to realize that you have achieved something. Furthermore, it's important to not keep thinking about all the remaining miles you still have to run—just focus on the current mile you are trying to complete at that moment.

If you are at mile 20 and feeling extremely tired and sore, the thought of running an additional 6.2 miles could definitely get your spirits down. Even if the soreness comes earlier, like at mile 15, it may feel as if you will never make it to the finish line. These thoughts are precisely why the finish line should not be your goal while running a marathon.

Your goal is to reach the next mile marker. Once you reach that, you can feel good about your achievement of getting through that mile. Then, of course, you will have another mile in front of you, but you remember that you got through the last mile so you can certainly do one more. My mental dialogue: "Just get to the next mile marker and everything will be fine!" By thinking this way, I become very excited and energized once the mile marker is in sight. And it pushes me through the first part of the next mile.

The Power of Negative Splits
I run most of my races (marathons and shorter races) by running the first half of the race slower than the second half. Known as "negative splits" most marathon experts recommend that runners adapt this approach during the race. The basic concept is finish much faster than you started.

Most marathons have "pace groups" led by an experienced runner who will arrive at the finish line at a specified time. The purpose of these pace leaders is to help runners meet their time goal by "pacing" them, and preventing them from going to slow or too fast. Some pacers adopt this negative split strategy, but in my experience, they pretty much run a constant pace throughout the race. Where is the excitement in that? I personally become energized and excited at the notion of starting out slow and having runners pass me, and then progressively running faster so that I pass the same runners toward the end.

Many runners don't like the idea of starting out slow because they are nervous that they will not be able to run faster at the end and makeup for this time. They see this strategy as risky and would prefer to keep a steady pace. However, it's much easier to run faster than expected toward the end of the race to leverage your full power than to continue a pace that might have been too fast for you. You really never know how you will feel during those last few miles, and they can make or break your time goal. Better to be sprinting those miles because you have so much energy saved up than to be walking them because you were too ambitious about the pace.

During my most recent marathon, I ran the second half a full seven minutes faster than the first half. I set a very specific goal for the halfway point. I told myself that meeting this halfway goal was more important than the finish line goal because I could control it better. I chose my goal and did not want to arrive at the halfway point any faster or slower. If I arrived there faster, it would mean that I started out too fast. If I arrived there slower, it meant that I wasn't running as fast as I could be. I chose this halfway goal wisely based on a previous marathon, and came to mile marker 13.1 exactly on target. After meeting that goal, I told myself that I could run a bit faster, and even faster than that during the last few miles. Doing this, I shaved seven minutes off the second half of the race because I had saved up my energy.

Even though that marathon yielded a Personal Record, I am more proud of my negative splits and careful strategy than my actual time at the finish line.

Enjoy the Race
Marathons are fun! If you didn't love running, then you wouldn't have undertaken the task of training for a marathon. Furthermore, the actual race has crowd support and scenery that you likely haven't seen before.

You're a superstar today. No matter how fast you run the race, you're the one that's out there doing it and it's your time to enjoy this challenge.

Never let your competitive mind overpower your enjoyment. When you're happy and relaxed, you're a better runner and you'll find that you won't need competitive thoughts to motivate you. Competitive thoughts lead to stress and sometimes feelings of self-doubt and judgment. Check those feelings at the start line and just enjoy the run.

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