by John Stanton
At race expos, I frequently field questions from first-time marathoners and half marathoners. I look forward to these interactions and I’m always happy to provide answers and encouragement. Prior to a race, it is completely normal to feel a combination of excitement and nervousness. Asking questions is a great way to ease any concerns and get helpful tips from experienced racers. Here’s my best advice for your next race.
What should I eat and drink on race day?
This is important: do not go outside your usual routine. Stick to a familiar breakfast that has worked well during your training. You may want to eat less than normal on race day morning, since the pre-race jitters could upset your digestive system. If you have a favourite sports drink, carry it with you in a hydration belt. Drink 500 mL of plain water one hour before the start, and continue taking sips of water every 10 minutes during the race. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, as they will dehydrate you. Adjust your fluid intake based on the conditions, especially if it’s hot or humid.
Where should I line up at the start?
When you arrive at the starting area, don’t be intimidated by what other runners are doing, especially the ones at the front. Many of them are preparing for a hard effort, whereas you want to make sure you save your energy for a comfortable and successful race. Do some walking, light jogging and stretching to loosen up. Make your way to the back of the starting pack where you won’t get caught in the opening sprint.
How do I find the right pace?
Begin slowly. Don’t worry about all the runners who take off ahead of you. It’s far better to start slowly and catch up later than to begin too fast and be passed by hundreds of runners after a kilometre or two. Once you have room to run freely, move into your normal, relaxed training pace that allows you to pass the “talk test” (being able to carry on a conversation without gasping for breath). Maintain that pace until at least the halfway mark. Then, if you feel strong and want to pick it up a bit, go ahead—but make sure you do it gradually. If a certain speed becomes a struggle, slow down to regroup and gather your strength.
What is a pace bunny?
A pace bunny is an experienced runner who has volunteered to run the race at a consistent pace to meet a specific finish time. They may be carrying a sign or have paper “rabbit ears” sticking out of their cap with the target time written on them. Feel free to tag along with one of these groups if their goal time is similar to yours. It can be comforting to have a guide on a long journey like a marathon.
What is “hitting the wall” and how do I avoid it?
This ominous-sounding phrase refers to the point where you have depleted the glycogen that is stored in your muscles. Much of your success in the marathon will depend on energy conservation and efficient fuel utilization. If your glycogen runs out, the race is over, whether you have reached the finish line or not. Long, slow training runs teach your body how to use its fuel more efficiently. With proper long-distance training, “the wall” will move farther and farther away, until finally it does not appear at all during the marathon.
Should I skip my walk breaks so I can get a faster time?
Definitely not! If you have used 10:1 training to get here, it needs to be part of your race day plan. First-time marathoners should take a walking break of 1 minute for every 10 minutes of running. These walking breaks will only slow you down by about 15 seconds a kilometre, which is less than 7 minutes for the entire marathon. By not taking these short breaks, especially at the beginning, you may end up going slower rather than faster because of the accumulated fatigue.
Should I sprint hard at the finish?
It’s tempting, but not the wisest choice. Concentrate on finishing with good, relaxed, strong form. There is likely a race photographer snapping your photo from somewhere, so look up and smile instead of fiddling with your watch. Don’t rush through the experience—try to soak it all in. Accept your finisher’s medal and thank the volunteer who gives it to you. Pause to let the feeling of accomplishment wash over you. You’ve earned this moment, and it’s a memory you’ll carry with you for a long time… or at least until your next great race. Congratulations!
John Stanton is the President and Founder of the Running Room. He is the author of 10 books about running, walking and family fitness.