Build your model marathon

Marathon preparation means months of meticulous planning and diligent training to get you in peak condition. But if you don’t also have a precise plan for the race itself, you won’t get the best results from all that hard work. How should you warm up? How should you fuel? How should you handle the first miles, the first half, and the final six miles and 385 yards? Here, you’ll find the answers to all the questions you should be asking about race-day strategy, so you’ll squeeze everything from those long, hard training months and cross the line exhausted but satisfied.

The day before

Many runners find a short run can be useful to loosen muscles and calm nerves the day before a marathon. For most, a gentle three to four miles, including a few minutes at close to race pace, provides enough of a reminder that they’re fit and ready. Eat meals that are relatively high-carb and stay well hydrated. If your race starts early, don’t have your main meal too late. For an 8am start, eat your main meal by about 7pm, so you have plenty of time to digest it and get a good night’s sleep.

Race morning

Get up early enough to eat and digest a small meal. The amount of time required varies from runner to runner, so it’s helpful to try your pre-race meal timing in tune-up races. For most people, eating three to four hours in advance is enough to get the benefits and not experience digestive distress on the run. At a major marathon, you need to plan for the time you’ll be hanging around near the start. Staying warm is crucial. If you start shivering, you’ll use your glycogen stores and your muscles will tighten up. Wear old running clothes you’re happy not to see again over your racing gear and, if it’s raining, fashion a plastic bin-bag into a jacket. Try to find somewhere to sit or lie down and relax. The important thing is to stay calm while you wait for the start and not waste energy stressing.

Warming up

A warm-up routine before any race is important. It preps your body to run at race pace by increasing your metabolic rate, body temperature, and circulation of blood and oxygen to your muscles. There’s a downside to warming up for the marathon, though: one of the marathoner’s main challenges is to finish before becoming glycogen-depleted; but during a warm-up, you burn a mixture of carbohydrates and fat, thereby slightly reducing your glycogen stores. So the key is to find the minimum amount of warm-up necessary to prep your body for race pace, while using as little of your precious carb reserves as possible.

Your ideal warm-up depends on your level. For beginners, whose main goal is finishing, no warm-up is necessary. You can warm up during the first couple of miles. For more serious marathoners attempting to run significantly faster than their normal training pace, the optimal warm-up consists of two runs of about five minutes each, with some gentle stretching in between. Start warming up 30-40 minutes before the race, and start your first warm-up run slowly, gradually increasing pace to finish at one minute per mile slower than race pace. Stretch for 10 minutes, then run for another five, this time gradually speeding up to reach race pace for the final 30 seconds. Stretch again, and sip a sports drink to top up your carb stores – but not so much that fluid is sloshing around in your stomach.

Try to finish your warm-up no more than 10 minutes before the race starts. Any longer and you’ll lose some of the benefits, but you’ll have still used up some of your carb stores. Being able to time your warm-up perfectly is an advantage of smaller marathons over ‘mega races’, where you’re herded into starting pens earlier.

Before the Olympic marathon, almost no one does more than 10 minutes of easy running, plus one or two accelerations up to race pace. That’s enough of a warm-up to run the first mile in under five minutes, so a similar routine will prep you for goal pace.