The marathon is the staple of physical and psychological resilience and achievement and those racing this month must plan their final few weeks of training with precision. This will ensure they are at peak performance, injury free and mentally prepared for the journey ahead.
Performance Physique founder Arj Thiruchelvam supports novices up to Team GB athletes with their fitness and nutrition. He says when planning a marathon training programme, you should always start from the end:
“Working backwards from race day , that final week of training is all about the taper. This means there are only a few real training weeks left to focus on”
What should I be doing?
With less than a month to go, it’s about accruing a bit more weekly running volume and building confidence in your ability. Ideally, you’re running 4 – 5 times per week (if you haven’t been doing that yet, don’t start now) and two of these should be quality runs with the remainder all being easy runs.
Quality runs are those that require faster paces, interval training sessions or your long run that most people perform on a weekend. The most common zones are easy pace, marathon pace, threshold pace, and interval pace (explained in detail in this YouTube Video), but in effect:
- interval pace is the fastest, something you can maintain for 3 minutes or so
- threshold is something between 5-10k pace and is ‘comfortably uncomfortable’
- marathon pace is the speed at which you intend to run the marathon
- easy pace is probably slower than you’re currently running your easy runs
Many people feel they need to practice running the full distance but that’s not the case and I don’t often have athletes running past the 18-mile mark. Only if they need a confidence boost would I take them up to 20 miles. This distance should be run no closer than 3 weeks before the race. After this, I keep distances run in a single session limited to 60% of the marathon.
Finally, always keep at least 2 days between your quality runs to allow suitable recovery.
How to prepare your muscles
All runners should be performing some sort of strength work but if your training programme hasn’t incorporated any so far, then it’s probably a bit much to start anything substantial right now. However, I would recommend:
- 3 sets of calf raises, 3 times per week
- before you head out for your run (as part of your warm-up) spend 30 – 60 seconds bouncing on your toes, on the spot, side to side and forwards and back
- if you can perform some glute exercises with your calves (such as clamshells and side-lying adductors) you’re making the most of the last few weeks of your preparation
- if you’re not great at stretching on your own, there’s no harm in joining a yoga class once or twice per week
Never do anything on race day that you haven’t tried in training, such as intra-race fuelling, carbohydrate gels, and solutions. Starting to consume gels and carbohydrate drinks during your longer runs (over 60 minutes) will help you prepare for race day.
The human body can actually process 60-90g per hour of carbohydrates in the form of glucose and fructose (Jeukendrup, 2010). However, it’s not for everyone so you must train your gut for this or expect a very unpleasant run for the toilets. I would recommend taking one gel (22g) during a long run, then one gel every 35 minutes and if your stomach feels OK, start increasing the amount of gels you’re consuming during those runs.
You want to avoid dehydration of more than 2% and also make sure you’re not just drinking plain water. Instead, add electrolytes to your water and look at how much you can drink whilst running. Also, consider the available stops and although everyone’s sweat rate is different, very often you can avoid dehydration with a fluid intake of <1 litre/hour (Cheuvront et al., 2003).
If you are used to caffeine, it can be a helpful supplement. I wouldn’t recommend taking it in any form other than coffee 45 minutes before the start or within a sports gel during the last third of your race. Be careful though because not only can caffeine upset your stomach, it can be fatally toxic if you consume too much!
You will not improve your aerobic fitness within seven days of the race, therefore this final week is all about staying mobile, keeping fresh, and eating correctly. Marathon runners should not perform any tough sessions in this final week. Your taper week shouldn’t contain any more than one quality session at the beginning of the week and then a few 20 – 30 minute easy runs as you build up for race day.
There’s no need to do a long carbohydrate load over the final week. Instead, in the two days before the race, consume carbohydrates at 5-10g per kg of bodyweight. Try to keep fat and fibre lower, for example, eat white potato, rice or pasta. This allows for the greatest storage of carbohydrate and minimal stomach upset.
On race day consume a high carbohydrate, low fat, low protein breakfast 4 hours pre-run (remember to practice this in training), and then you’re all set to go!
Keep one thing in mind: you’re running for the enjoyment and satisfaction of completing the marathon, so don’t stress unnecessarily. Have a plan that you can always fall back on but on the day, listen to your body for pacing and fuelling.”