Wednesday, April 13, 2016

6 Last-Minute Marathon Mistakes I Won't Repeat

It's nervous time.

I have less than three weeks before I run the New Jersey Marathon, and I'd bet I've done more thinking and researching and reading and mulling in the past few days than I did over the last few months.

I've put in the hard work. I've run more than 400 miles already in this training cycle. I've been consistent with speedwork and strength training. I've cut way, way back on alcohol and been vigilant about my nutrition. And now that I've entered the taper phase -- where you cut mileage to rest up and restore depleted energy stores -- I don't want to mess everything up.

Two years ago, I ran out of gas at about mile 23. Part of that was the conditions: There was a hellacious headwind for the last six miles of the race. But part of it was attributable to mistakes I made -- mistakes I don't plan to repeat.

To be honest, two years ago I didn't really focus that much on nutrition at any point during my training. Yes, I understood that carb-loading happens in the week before the race, not just the night before, but beyond that I really didn't pay a ton of attention to what I was eating.

This week, I've ramped up on protein and carbs, and tried to cut back on fat to compensate. The protein will help repair the muscles I've broken down over the past few months, and especially the past week with a long run of 22 miles. The carbs will restore my energy stores.

Next week, I'll shift to more carbs. And then during race week, it'll be almost all carbs.

None of this during race week!
Looking back on my old blog, I can see that I drank too much beer in the weeks leading up to the marathon. I had two the night before my final long run leading up to the taper. I kinda went to town at a party two weeks out from the race. And even the Friday before the marathon, I had a couple after attending the race expo. Not smart:

  • Alcohol impacts your sleep and messes with other systems at a critical point. I need my body to be all systems go.
  • It's a diuretic. The glycogen your body produces via carbs requires more water to carry it in your bloodstream. You want to remain as hydrated as possible, and not just in the couple days leading up to the race.
  • Who needs the empty calories? It probably didn't add much, but every bit of weight I can avoid carrying is a plus.
I'm also going to try to cut back on caffeine, which is also a diuretic.

Working Too Hard During the Taper
Two years ago, there were a few runs that were just outright fast -- way beyond race pace. And again looking back at the blog, I was still doing heavy strength training close to race day. Both of these are bad ideas. The taper is a time to rebuild the muscles that you've been taxing for months. The stress of speedwork and weight-lifting tears muscle fibers. Normally, that's a good thing -- that's how you build muscle. But do it too close to your race and your body won't have time to recover fully.

Yesterday was my first taper run, on the treadmill. As badly as I wanted to speed up and get it over with, I stuck with a nice, easy pace -- :30/mile slower than my recent half-marathon. And I've had to keep telling myself that less is more. No need to do heavy lifting. No need to add mileage. Keep your pace in check. 

I'm doing just enough to keep my fitness levels up over the next few weeks. 

Too Much Fun at the Expo
Bought one of these at the expo.
In the few days leading up to a marathon, you want to spend as little time on your feet as you can. So why in God's green earth did I spend two hours at the race expo the Friday before the marathon? I circled the place three or four times. I checked out every booth. I even sat in the massage chair -- a huge error. You don't want anything breaking down muscle fibers right before your run.

I've learned my lesson on this one. Get your race packet, do one loop to see if there's anything worth checking out, and go home. 

My Fueling Strategy Sucked
More precisely, I didn't really have a fueling strategy. 

In my training runs two years ago, I found that my body generally had sufficient glycogen to carry me through about a half-marathon. In fact, in the half-marathon I ran that year, I did not even use GU. I had some Gatorade thing that I took at mile 3, and that was it. It was fine for that distance.

That does not work in a marathon. I waited until about the halfway point to ingest my first GU packet. (GU is a specially formulated gel designed to deliver quick-digesting carbs to your system mid-run.) I felt fine, so why would that be a problem, right? The problem is that there's a lag between the time your liver runs out of glycogen and you burn it all out of your bloodstream -- the point where you bonk. And once it's gone, you'll never catch back up. It takes 10 or 15 minutes for the stuff to get back into your bloodstream, and really, there isn't enough in one packet to make a difference at that point. (And more than that at a time won't digest properly.)

So during long training runs this time around, I've been taking a GU every five miles, regardless of how I feel. And I haven't totally bonked on a training run yet (aside from the 17-miler right after I was done being sick). 

I Left Time in the Bank
Even though I bonked at mile 23 two years ago, I think I ran an overly cautious race. I hit midway at 2:05, which was a full 9 minutes slower than the half-marathon I'd run, and left me zero chance of breaking 4:00. I don't think the bonk would have come sooner had I been a bit more aggressive. And I probably should have used the tailwind to my advantage instead of just trying to play it safe worrying about the headwind coming back.

And I'm also hoping that, if I do all of these other things right, I won't feel the need to be too conservative. I can go out at a pace that would put me within striking distance of my "A" goal, with the knowledge that I should have more in the tank than I did in 2014. 

I'm hoping that when I get to the final 5K, I have enough in me to make a real push at a great time. And if not, at least to be ahead of where I was last time around.

Don't Get Me Wrong
My medal and a photo my dad framed
I'm proud of what I was able to accomplish in 2014. In a little more than a year since I got serious about my health and fitness, I went from couch to 26.2, and I did it in under the median finishing time for marathon runners that year. 

But I've improved my running significantly since then, and I want to see this thing through. That means doing whatever I can to get the next two and a half weeks right, race weekend right and my race plan right.

What's been your biggest fitness bugaboo? You know, that one thing that seems to trip you up despite all your hard work. Sound off in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter!


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