Andrew L. Rosen, MD
Here are some final race day tips and techniques (medical and logistical) to consider in the final weeks leading up to your marathon (NYC or other race):
Weeks before the race
• Don’t overtrain - The last few weeks are about maintaining the feel of running for your legs. You won’t improve your time in a race by pushing aggressively in the last few weeks (you can’t 'cram' for this 'test'), but you can produce an injury that won’t have time to recover.
• Get your race day ‘kit’ all together - Practice runs with all your race-day equipment. Get used to using gels, sodium/potassium supplements (for hot days), Vaseline/Body Glide in practice runs long before the big day. Wear any new parts of your race day outfit to make sure they don’t rub or chafe any areas. Buy everything in advance as stores can sell out.
• Break in your shoes - If you chose to wear new shoes or lightweight racing shoes, get some good runs in before the race to get them softened up. Use Vaseline or Body Glide liberally to avoid blisters late in training.
• Practice any sleep aid medications that you may need to use to help the night before the race (see below). Figuring out the timing of using medications before a run can eliminate risks of anything affecting performance in the race morning. Discuss any over-the-counter or prescription medications with your primary care physician if needed.
• If any body parts are consistently sore, consider getting them checked out by a physician. It’s pretty common to start feeling discomfort in different areas during the taper period and not every ache needs an urgent trip to a doctor. If there is soreness with walking or rest that can indicate a more serious problem. Hips especially are important as stress fractures can be big trouble during a race.
Day before the race
• Hydrate well – Drink lots of sports drink and water in the day before the race to get well-hydrated. Slow the drinking down at night to avoid multiple bathroom trips that will disrupt sleep.
• Make a pace chart or band – If you are pushing for a specific goal, having some projected times to reach mile markers can be helpful to keep you motivated. Doing complex math calculations at mile 22 can be quite a challenge and some times written in advance are always a good idea.
• Make a plan to see friends and family on the course – Picking specific mile intervals and sides of the course is a good idea to avoid worrying about missing someone you want to see. If you want to pick up gels or other nutrition, don’t make these spots ‘mission-critical’ since sometimes plans will go awry. Don't forget to plan to run the tangents of the course. Plan meeting spots that don't make you switch from one side to the other or run on the long side of a turn (adding distance to your already long-enough event).
• Get a good night sleep – Go to bed early and realize that sleep can be pretty tough when anxious and excited about a race. A little ‘irrational fear’ is natural, even for experienced marathoners. Jet lag from time zone changes for a destination race can affect sleep as well. A sleep aid medication can be helpful if it has been practiced before.
• Wear layers of disposable clothing – Many races will involve long periods of sitting or standing around before the race begins. This is an excellent time to go through your closet to pull out old sweaters, sweatpants, race t-shirts that can be worn in layers to stay warm. Large, hooded ponchos and garbage bags for feet are ‘mission-critical’ if rain is possible in the forecast. Being cold before the race will only waste valuable energy that you will need to run 26.2. Most races donate the discarded clothing to charity groups afterwards so it’s good to clean out the closet. Remove most of the extra layers in the final start corral a few minutes before the race begins. For cold days, a thin long-sleeve extra t-shirt, hat and gloves should be kept on for the first few miles with plans to discard them on the course as you go. It’s best to never wear any extra layers or gear that you value, as it might push you not to discard them when you are hot from running.
• Bring impermeable something to sit on – Starting the race with wet shorts is not a great way to go. Dew, rain, Gatorade or unmentionable bodily fluids are quite abundant in the waiting areas and corrals. Trash bags and newspapers make a great way to sit safely.
• Manage the bathrooms carefully – Drink some sports fluids early in the morning but stop drinking several hours before the race. Go to the ever-so-inviting porta-potties early on arrival in case there are long lines. It can be tough to use the bathrooms again right before the start so try and stay ahead of the crowds. It is common to see some creative runners using bushes and bottles just before the start but it’s better to try not to overhydrate in the morning.
Handy tips: • If you see wide-mouth yellow Gatorade bottles being passed or rolled in the starting corral, they may not contain a sports fluid. • If your starting course is on the lower level of the Verrazano bridge, run in the center to avoid the wind-blown effects of upper level runners urinating over the sides of the bridge.
• Avoid checking a bag if possible – Although it is nice to have a change of clothes and a cellphone when you finish a marathon, getting to that bag can be sometimes difficult and time-consuming. The ‘walk-off’ from a race is designed to be a long process to keep runners moving and avoid cramps and passing out. Stopping to change clothes too quickly after a race can lead to difficulties moving again and can be avoided by meeting someone outside of the race area when it will be easier to change. The added stress of worrying that a cell-phone or other valuable items will be lost in the baggage process is nice to avoid as well. There are always lots of people at the finish that will gladly lend their cell phones to contact your friends or family if you can’t find them at the meeting area.
• Vaseline everything! – Liberally apply to nipples, groin, thighs, inner arms, waist circumferentially, feet (soles, toes, socks). Bring a jar or bag to the starting corral to apply right before the race begins. Too much Vaseline could lead to discomfort that lasts for a few minutes of running (no problem). Too little can result in pain and bleeding (hours of torture).
During the race
• Hydrate carefully – Base your fluid intake on the weather. Taking a single fluid cup every mile may be perfectly fine for cool weather but hot conditions will likely demand multiple cups at every mile. For races with long periods between water stops, get cups at the start of the tables and cups ‘to go’ to carry for a bit after the stop. Hydrate early in the race, long before feeling thirsty. Alternating cups of Gatorade and water is very important to avoid trouble with sodium imbalances.
• Take in carbohydrates early, evenly and regularly – PowerGels, Gu’s, etc... are important to keep up with during the run to maintain energy. This should have been practiced regularly with long training runs before. The amount may vary per person based on size. Basic plan: Intake just before race start, at mile 5, and 5 mile intervals to around mile 23.
• Use the medical tents for issues that arise (not just major ones) – These tents in every race are designed to help you keep running safely and efficiently. Getting Vaseline for a chafing area or a blister can be a lifesafer for a problem. Volunteers supply salt packs and fluids if you are feeling dehydrated and can help massage out a cramp if one occurs. Many runners think the tents are only designed for life-threatening injuries but the health care team is really designed to help runners complete the race, not pull them out.
After the race
• Walk it off! – Keep walking once the race is done. Enjoy the true ‘runner’s high’ of finishing an amazing accomplishment but don’t stop and bend over. Even the professionals that win the races are pushed to keep moving and ‘take a victory lap’. When the muscles of the legs stop contracting after the finish line, blood pools in the legs and blood pressure drops quickly. This can lead quickly to passing out but can be avoided by keeping the muscles moving right afterwards.
• Hydrate more – Some dehydration is normal for any long run. Make up the lost fluids afterwards, even if the taste of Gatorade brings back tough memories