As a runner, there is little you can do to significantly improve on your fitness level three weeks out from a marathon, but there is a lot that can happen to ruin your race day—or even your reputation, if you are an elite runner and happen to stop at a roadside stand and buy a contaminated burrito containing the type of WADA-prohibited substances that can get you banned for years.
Though you may never have an experience exactly like what allegedly happened to the USA’s 1500m and 5000m national record holder, Shelby Houlihan—who had great hopes of winning a medal for her country in the Tokyo Olympic Games but is now suspended from competing—these crucial last three weeks arguably need more attention and focus than all the other months of continuous training.The crucial last three weeks (before the race) arguably need more attention and focus than all the other months of continuous training, says @kenyanathlete. Click To Tweet
In a typical long distance training program, weeks of hard training are followed by a recovery week (or two) allowing the body to re-energize and avoid stagnating in a running plateau. But, as race day approaches, a runner has to make sure they are in their best form and healthy on their race day.
Fartlek runs and track intervals are some of the runs that usually remain in a plan up to the last week of training. In most of the big long distance training camps in Kenya, while the rest of the group is doing a 40-minute fartlek run (say, two minutes hard and one minute easy for 13 repetitions), runners with their race days coming close go with the group but do the workouts for just eight or nine repetitions.
According to several studies, runners who overtrain by doing a lot of weekly mileages are relatively more prone to upper respiratory illnesses (as well as physical injuries) compared with recreational runners. Specifically, research from Peters and Bateman on ultramarathon running and upper respiratory tract infections found “symptoms of URT infection occurred in 33.3% of runners compared with 15.3% of controls, and were most common in those who achieved the faster race times,” in an epidemiological survey.1
Also, there is a belief that whether one fills their thoughts with their fears or their desires, that’s what will more likely happen to them. This seems to be true for many runners—they can go down with the flu or a bad cold in the days leading up to their goal race or get injured on their last tough workouts.
These negative outcomes can be avoided if training is slowed down at the right time and the athletes maintain a proper, healthy diet.
Planning to Succeed on Race Day
The last few weeks before a race is a time when runners can panic and try to squeeze in a few hard, last-minute workouts, hoping to perfect their form and compensate for everything they failed to do at the right time ahead of their race. But instead, they still end up with poor performances—perhaps even poorer than they would have performed had they stopped training altogether.
The general rule during the tapering period is that runners should aim to reduce their weekly running mileage to around 80% of what they have been doing.
On the other side of the coin, when a runner reduces their training load drastically within a short time, they are going to end up with a poor performance on race day as well. A runner will lose about 6% of their VO2 max when they stop training for two weeks. They will lose their muscle power too.
The point of the tapering period is to try and balance between recovering and keeping your body in good form. From an economical point of view, it would be better to be a little bit undertrained on race day than overtrained.
Some effects of overtraining toward your marathon race:
- You become easily susceptible to illnesses, especially common colds.
- Your body will not be well recovered ahead of your race.
Some effects of drastically reducing your training too early:
- Your body will feel lethargic due to the change in your routine.
- You may gain some weight, which can be costly during the race.
- You reduce muscle power and VO2 max.
What to Avoid in the Last Few Days Before Your Race
Any coach who is a former runner will tell you that if they were able to rewind and begin running again with the knowledge they now have, they would be prepared to have incredible performances.
There are a few seemingly minor things that can cost runners time in their races, such as tying their racing shoes loosely, not visiting the toilets before their start time, using inappropriate running attire and shoes, and other avoidable mistakes.
The most common mistakes runners make are:
- Trying new food types. It is always better to stick to the food you are used to during training instead of trying anything new during or a few days before the race. The wrong food can cause a lot of trouble, from stomach discomfort to headaches to even lack of energy during the race.
- It is good to find out what kinds of food work best for you during race day by trying them on your long runs way before your goal races.
- Bathing with new soaps and/or using new perfumes. A study by Caress and Steinemann found 30.5% of the general population reported scented products on others irritating, 19% reported adverse health effects from air fresheners, and 10.9% reported irritation from scented laundry products vented outside.2 There are perfumed bathing soaps that may cause allergies that can result in mild headaches and sneezing.
- Unnecessary travels and movements. In the last few days before your race, it is crucial to get your priorities right. Some things can wait until you are done with your race. Otherwise, you will compromise your ability to relax and hydrate. You may even be forced to eat from a roadside kiosk while traveling and end up blaming what you ate after a dismal performance on your race.
Here are few ideas to keep yourself busy and prepare in the days leading up to your race:
- Test your racing shoes in a tempo run a week or two beforehand. If someone offers you a highly rated racing shoe at the start line of your goal race, just thank them and use your old shoe. There is so much that can go wrong with a shoe you haven’t tried before your race, from getting blisters to a change in your running rhythm that may force you to drop out.
- Make sure you have all the items you will need during the race, including running kits and hydration plans. To avoid long queues when picking up the racing bibs, it is always good to ensure that you have done everything you need to do at the earliest time possible so that you have plenty of time to relax as you wait for your race.
- Plan how you will arrive at the race venue on time. I won’t ever forget a half-marathon in 2017 where I arrived at the starting line just as the gun was going off. We were three runners in a car traveling to participate in the Mississauga half-marathon in Toronto, and we were late. We passed a police car that put on its siren, followed us, and pulled our vehicle over. The driver—who was a Toronto-based runner—went out to explain why we were speeding; luckily, the policeman understood and let us go.
- We changed to our running kits in the car and ran even faster than we would do in the race from the parking lot to the venue’s race start. We could hear the countdown of the last 10 seconds as we approached the start, behind the masses of runners. It took us almost the first 2 kilometers of the race to finally push through the joggers and reach the leading pack.
- From that experience, I learned to always plan early and arrive at the start line on time.
- Load carbohydrates and hydrate well. To be on the start line feeling strong and confident, you need to be well-hydrated and have eaten the right energy-giving foods. This can only happen in the days leading to the race.
Keys for Mental Preparation Leading Up to Race DayThe athletes who know they can win are the ones who do win, says @kenyanathlete. Click To Tweet
Race winners often visualize themselves winning their races before they run them—the athletes who know they can win are the ones who do win.
- Be realistic about the time you aim to run. Know the pace you are supposed to use so that you do not start your race too fast and end up not finishing it. It is not just about knowing and waiting to win; it includes knowing how hard you will have to push to win, how you will run your race, and what realistic steps you are taking to achieve that. The times you run in your tempo runs and track intervals should help inform you where your form falls at the moment. Some GPS-enabled watches are also able to predict your potential.
- Remain calm. Like the age-old question on what came first between the chicken and the egg, it is not clear whether runners who appear calm in their races always triumph because they trust in the training they already did, or simply because they are calm during their races.
- Have something to motivate you. Marathons are never easy, and if a runner has nothing to motivate them other than just having fun, then chances are high that they will drop out before finishing.
- Look at the bigger picture of accomplishing what you set out to do in that marathon and what it will mean to your life—this will add purpose to your race. Training for a marathon brings physical and mental benefits, so why just train for it and not finish it?
- Looking back at everything you have done—the time and resources you have spent in preparation for the marathon—will also serve to push you to the finish line.
- Have confidence in all the training you have done as preparation. Most road races post their course elevation and maps on their websites, which helps keen runners do specific training that will suit the course.
- While the last three weeks is not the right time to check on the elevation and design a training program to address that, it is a time to reflect on what you have already done in training and note that all parts—from strength to speed and endurance—have been covered.
Making the Last Three Weeks Work for You
Like all the other training phases, the tapering period should have a program that takes into consideration the areas to cover and sharpen, and a few areas to scrap. I usually plan the last long run to occur just before the tapering period, so that the aerobic and mental effects will still be relatively fresh and effective on race day after I eliminate this from the last three weeks.I usually plan the last long run to occur just before any tapering period, so that the aerobic and mental effects will still be relatively fresh and effective on race day, says @kenyanathlete. Click To Tweet
Inside the final three weeks, I discard all workouts that put a lot of stress on my body, such as hill workouts and long runs that take more than one hour and 40 minutes. The longest long run within the last two weeks will be no more than one hour 20 minutes, and then not more than one hour in the last week.
Gradually lessen and shorten speed intervals—the overall reduction in training load, plus quality nutrition and an effective hydration plan, should get your body feeling great on race day.
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1. Peters, EM and Bateman, ED. “Ultramarathon running and upper respiratory tract infections.” South African Medical Journal. 1983;64(15):582-584.
2. Caress, SM and Steinemann, AC. “Prevalence of multiple chemical sensitivities: a population-based study in the southeastern United States.” American Journal of Public Health. 2004;94(5):746-747.