The Final Countdown: How to Approach the Last 2-3 Weeks Before a Marathon

With race day around the corner the nerves and excitement might be starting to kick, but it’s important not to lose sight of the big picture. All your training so far as been to get you ready for the upcoming challenge, and these few weeks are a crucial part of your prep.

All of a sudden, after the excitement of getting a place and the dedication it has taken to clock up the training, those 26.2 miles are almost upon you. Right about now, you should have completed your longest training run, have miles in the tank and be looking forward to some brief respite as you taper and focus on preparing for the big day. So, what should these next few weeks look like? Here, we have assembled a group of specialists from our expert multidisciplinary team to offer guidance on how to make sure you’re fresh and ready to put all your preparation into practice and run your best race.

First of all, relax… #

Your training is now behind you; you have done everything you can to get mileage in the tank and prepare your body for the length of time you will be on your feet. But also, if you haven’t, it’s now too late to worry about it! Now is the time to relax, release any tension from your body, recover from the bruising it has taken over the last few months and prime it for the start line. You will run a much more controlled and enjoyable race if you’re able to dedicate the final 2 – 3 weeks to recovery. This means a multitude of things, but running high intensity isn’t one of them. Whilst continuing to have structured light runs at this stage is a good idea, our Head of Rehab and running expert, Dawn Nunes emphasises that any miles you do add at this stage should be low intensity. This means low mileage, a slow pace and nothing that’s going to push the heart rate into zone 3 or above (70%+). It’s vital that you stay disciplined and keep any runs at low intensity – don’t feel like you need to continue running at your top pace to get the benefit. You’ll get much more from keeping it easy from here on in. You’ve earned this rest period, enjoy it!”

As well as clocking down the miles and pace, it would be wise to do some light strength and conditioning work to keep the body primed, but nothing too heavy or intense. Combine this with regular stretching, using the less time you are running to do more yoga or pilates”, adds Dawn.

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Eat, sleep, rest, repeat… #

Recovery is 50% of your preparation for a marathon. You may be doing the best sessions but if you neglect your recovery, it is likely your performance or progression will start to suffer and your risk of injury will go up. This is why it’s really important to prioritise recovery in these remaining weeks and not risk overdoing it and potentially preventing yourself from reaching that start line.

As you would have found during your training, what you eat and drink can make all the difference – it can make or break a run, but it can also have the same effect on your recovery. What you fuel your body with now will make a big difference on race day, not just what you put in 24 – 48 hours before. Now is the time to replenish; you need to be feeding your muscles and bones with all the nutrients they need to gain maximum benefit from all the stress you have put them under throughout your training. They will use these to restore themselves and become stronger, so it’s vital that just because you are no longer heading out for long, gruelling runs you are not taking your eye off the ball and losing your discipline with your diet.

Dr Linia Patel, our specialist Sports Dietician, explains that the first rule of thumb is to continue to avoid alcohol — alcohol dehydrates you, delays recovery and also plays havoc with your bowel function. Look forward to having celebratory drinks after your event (assuming you have had a good recovery meal first of course!).” Just because you are no longer hauling yourself out for those long runs doesn’t mean you don’t need to keep your hydration levels high. Stay away from alcohol and stay hydrated, continuing to drink at least 3 litres of water per day with an additional litre if you are running. You should then start to steadily increase your water intake 48 hours before the race as it’s important that you are not leaving it until the day before.

In terms of food, stick to what you have been eating throughout your training; keeping a healthy balance of nutrients and what your body is used to. Now is not the time to start trying anything new that your body is not used to as it can cause problems and disrupt your preparation. However, as you get closer to race day, you will want to start increasing carbohydrates and doing what is called carbo-loading’. This is a term used to describe a period of high carbohydrate intake that maximises the body’s glycogen stores in preparation for an endurance event” adds Linia. There are a number of ways to do this and one size doesn’t fit all, however, we now know that you can maximise your carbohydrate stores over two days. How much carbohydrate you consume also depends very much on your habitual carbohydrate intake – remember not to change anything and do anything to your body that it is not used to. Also, remember that carbo-loading doesn’t necessarily mean lots of pasta or an excuse to eat as much cake as you like! Instead, you can increase the portion of your preferred carbohydrate from filling a quarter of your plate to filling half your plate. Or you can also choose to add carbohydrate-rich, energy-dense foods like fruit juice or dried fruit to your meals, while snacks also play an important role in reaching your carbohydrate goal. You can start to carb-load 48 hours before a race, but if this is your first marathon you may want to start 72 hours before.”

As well as food, sleep is a crucial element of your race day preparation. Now’s not the time to start catching up on box sets and cutting corners from your sleep, thinking that you have done everything you can to be ready, because the sleep you get in these last few weeks can still make or break your race. You need to maximise your recovery during this time and getting sub-optimal sleep is not the way to do it; it is during sleep that your body recovers from all the stress you place it under”, comments our Strength & Conditioning expert, Andy Page. Arguably, the most important part of recovery is sleep. An adult typically needs 7 – 9 hours a night, but athletes can require up to 10 hours! Consequently, getting less than 7 hours sleep a night nearly doubles the risk of injury.”

However, recovery and replenishment are not just about sleep. Make sure you find time to put your feet up during the day and switch off mentally as our lives can be pretty hectic, and although you may not be running hard miles any longer, our everyday lives can silently sap vital energy stores that you need to maintain in the final days before the race”, adds Andy.

Many people only begin to think about recovery after the big day when all the work is done, but it’s imperative that it’s front and centre in your preparation as much as running itself. Your body will only be able to perform at its best if it is suitably recovered and that’s not just isolated to the race itself; you will get so much more out of your training and be in much better shape at that start line if you’re just as strict with your recovery as you are your mileage”, suggests Dawn, and recovery has never been as important as it is now”. 

Because we know we’ve got to cover 26.2 miles, the mind naturally focuses on the core task which is running. But you can enhance your performance throughout your whole experience by including Soft Tissue Therapy within your programme. We know it can feel a little indulgent to be getting a massage at any time, but looking after your muscles by factoring in regular soft tissue treatment throughout your training can make a significant difference. Whilst it can be seen as a nice treat to reward yourself for your achievement of completing a marathon, it’s never too early or late to start before the race. If you haven’t yet combined Soft Tissue Therapy into your training, it would be wise to do so in these last few weeks as looking after the soft tissues will support the recovery process and help you be in peak condition come race day. Head of Soft Tissue Therapy, Jo Kelly advises: It’ll be no shock that training for a marathon is very hard on the body and you need to take care of yourself. This is why Soft Tissue Therapy is a great supplement for not only general body maintenance but also, for injury prevention. It can be the difference between a good run and a great run, or an injury and being injury free.” Jo also recommends a deep-tissue massage 3 – 5 days before the marathon followed by a light flushing massage 1 – 3 days before. However, if you’re unable to get to a Soft Tissue Therapist, there are some home remedies you can apply such as cold or ice baths, massage balls, foam rolling and investing in your own massage gun but make sure you know how to use it effectively to get maximum benefit. 

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On race day… #

To repeat, it’s crucial that you avoid trying anything new on race day as doing so could risk disrupting all of your hard-earned preparation. Our bodies can be sensitive things, and our stomachs in particular when it comes to running a marathon. The general rule of thumb is to stick to what you know. Linia prescribes that what you eat on the morning of your event should also be linked to your overall fuelling strategy and should be something that you have tried and tested! Depending on your race-time eat a meal two to four hours before the start of the race. Make sure you hydrate as well. Good breakfast options include:

  • Porridge made with milk or diary milk alternative, topped with a banana or raisins and honey
  • Poached eggs on wholegrain toast with a glass of fruit juice/​smoothie
  • Muesli, fruit salad and Greek yogurt”

Whatever you do, stick to what you know. Other than that, relax, take it all in and enjoy the ride. Good luck!