Race Like the Pros with these 3 top tips for Marathon success

Whether you're running laps around Cinderella's castle or enjoying beach views and an ocean breeze there are some key elements you'd be amiss not to include in your race training.  Rookie errors are somewhat inevitable but even if you have some experience under your belt, 26.2 miles provides plenty of time for things to potentially unravel. We've picked three key lessons from pros themselves, so you can learn from their mistakes instead of your own! 

1. Brain Training 

When you think about training for a marathon it’s obvious that a significant amount of preparation should be geared towards physical conditioning & training. But what about the psychological aspect of running 26.2 miles? People are often surprised by the emotional toll & mental fatigue a long distance run can exert on the body. Top American at the 2016 Boston Marathon, Neely Spence Gracey, recalls her experience: 

“There is so much time to have self doubts, negative thoughts, and become distracted from the task. I realize now how it takes conscious effort to stay calm, positive, and focused on the moment.”  

Reflecting on the Boston Marathon, Gracey trained for the New York City Marathon with a fresh approach to her mental preparation. She said:

“I just think about each step and each breath as it’s happening. I also use trigger words or mantras to stay engaged and positive so that when the race gets tough, I can focus on these thoughts to keep me going.” 

Bart Yasso, the “Mayor of Running” and Chief Running Officer at Runner’s World is a big proponent of using mantras to ensure that the mind stays focused and his performance isn’t undermined by negative thoughts like “my legs are tired, I have a stitch, Oh God this hurts!"  A good mantra should be short, positive, instructive & full of action words. Ideally multiple mantras should be prepared so you're well armed for any challenges you might face. But if a mantra doesn't do it for you, a good story can help reset your mindset too.

I remember attending a talk by Bart Yasso in the lead-up to the Cayman Islands Half Marathon. His insights on mental preparation really struck a chord but the one thing that stood out most in my mind was his story about a 10k burro race where he was tethered to a donkey named Taco Bell. Yasso clung on for dear life as Taco Bell galloped through the first half of the race at a staggering sub 6 minute mile pace! At the midway point Yasso was relieved when Taco Bell began to slow down but true to nature, his burro came to a sudden, stubborn halt. Yasso's initial relief quickly disappeared as he was forced to drag Taco Bell through the remainder of the course. He found himself longing for those sub-6 minute miles! Recalling this comical story at difficult points during my race really helped spur me on. No matter what pain I was in, I was grateful not to be towing a 400lb ass behind me! 

2. Practice What You Eat

On the day or or day before your race, you should avoid consuming new foods or drink at all costs! All experimenting should be done in advance and should form part of your training. Practicing your race day diet and hydration is easily overlooked but can have detrimental effects. Exercise performance can be impaired when an athlete is dehydrated by as little as 2% of body weight and losses in excess of 5% of body weight can decrease work capacity by about 30%. 

You can easily find out what refreshments will be provided along the course and how frequently, by checking the race details online in advance. Most races make this kind of information readily available.

Don't forget to consider your racing environment too. If you live at sea level but your race is in Colorado, you'll want to be even more conscious of taking on sufficient fluids. Professional runner Molly Pritz had GI problems for a long time after her move to Boulder, Colorado despite eating what her body was accustomed to. Eventually, Pritz discovered her stomach upsets were as a result of dehydration from the altitude which was causing a lack of blood flow to her stomach. 

Matt Llano recalls the difficulties he encountered in his marathon debut in the 2014 Chicago Marathon. After staying on pace for a 2:10 finish time he hit a wall at 20 miles in.

"The conditions that day were perfect and every time I came to the aid stations I wasn’t thirsty and felt like I didn’t need anything. It didn’t occur to me until 20 miles in, when I felt how heavy my legs were, that I really needed more calories and water."

Llano realized that he had been misguided in letting his thirst sensation dictate his need for water and fuel. Since that race, Llano has spent considerable time training his stomach to process fluids and calories so he can avoid experiencing that same fate. 

3. Stay on Schedule

It might seem obvious but preparing for a race is not like a test. You can't cram all your preparation in to the last two weeks leading up to it and expect great results! Having an incremental training schedule and sticking to it is imperative for success. Amy Cragg found that keeping a consistent routine allowed her body to adapt and notice specific patterns in her performance. On her marathon debut in Los Angeles, she said: 

"I learned that it was more important to be successful over a long period of time than having one killer week or fast workout followed by a bad week."

In the week leading up to the marathon the most important things to focus on are rest and your mindset. Believing you're ready. This final week is known as the "taper" because the volume and workload is cut down considerably to allow more time to allow the body to prepare for the race. Pro-marathoner, Lauren Kleppin, says:

"Nothing done this week in terms of training can add to your fitness for race day performance, no matter how well or terribly the weeks of training beforehand panned out."

She suggests spending any extra time from a lightened training load to focus on sleep, preparing good quality healthy meals and stretching. 


By Roz Glanfield



Christie Aschwanden, "The Magic of Mantras", Runner's World

A. Jeukendrup & M. Gleeson, (2010) "Sports Nutrition: An Introduction to Energy Production and Performance," Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published