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3 Tips For Creating Your Personal Race Day Strategy

Having a race day plan in place can lead to marathon success. Here are some tips from veteran runners to help you create your strategy.

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Veteran Runner But First-Time Marathoner

Cathy Shaw has been a runner for years. Over the last few decades, the 43-year-old from Annapolis, Maryland, has found success at the half marathon and shorter distances—often placing in her age group—but whenever she tried upping her mileage for the marathon, something would go wrong.

“I [have] struggled with multiple injuries, and I was very concerned that I wouldn’t be able to handle the longer miles,” she says. Luckily, this time around has been different. “My knees and back have been hanging in there.”

Shaw is part of the Saucony 26 Strong project, a collaboration between Women’s Running and Saucony that pairs a veteran runner with a first-timer to train for a fall marathon.

While she’s more than comfortable racing, Shaw, like many first-time marathoners, is figuring out how to apply her success in shorter races to 26.2 miles. As a vegetarian, she’s also worked on getting enough protein into her diet and designing a nutrition plan for race day.

“I’m a very clean eater, so I’ve shied away from simple carbs and sugars,” she says. “But I realize that a certain amount of those will fuel me on my long runs. I’ve been experimenting with some natural and organic versions [of energy gels] to find out what works best.”

The Final Step Of Marathon Preparation

Shaw is completing an important final step in marathon preparation: creating a race-day plan. “I think it’s very important to have a plan for race day, while also being prepared to adjust that plan, if the race doesn’t go as you may have hoped,” says Laura Dempsey, a Saucony 26 Strong veteran racer from Watertown, Massachusetts.

One component of the plan should be mental tactics. Veteran Sean Walsh, 51, from St. Louis, Missouri, thinks of the race in two parts: a 20-miler and then a final 10K. He explains, “My goal is to get to 20 miles on pace and with enough energy to run hard for the next 45 minutes to achieve my goal. I always remind myself during the last 6.2 miles at each mile marker exactly how much time is left. For example, ‘You have 32 minutes left—after 18 weeks of training, you can keep this up for 32 minutes more!’”

While having a goal pace in mind is helpful, many veterans advise their first-timers to be flexible once the race begins.

“It’s very hard to find a flat race here in Colorado, so unless you know the race course, it’s nearly impossible to have a pace-per-mile strategy,” says Katie Oglesby, 41, of Littleton, Colo. “I always try to have three goals for an important race: my A goal (what I know I’m capable of if all the stars are properly aligned), my B goal (what I know I can most likely pull off under most circumstances) and my C goal (a rainy-day-everything’s-falling-apart plan),” she says. “Fortunately, in my 20-plus years of running, I’ve met my A or B goals 90 percent of the time,” she says.

Three Tips For Creating A Race Day Strategy

Know your nutritionTest the food and beverages you plan to use during your race on your long runs. Have a plan for how many calories you expect to eat, and adjust if necessary. A timer on your watch is a good way to remind yourself when to eat and drink.

Start slow. With the adrenaline pumping, it’s easy to start out too fast and hit the wall. Melissa Simonds-Williams, 31, of Sacramento, Calif., says she tries to run the first half of the race 60 to 90 seconds slower than the second half.

Be flexible. “I always have contingency plans,” says veteran Gael Henville, 43, of Boston. “There are always variables. You have to be flexible—weather, cramps, injuries and that dreaded mental demon.”