It has now been 10 years since my first marathon. 3 more marathons, 4 half marathons, 2 200-mile relay races and dozens of smaller races later, you can say I picked up a lot of tips along the way. There are so many things to remember to have a good race. Here’s all the detail you need to feel comfortable and prepared going into your marathon.
If you’re a first timer, I recommend that you read the full article and take not of everything. It’s a lot, but it will help you be as prepared as possible for your first race.
If you’re a veteran looking for more tips, here’s an index to help you navigate to the points of the article that interest your mosts:
- What to eat before during and after the marathon
- How to stay hydrated during a marathon
- How to rehydrate during a marathon
- Fighting stomach issues during a marathon
- How to deal with fatigue during the race
- What to carry with you during a race
- What to wear during the race
- Music during the race
- Tracking your performance
- Packing for the marathon
- What to do the night before the race
- What to do the morning of the race
- What to do after the marathon
What to eat before, during, & after a marathon
The day leading to the marathon
In the week before the marathon make sure that you are adding more salt to your meals. This will help with hydration.
You will also want to step up your hydration. Make sure that you are getting the required amount of water each day and make extra efforts to avoid dehydration.
Are you flying to your race? Make sure that you are drinking plenty of water during your plane ride. Because of the low level of humidity inside the plane most people experience some dehydration.
The day before the marathon
It’s time to carbo load. Select a whole wheat pasta and tomato sauce. Try to avoid sauces filled with creams and heavy meats that might upset your stomach the night before the race.
Why do we carbo load? To have enough carbohydrates in our systems the morning of the race that will last through most of the race. Studies have proven that carbo loading ensures the muscle have more glycogen to use through the entire course. (study)
You will be burning a lot during the marathon and need to fuel up before hand. Eat early so that you can digest before going to bed and get enough rest.
To begin the race with the most energy possible it is important to have a good breakfast. Make sure that you eat more than 90 minutes before the race so that you have time to digest before getting to the start line.
My preferred breakfast is a whole wheat bagel with peanut or almond butter and a banana. The nuts butters will give you some light protein. The bagel will help build your stock of carbohydrates. And the banana will help prevent cramping with the quantity of potassium.
(This is my favorite almond butter: Justin’s Vanilla Almond Butter. I like the small packs that you can take with you on race weekends.)
During the marathon
Make sure that you stock up on your favorite race time snacks, gels, and bars well before race day. Ensure that they are flavors and brands that you have tried before. No one wants surprises on race day.
According to a 2014 study published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, you should consume between 30-60 grams of carbohydrates for every hour of activity. So you really need to know what works best for you.
Buy a couple individuals packs and test them during a long run to see what flavors your like and their effect on your body.
What are the different types of nutrition
- Gel packs contain electrolytes and sugar to keep you going during the race. Having tried many flavors I highly recommend Vanilla bean or Chocolate Outrage GU. They taste like little packets of frosting.
- Electrolyte gummies are another great options. They are also great for preventing cramping during racing. Try Shot Bloks. or GU Chews.
- Many brands make great tasting energy bars that are more filling than having a gel packet or gummies. For my long runs I like Clif Chocolate Chip bars, but find them a bit too heavy for race day.
- Gummy bears. Yes gummy bears. No one said you need special running treats, check out this study. Gummy bears are filled two types of sugar (glucose and fructose) that distributes in your system similarly to electrolyte gummies. So pick up some Haribos and try it out.
- When your looking for more energy trail mix is also a great options. They are a combination of salty (salt keeps you hydrated), sweet (sugar give you energy) and protein filled. But they are definitely more complicated to eat.
Plan on the safe side by have 50-60g of carbohydrates for each hour that you plan to run, plus one additional hour. (If you think you will be running for 4 hours, plan for 5 hours of nutrition.)
I have seen many dropped gel packets on race courses. If you are not using pre measured snacks make sure you know how much you have and put it into small pouches. The last thing you want it to run out or nutrition during a race.
After the marathon
Grab a water and salty snack directly after the race. It’s highly likely. Especially during a summer time race that you will be dehydrated.
Now is the time, as your body is coming down from the runner’s high, to control your body temperature. Keep the race foil on until your body cools down and have plenty to drink.
Chocolate milk has the perfect combination of protein and sugar. Due to the after burn effect you are still burning calories after the race. Don’t worry about it! It’s far less than in sports drinks.
Returning to normal eating
You might have noticed that during training your appetite increased. You craved more calories because during your training you were burning a lot more than normal. Especially if this was your first marathon.
If you don’t plan to keep training at the same level after your marathon you need to be conscious of the quantities you are eating.
It will take some time to return to your normal eating patterns. Be conscious not to over eat. You body doesn’t yet know that you are stopped burning extra calories per week.
Use portion control and reduce the amount of carbohydrates.
How to stay hydrated during a marathon
What to drink during a marathon
Avoid sugary sports drinks unless they are your only option. Drink water or coconut water throughout the race to stay hydrated. They are you best options and are uncomplicated.
When to hydrate: Prevent Dehydration & Overhydration
Make sure that you are drink about 400ml to 1 liter of water for every 10km/6 miles or 1 hour of running to avoid dehydration. There is no precise recommendation (as usual there is lots of debate in the scientific community), but this is a best estimate.
Check here for the International Marathon Medical Directors Association Fluid recommendations.
Drinking too much could result in over hydration, or hyponatremia, and flooding your cells with water. It’s highly unlikely that you will suffer from over hydration, but too much water can still have dehydrating effects.
Hydration is the subtle balance between salt and water in your cells. Too much water rids your cell of salt. Salt is essential for keeping water stored in your cells, that’s why electrolyte drinks exist. (Check here to learn about the science of hydration.)
Why do I like coconut water? Because it has natural electrolytes so you won’t need a sugary sports drink to stay hydrated. And plus it tastes great.
How do you know when you are dehydrated
If you start to feel you lips becoming chapped, your head getting light, you’re having stomach cramps you are starting to get dehydrated.
If you want to test it, check the color of your urine. If it is a dark yellow you are definitely dehydrated. When you are hydrated the color would be more like lemonade.
You’ll might even notice white crystals on your body where you are sweating. This is the natural salt in our sweat leaving your cells.
This is the perfect time to take a grab an electrolyte filled drink or take a salt packet out (see below) and replace the salt you are losing through your sweat.
How to rehydrate during a marathon
There are many ways to take water with you while you are running that will leave you hands free. I really like Fuel Belts with the four small bottle and pouch for gels, I find it to be the optimal solution. I recommend filling 3 with water and one with a salted beverage like coconut water.
If you’re okay with carry water in your hands, I recommend this water bottle hand holder from Nathan. (There’s also a smaller version if you want to carry less weight,) Your hand slides right inside and it also has a small pouch. It even has an identity tag should something happen on the run.
Water stations on the course
Some courses hand out water bottles, while others give cups of water. There is a trick and etiquette to drinking each of these.
Run to the farthest point to get your water. Most people stop as soon as they see the refreshment stands and you might have to wait. It will be less crowded at the end of the line.
Use the water both to rehydrate and to cool down your body during the race. Try not to get any water into your socks as wet socks can cause a lot of friction leading to blisters and discomfort.
Always keep you socks dry. Wet socks can cause blisters from the increased friction.
If there are cups, grab 2. Pinch the top of one cup into a spout to drink while running. Toss is in the trash or to the side of the course. Be aware of the other runners behind you. and be careful to avoid tripping over rogue cups or bottles of water.
Use the second cup to cool your body. Pour a bit on the back of your neck, top of your head, and if you are really suffering down your pants.
If you’re wearing a hat pour water in you hat and put it back on your head to keep your head cool until the next water station. This is especially useful during a hot weather race.
It’s a bit more complex to deal with water bottlers on the course. Opening them and carrying them if you have extra water can be a burden.
Take the opposite tactic as with the water cups. First pour a little water down the back of your neck and on your head.
Now that the bottle is emptier it will be easier to drink. You can crush the bottle a bit with your hand for more control over its contents.
Rehydrating with salt packets
Where to get salt packets
You can get salt packets at many restaurants and quick serve restaurants. You don’t have to eat there, just go in a ask and they are usually happy to give them to you.
How to use a salt packet
To use the salt packet, think of taking a tequila shot. Lick you hand and sprinkle the salt on top. Lick off the salt and drink some water.
This will help you to replace the salt you are losing. As I mentioned previously, hydrating is a combination of salt and water. When you’re dehydrated, even while drinking water, it is most likely you are missing the right balance of salt to keep it in your system.
How to store your salt packets
Once a salt packet gets wet it’s going to be useless to you. Make sure that you store it in a waterproof container. I like these small plastic containers (container 1, container 2, container 3) from Muji. They’re inexpensive, light, and do the job well. Perfect for fitting in the pocket of your Fuelbelt.
Fighting stomach issues during a marathon
If you’ve been running for a while, you’ve probably heard of the Trots. Running long distances can throw off your digestive tract and cause diarrhea.
You don’t want to have this happen during a race. If you’re prone to stomach issues, it’s a good idea to bring along some wet wipes during the race.
But, there are also some great way to prevent this from happening altogether.
Pre-race bathroom visit
When you get to the start line in the morning make sure that you allot enough time to make it to the port-o-potty line to clear your stomach before the race.
This will help to avoid the urge to go to the toilet while you are on the course.
If you need to, have a coffee in the morning to speed up the process.
Before careful what you eat
If there are certain food that upset your stomach be sure to avoid them before race day. Try to stay away from spicy foods or foods with a lot of lactose, that are common stomach irritants.
Learn how your body works while you are training. Did you have a particularly bad long run? What did you eat before? Try avoiding those dishes before the next run and see if there are improvements.
These little tests before hand can help you make the right choices in the days leading up to your marathon.
The Pros & Cons on Imodium
Some runners recommend taking Imodium before a race to prevent any issue that might come up.
If you are prone to having stomach issue while running, this could be a good option. But, be aware, taking anti-diarrhea medication will make you more dehydrated.
You need to pay attention to your body and drink more water to ensure you are properly hydrated and making up for the effects of the Imodium.
How to deal with fatigue during the race
If you start to feel like you are fading make sure that you are getting enough energy from your gels or snacks.
One strange, but amazing tips that works like wonders is to pour some water down your pants. You might have seen I mentioned it above.
Interesting trick: pour water down your pants to shock your system if you feel like you are starting to fade.
This helps to shock your system and give you the burst you need to keep going.
What to carry with you during a race
You’ll need to carry nutrition and water during your race so make sure that you invest in a good running pack.
Choosing your running pack
A great option that can be paired with your Fuelbelt or worn alone is the Spibelt. This elastic pack allows you to fit many things inside while still remaining quite small and compact. It is great for carrying phones, gels, salt, anything you could need on the course.
You could also invest in a regular fanny pack. Whatever makes you the most comfortable. Some people just go along with a pair of shorts with pockets large enough to store their gels.
Like with most things, experimenting on race day is not a good idea, so make sure that you try and test whatever pack you carry well before the race. Anything can cause discomfort or chafing.
What to carry
Here’s a quick checklist to make sure that you have everything you need when you get to the start line:
- Salt packets
- Tissues or wet wipes (if you need them)
- Personal identification and emergency contact info
- Water and/or electrolyte drinks
- Gels or snacks
What to wear during the race
Bring a throw away shirt
If you’ve been to a race you’ll see a lot of discarded shirts at the starting line. These are throw away shirts that runners wear to stay warm while waiting for the race to begin.
If you have a cold weather morning start and expect to get warmer throughout the race, bring a long sleeved shirt along, that you don’t mind getting rid off.
You can buy a cheap one or maybe you have received one during a shorter race in your race packet.
Many people even use garbage bags with hole for their arms to keep their torso warm. This option is also waterproof and even more inexpensive.
To underwear or not to underwear?
Running without underwear is one of the most freeing experiences that I have had. You have cool air between your legs, you don’t get sweaty in places you don’t want to be sweaty, and bathroom breaks are much easier.
Many people prefer to have a bit more coverage, but I recommend trying no underwear in your spandex and you’ll see the difference. Hey and most running shorts are built to provide you a liner so that you don’t have to wear anything underneath.
But if you absolutely can’t go commando try these sports underwear from Oiselle. They’re super comfortable and no slip, so they’ll stay in place throughout your whole run. Plus they have a nice mesh that adds breathability.
Lululemon also make a nice pair that are soft and breathable. And of course, in true Lululemon style, they are quite fashionable.
Choosing the right sports bra
Women, make sure you have a great sports bra. You’ll be running for a long time, so make sure you have the right support and wicking material.
If you have larger beast you are going to need more support, so make sure that you have broad straps. Smaller breast are not going to bounce as much and can benefit from less fabric and you can take advantage of more breathability.
Avoid bras with too many straps, like these,(especially in warmer races) to prevent unwanted chafing and sun burns. It will be harder to ensure you have sunscreen where you need it and you’ll have more fabric strips rubbing against your skin.
Here are some options I like best, based on cup size (and some are currently on sale!):
- Light support (A – B cups): Nike Indy Logo Back, Lululemon Keep Your Form Bra, Lululemon Box it Out Bra
- Medium support (C cups): Lululemon Sweat Times Bra, Lululemon Fast & Free Bra, Oiselle Mojo Bra
- Strong support (D and above): Lululemon Enlite Bra, Oiselle Brilliance Bra, Nike Fe/Nom Flyknit
Make sure that you invest in a few pairs of running specific socks. They will prevent friction that can cause blisters on the arch of your foot, among other spots.
10 years later and I’m still a satisfied customer, and I still have the first pairs that I purchased and they are going strong.
Safety: IDs and Reflectors
When you’re out on the course you can be identified by your bib number. But should anything go wrong you need to make sure that your emergency contact can be reached as soon as possible.
There are a few great ways to stay safe:
- Most race bibs include a section to add your emergency contact directly on the back. Take a permanent marker and add this information so that it will not run with sweat.
- Include contact information in your pack or water bottle case for added safety.
- Invest in a Road ID bracelet, or another ID item. You can put 6 lined of information. If anything goes wrong while you are out running you’ll have a better chance of getting the right help sooner.
- Carrying your phone? Add an ICE (in case of emergency) number in your phone to contact friends or family should someone find you incapacitated for any reason.
Summer weather clothes
If your running in the summer wear a tank top and shorts. Make sure the shorts are lycra or wear a lycra lining to prevent chafing.
Be sure to apply Body Guide, or another anti-chafing agent like petroleum jelly, to all points where your clothing touches your body. As you move your clothes will rub against the skin and cause chafing, even if you don’t notice it right away.
If the morning of the race is cold, wear a pair of loose sweat pants over your shorts and put them in your post-race bag before checking it.
Men, be extra careful with your nipples as they might bleed from the friction from your shirt. Many men wear bandaids over their nipples or try Nip Strips. You’ll thank me.
Winter weather clothes
If you have a colder weather race be sure to layer.
Invest in a jacket that is wicking and has breathability. This Soft Shell Jacket from ASICS is a great find. It’s light, but warm. Your body temperature increases when you are running, so you don’t want heavy layers that might make you over heat.
Some winter running pants even have zipper to let in a flow of air when you are getting warm. Wind protection will be essential for keeping your muscles warm, so look for pants with this feature.
There’s no need for running specific gloves. But know that with knit gloves your hands will sweat more.
Racing in the rain
Having a good rain, race jacket will be essential if you have to deal with wet weather on race day. Ensure that your jacket allows for breathability to keep you cool. Most rain jackets will make you overheat with their waterproof abilities.
Don’t have a rain jacket? You might want to opt for a disposable rain jacket (these are nice because of the wrist closure). You can wear it to the start line and get rid of it at any moment.
Oh and don’t forget to pack an extra pair of socks in your bag. Wet socks cause a lot of friction that will lead to painful blisters.
It might not sound very attractive, but wearing plastic bags over your running shoes before the start of the race will also help to keep you feel dry before you run.
Music during the race
Before you bring your own entertainment make sure you check the rules of the race that you are running. For safety reasons, many race restrict you from being able to use headphone.
If you are able to bring music try bringing the smallest device you can so it will be easier to hold or purchase an arm band for your smartphone.
Be sure to invest in running waterproof/sweat proof headphones that will stay in your ears while you are running instead of just earbuds.
Remember to charge it the night before the race or you might stuck carrying a useless extra weight.
Tracking your performance
If your running a race like a marathon, it is highly likely that you have a goal time that you would like to finish the race under.
There are many ways to track your performance. Every year Garmin and Polar are coming out with new watches and fitness trackers to help you monitor your progress.
It’s quite an investment, so be sure you are going to embrace running before making a purchase of a few hundred dollars.
A more inexpensive option would be to use a tracking app on your smartphone or go technology free with a temporary tattoo. Pace Tat makes a collection of temporary tattoo with expected times to finish each mile or kilometer to reach your goal time.
With a simple sports watch you can track your time and then use the guide on your arm for some quick feedback on your progress towards your goal.
Packing for the marathon
Traveling to your race
If you have a race outside of your hometown or even outside of the country you are going to need to pack everything you could possibly need. Don’t be afraid of over packing. It’s better to have more than to forget something essential.
Bring clothing options in case you want to make a last minute change for more comfort.
Here’s a quick list of the race specific things that you’ll need (starred items are only if you use them):
- 3x Race shirt or tank top
- 2x Race shorts or pants
- 2x Sports bra
- Throw away shirt
- 3x pairs of running socks
- Running underwear*
- Hair ties, headbands, or clips (women)
- Garbage bag or disposable rain jacket
- 5 – 6x Gels, chews, and other snacks
- Water bottle or Fuelbelt*
- Waist pack*
- Nip strips or bandaids (men)
- Hat or cap
- Gloves (in winter)
- Flip flops
- Small towel
- Fitness watch or tracker
- Sports MP3 player and waterproof sports headphone* (if allowed)
- Race day breakfast*
- Body Glide, petroleum jelly, or Aquaphor
- Sunscreen (sports formula)
- Salt packets or Noon tablets
- Tissues or wet wipes
- Personal identification and emergency contact info
- Nail clippers (make sure to cut nails more than 24 hours in advance)
- Small backpack or drawstring bag (post-race bag)
Packing your post-race bag
Pack you post-race bag (the one you will check-in) the night before for the race.
Ensure you have the following:
- Dry shirt
- Dry socks
- Jacket or windbreaker
- Flip flops
- Small micro fiber towel
- Extra energy bar or other snack
- Body Glide (to apply at start)
Be care with leaving valuable items in this bag. There are a lot of people at the race and it could fall out.
What to do the night before the race
Now’s the time to make sure that you have everything laid out and in order for race morning.
- Set your alarm to wake up with enough time to eat 90 minutes before the race and get to the start in time. Remember to allow some time for the port-o-potty line.
- Attach your race bib to your shirt and your tracking chip to your shoelaces
- Lay out your clothes, Body Glide, and sunscreen so you won’t have to go searching in the morning.
- Charge your electronics (MP3 player, smartphone, etc.).
- Pack your post race bag.
- Make a plan with your friends and family who are coming to see you race. Pick a spot where you can find them on the course during the race and a point to meet up after the race. It can get hectic and you might not have your mobile phone.
- Is your race being tracked live? If so, email your bib number to friend and family so that they check your progress in real time.
- Have dinner early, shower, and get to bed as soon as you can. Nerves might keep you up, so allow extra time to fall asleep.
What to do the morning of the race
It’s go time!
- Double check your post-race bag to ensure you have everything
- Apply your Body Glide, Nip strips, and sunscreen before putting on your race outfit, so that you cover everything.
- Get dressed and add a bit more Body Glide in the areas you see where you might chafe. Under your arms, the thighs, at the line of your sports bra, you might even want to cover your feet.
- Eat your race breakfast and triple check that you have everything you need.
- Make a last minute trip to the bathroom before you have to deal with port-o-potties full time.
What to do after the marathon
Make sure that once you cross the finish like you stay warm and hydrated.
- If there are race foils, cover yourself and stay covered until you get back your checked baggage with warmer clothes.
- NOTE: If you feel extremely cold and start to get the extreme shivers, get to the medical tent IMMEDIATELY you may be suffering from hypothermia. They will get you warmed up and on your feet in no time.
- Grab the drinks and snacks at the finish line. Rehydrate and get some more energy in you.
- Be sure to do some stretching while your muscles are still warm. Take 10 – 15 minutes to loosen up.
- Get into warm / dry clothes as soon as you can.
- Take off your running shoes and let your feet breathe. It’s a good idea to have some flip flops with you to switch into.
Chocolate milk, an excellent post run drink
You’ve just burned thousands of calories running 24,6 miles / 42,196 km, so now you need to replace those calories, get some protein and sugar into your system.
Skip the sugary sports drinks and go for the chocolate milk. It provides the same benefits and tastes great!
Don’t fear the ice bath, embrace it
The absolutely most effective way to recover from long arduous runs is to take the plunge into a nice ice bath.
You are going to be dealing with a lot of inflammation from the hips down and the ice bath is the perfect way to target that inflammation and heal your muscles faster.
When I did my first marathon I didn’t believe in the ice bath. It was taking me 3-4 days to recover after a long run. I was exhausted and walking like a cowboy for days.
I smartened up when I took on my second marathon and embraced the ice bath fully. And guess what? My recovery time moved from 4 days to 24 hours.
I was feeling great and ready to train just the day after my long runs. It changed my perspective completely.
How to prepare an ice bath
- Buy two bags of ice
- Get into your swimwear and a sweatshirt
- Fill the bath with cold water, high enough to cover you from the hips down
- Get into the cold water (Not so bad yet, no?)
- Open the two bags of ice and add them to the cold bath
- Set a timer for 15 minutes
- Hang in there! Watch a movie, listen to music, talk to friends, anything to distract you
- After 15 minutes is up – get out and dry off
- Wait until you body temperature rises again and take a shower
**VERY IMPORTANT**: DO NOT get into a hot shower right after! Let your body get back to normal temperature to not shock your system before showering.
You’ll be a bit cold, but it will be well worth the effort.
The days after the marathon
You’re going to still have an amazing glow after the marathon, a lot of fatigue, and an incredible amount of hunger.
It’s important to make sure you are getting lots of rest to heal after the efforts you just put in. Take at least 2 weeks off from running and let your body get back to normal.
You will also need to adjust back to a normal eating pattern. It took some time to adjust to eating the right quantities for your training, now you will have to adjust back down.
Try to use portion control to avoid overeating. It’s very common to gain weight after a marathon because your body thinks you still have a high activity level.
Be conscious of this and adjust accordingly.
I hope you enjoyed this lengthy article. I think I squeezed every ounce of knowledge that I have on the subject into this post.
Good luck with your marathon. I hope that some of these tips will better prepare you to reach your goal time and that you will love running marathons as much as I do.
And if you made it this far, maybe some of these articles might interest you: