Like many about to run their first 26.2-miler, 21-year-old Sara Hewitt had trouble sleeping the night before the Life Time Miami Marathon. After eating a plate of pasta at Villagio with family and friends, she set an excessive number of alarms for the morning.
“I was nervous and excited,” she said. “I just kept wishing it would be race morning already. I was very anxious to start.”
In the days leading up to a marathon, those nerves can tempt runners like Hewitt to push extra hard, change their habits or add something new to their diet. But for those who want to set themselves up for a successful race, the final week is more about what they don’t do than what they do.
“Don’t treat that week as something super different,” said Frankie Ruiz, co-founder of the Miami Marathon. “I stress not thinking about the marathon as this day of doing something spectacular — people get worked up even though they’ve been training for weeks, and when the day comes, their anxiety takes over and they don’t do as well.”
The concept of treating the final week as more of the same applies to more than one’s mental state: Most coaches and sports medicine doctors agree it’s just about the worst time to take up that landscaping project, buy a new pair of running shoes, take new over-the-counter meds, chug fluids or try some exotic food.
To Robert Hendrick, a coach for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Road Runners Club, a quintessential example is when runners feel underprepared in the final week and overcompensate, pushing themselves to the point of injury.
With the Publix A1A Marathon in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday — and the Miami Marathon 10 days ago — Hendrick works to convince runners to trust their training.
“They think they didn’t do enough, and that’s the most dangerous part of the last week,” Hendrick said. “We tell them, ‘You did what you did, you can’t be better than what you prepared for and you cannot push.’ It’s sad to see people on the sidelines who could have been on the starting line.”
In most marathon training plans, the week before the race should be largely a resting period — the end of three weeks of tapering in which runners cut back on mileage to give their bodies a chance to recover while doing light training.
Plans differ depending on the approach and the experience of the runner, but coaches often tout an eight- to 10-mile run a week before the race, then three- to five-mile runs at a comfortable pace during the week — with one or two complete rest days somewhere in between.
Bruce Wilk, director of Orthpedic Rehabilitation Specialists in Kendall and head running coach for the Miami Runners Club, suggests doing a short, easy “shakeout run” of about two miles the day before the race.
Beyond training, maintaining a general healthy and balanced lifestyle is the best way to go.
Dr. Michael Swartzon, who specializes in primary sports medicine at Doctors Hospital in Coral Gables, says to avoid fried and sugary foods. Instead, eat low-fat foods that are high in carbohydrates and protein.
“There’s a fad right now with avoiding carbs, but carbs are extremely important in running as they are the main source of energy your body uses,” Swartzon said.
Swartzon also recommends calculating your sweat rate early in training to establish how much water you should be drinking during exercise (most running websites have instructions). Hydration is important, but overhydrating is a dangerous counterpoint that can lead to hyponatremia, a low concentration of sodium in the blood.
Another potential danger is popping non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen in order to “pretreat” marathon pain.
According to Dr. Bill McCarberg, a pain management specialist and member of the Alliance for Rational Use of NSAIDS, these types of drugs can cause stomach problems and kidney damage, especially when combined with the physical exertion and possible dehydration of a marathon.
“We have fairly good evidence that it doesn’t help your performance during the race,” McCarberg said. “You’re taking on the risk without the benefit.”
And if a runner is experiencing the kind of pain that would justify taking NSAIDS in the week before the marathon, it might be time to re-evaluate and head to a doctor.
“We get a lot of people coming in right before a race to see if their ailment is significant enough not to run,” Swartzon said. “If your pain is more than a three out of 10, you should seriously consider not running at all. If it gets progressively worse, or you notice that you are limping, that is really not a good time to run a marathon.”
For avid runners like Wilk, 57, who has completed 28 marathons, it all comes down to maintaining some perspective.
“Some of them I wasn’t as fast as I wanted, or I made mistakes, or I had nutritional problems and was so mad at the time,” he said. “But now I look back and they are all just wonderful. It’s truly a blessing to be on the starting line.”
As for Hewitt, she spent her last week relaxing, doing light runs, getting logistics in order and getting sleep, save for the night before the marathon, when nerves made it hard to get a good rest.
It paid off. After overcoming a strong desire to give up at the half marathon mark, she went the full 26.2 miles and greeted her family members at the finish line, who donned neon pink “Team Sara” shirts. Her time: 4:11:50.
“It was the best feeling,” she said. “It’s always been one of my life goals to run a marathon.”