Marathon Crunch Time

by Karl Gruber
It’s been many weeks since you started your training for your upcoming race. Those mornings of getting up early to get your daily training run in, looking out the window and seeing six inches of fresh snow and feeling ten degree temperatures, have now faded. Despite inclement weather and the daily pressures of life, you have persevered and your marathon is now only weeks away. This is crunch time for your training and preparation to run well come race day!

Let’s define what “crunch time” means for you and your training, as well as how it relates to your running performance at the race you’ve been focused on for so long.

You can use any term you want to describe this last month of training — peaking, final prep, fine tuning, crunch time, etc. What really matters is that you focus both physically and mentally with laser-like intensity to get ready to race as well as you possibly can. Too many runners, and really any athlete preparing for a competitive event, this is the final phase of training that can be classified as “periodization.” 

In their book Advanced Marathoning, authors Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas state that periodization can be broken down into macrocycles, the entire training period leading up to your goal race; mesocycles, which have a specific training goal such improving your aerobic capacity; and microcycles, a much shorter, focused block of training. According to Pfitzinger and Douglas, three elements of the macrocycle come into play during crunch time — race preparation, taper and recovery.

Race preparation are the final weeks when you are really hitting your peak in training. This is where you take your body to its highest level of running fitness as you prepare for race day. Your longest training run of 20 or more miles will come during this time. At the same time, you may also throw in your final intense interval workouts, hill repeats and even track workouts. 

Pfitzinger and Douglas also explain the benefits of doing tune-up races. This is why some race organizations will structure a tune-up racing series in the weeks prior to a marathon, culminating in a 20-mile race three weeks out from the marathon. In my community, a couple thousand people would show up for each of the marathon tune up race series. 

According to Pfitzinger and Douglas, “Tune-up races are important benchmarks of your fitness and prepare you mentally for the rigors of racing. Because less is at stake, even the toughest workout isn’t as mentally demanding as a race…The all-out aspect of racing provides a mental hardening that’s necessary to run a good marathon. When runners do no premarathon tune-up races, they have greater anxiety leading up to the marathon.” 

Once your aerobic, cardiovascular and lactate-threshold fitness have peaked, the final long training run or tune-up race is when your taper period begins. While I have previously written about the importance of tapering, it bears revisiting. 

You’ve pushed your body to its peak level, and with hard workouts and tune-up races, you’ve readied your mind for the race. This final two or three-week period of tapering may be the hardest period of your training to adjust to mentally. Everything you’ve done up to this point has been faster, harder, longer and you’re ready to rock ‘n roll! When tapering, however, you’re asking your body to reduce its physical output. I can assure you that it’s more than ready and in need of a period of rest and recuperation to heal and grow stronger. 

I can tell you from personal experience —and my running companions will confirm this too — that I would prefer to skip the taper and fast forward to race day! My mind is literally screaming, “C’mon! Let’s race! I’m ready now!” All I can say, however, is don’t let your mind get the better of you, and adhere to that classic two or three-week taper before your race day. Pfitzinger and Douglas state, “The scientific evidence indicates that the key to effective tapering is to substantially reduce your mileage while maintaining the intensity of your training. Reducing the amount that you run reduces accumulated fatigue to improve your marathon performance…In general, older runners tend to require slightly more time to taper than younger runners.”

This crunch time I speak of is the end of your long macrocycle of training and the true end of your periodization. There are those renegades who try different techniques of training — some training to their peak level right up to race day with no taper — but those are often the upper echelon of elite runners. 

If you are running your very first half or full marathon OR not really worried about your finishing time, you should still adhere to these time-tested and proven training techniques to ensure your race day experience will be fun and enjoyable. Come race day, you will be ready both physically and mentally. 

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