Running a Marathon? Last-Minute Tips Before the Big Race

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

It’s that time of year – marathon time! Some of you might be running your first one, too, which can be daunting. Here are some tips to get you through your final days of prep and to make it to the finish line.

Dr. Mark Cucuzzella during the 2014 Air Force Marathon.

Dr. Mark Cucuzzella during the 2014 Air Force Marathon. (Courtesy photo by Ray Szymanski)

One of the most important things first-time runners need to know: How to use food as fuel correctly. 

“To run a marathon, you need to be a butter burner, not a bagel burner. You have to be able to efficiently use fat as fuel,” said Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, the Air Force Marathon’s chief medical consultant.

Meaning you have to eat healthy fats, not carbs. A lot of people load up on pastas and starches ahead of a race, but Cucuzzella said all that excess food will just get stored and won’t be used during the marathon. It can also actually lock out your body’s ability to burn fat.

Think of your body as a hybrid car, where the gas is sugars and the electric is fats. Cucuzzella said using both fuel sources and pacing yourself is critical for a marathon run.

“If you run really hard, your body will default to sugar because it’s the quickest access,” he said. “It’s like a Prius engine. If you hammer it, it’s all gas tank, and it drains pretty quick. But if you’re cruising, you’re in electric, and then you’re good.”

The proportions of fat use and sugar use shift as your effort increases, so understanding your heart rate as you go into race day can be a powerful tool. While Cucuzzella said using a heart rate monitor is a great idea, don’t rely on pace monitors and apps. They don’t take into account effort levels, which can change depending on heat, humidity, etc.

“Pace is an effort, not a speed,” Cucuzzella said.

Even the slightest increase from your optimal pace can tire you out early, he said, so relax and keep up a comfortable effort – not a specific time. He also said to lay off the gels and Gatorade during training runs.

“If you use that on a two- or three-hour training run, you’re not teaching your body to use the right type of fuel,” Cucuzzella said.

On Race Day

Once you get to race day, know this – you’re at about 90 percent of your goal already. Cucuzzella’s tips for the big day include:

  • Setting all of your clothing and supplies out the night before.
  • Don’t do anything radically different than you normally would (if you’re a coffee drinker, drink your coffee).
  • Prep mentally. Get your mind in a happy place. He said if you’re starting to struggle (and there will be bad patches), focus on your immediate needs – slowing down, getting to a water station, adjusting your stride.
    “Focus on something other than your discomfort. Take a race in chunks. I like running a race from aid station to aid station,” Cucuzzella said.
  • If it’s windy, get behind a group to save physical and mental energy.
  • Relax and breathe deeply from the belly.

After the race, be sure to do active recovery. You’re going to be sore and tired, but make sure to squeeze in a walk, swim or something physical in the days after the race to flush out all the toxins.

And don’t forget to relax and relish in the fact that you’ve done it!

Cucuzzella, a 48-year-old Air Force Reserve lieutenant colonel and West Virginia University professor, will be taking part in the Air Force Marathon for the 12th straight year on Sept. 19. He’s won it twice in the past.

For more of his tips on footwear, stability and how to run the specifics of the Air Force Marathon, click here.

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