The Boston Marathon ® is 26.2 miles long and considered one of the most challenging marathon courses. The historic course starts in Hopkinton and winds through eight Massachusetts cities and towns to finish in Copley Square, Boston. The course travels through hilly terrain beginning at mile 16, culminating at Heartbreak Hill between the mile 20 and 21 marks. (You can download a course map on the Boston Marathon ® website).
With the challenging terrain, training for the Boston Marathon ® needs to be planned well, especially considering our training season falls during the cold winter. To help prepare you for race day, please see our training and nutrition tips below and, of course, be sure to join us on team training runs and the Long Team Training Run in late March.
Marathon Team Training Tips
Pacing yourself correctly can help ensure you have enough energy to make it 26 miles to the finish line. Download this Excel document to help you calculate your pace. This file is customized for the Boston Marathon® and includes route information and can help you figure out when you will pass certain mile markers. This is useful for telling spectators at mile 20 when you are expected to run by.
Cold Weather Training
- Pay Attention to Temperature and Wind Chill
If the wind is strong, it penetrates your clothes and removes the insulating layer of warm air around you. Your movement also creates wind chill because it increases air movement past your body. If the temperature dips below zero or the wind chill is below minus 20, hit the treadmill instead.
- Protect Your Hands and Feet
As much as 30 percent of your body heat escapes through your hands and feet. On mild days, wear running gloves that wick moisture away. Mittens are a better choice on colder days because your fingers will share their body heat. You can also tuck disposable heat packets into your mittens. Add a wicking sock liner under a warm polar fleece or wool sock, but make sure you have enough room in your running shoes to accommodate these thicker socks.
- Dress in Layers
Start with a thin layer of synthetic material such as polypropylene, which wicks sweat from your body. Stay away from cotton because it holds the moisture and will keep you wet. An outer, breathable layer of nylon or Gore-Tex will help protect you against wind and precipitation, while still letting out heat and moisture to prevent overheating and chilling. If it’s really cold out, you’ll need a middle layer, such as polar fleece, for added insulation.
- Avoid Overdressing
You’re going to warm up once you get moving, so you should feel a little bit chilly when you start your run. A good rule of thumb: Dress as if it’s 20 degrees warmer outside than it really is.
- Don’t Forget Your Head
About 40 percent of your body heat is lost through your head. Wearing a hat will help prevent heat loss, so your circulatory system will have more heat to distribute to the rest of the body. When it’s really cold, wear a face mask or a scarf over your mouth to warm the air you breathe and protect your face.
- Watch for Frostbite
On really cold days, make sure you monitor your fingers, toes, ears and nose. They may feel numb at first, but they should warm up a few minutes into your run. If you notice a patch of hard, pale, cold skin, you may have frostbite. Get out of the cold immediately and slowly warm the affected area. If numbness continues, seek emergency care.
- Check With Your MD
Cold air can trigger chest pain or asthma attacks in some people. Before braving the elements, talk to your doctor if you have any medical conditions or concerns about exercising outdoors.
- Get Some Shades
The glare from snow can cause snow blindness, so wear sunglasses (polarized lenses are best) to avoid this problem.
- Don’t Stay in Wet Clothes
If you get wet from rain, snow or sweat in cold temperatures, you’re at an increased risk for hypothermia, a lowering of your body temperature. If you’re wet, change your clothes and get to warm shelter as quickly as possible. If you suspect hypothermia — characterized by intense shivering, loss of coordination, slurred speech and fatigue — seek emergency treatment immediately.
- Stay Hydrated
Despite the cold weather, you’ll still heat up and lose fluids through sweat. Cold air also has a drying effect, which can increase the risk of dehydration. Make sure you drink water or a sports drink before, during and after your run.
- Take It Easy When It’s Frigid.
You’re at greater risk for a pulled muscle when running in the cold, so warm up slowly and run easy on very cold days. Save your tough workouts for milder days or indoors.
- Be Visible
It’s best to avoid running in the dark, but if you have to run at night, wear reflective gear and light-colored clothing. Dress in bright colors if you’re running in the snow.
- Run Into the Wind
If you head out into the wind, it will be at your back at the end of your workout, when you’re sweaty and could catch a chill.
- Remember Sunscreen
Sunburn is still possible in the winter because the snow reflects the sun’s rays. Protect your lips with lip balm, too.
Injury Tips, by Deborah Watts Povinelli, MPT, MPH
Ankle sprains are are fairly common, and more so in runners who include trail running or “ice” running in their training – which includes many of us who live in New England. Ankle sprains range from mild to severe, and in most cases require rest and some rehab to get back to the roads. An ankle sprain is an injury to the ligaments of the ankle.
Signs/Symptoms: Ankle sprains can occur as either inversion or eversion sprains, depending on whether the ankle rolls in or out. The importance of whether you roll in or out is that it determines which ligaments are damaged. Sprains are identified by pain (local and diffuse), swelling, bruising, stiffness and often the inability to bear weight.
Causes: Ankle sprains are generally the result of twisting the ankle, either while falling or while running on an uneven surface. There is no underlying cause, however people with previous sprains are often at risk for additional sprains, particularly if they do not adequately strengthen the foot and ankle following the sprain.
Treatment: Ankle sprains are most always treated with RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. If you sprain your ankle during a run, you should try to stand and if you are able to bear weight, walk slowly to determine the severity of your ankle. If you cannot walk without pain, you should end your run and return home. But don’t run home! Rest can be anywhere from no running for a few days to requiring a cast — your symptoms will often determine what level of treatment you require. If you are unable to bear weight you should go for an X-ray to rule out a fracture. Severe sprains (a complete tear or rupture of tendons) may require immobilization for some period of time. If you are not casted, or are able to bear weight, you should immediately put ice on the ankle, elevate it above your heart and wrap it with an ace bandage to minimize swelling. Ice can be used for approximately 20 minutes each hour following a sprain. If you are able to bear weight, you should walk a bit right away and throughout your recovery to minimize stiffness. You should begin doing ankle circles and ankle pumps immediately if you are not able to walk to minimize stiffness. Anti-inflammatories (ibuprofen) may be beneficial in minimizing pain and swelling. Once you are able to bear weight on the ankle, you should begin strengthening exercises — toe raises, single leg balancing and heel walking.
Nutrition for Marathon Training, by Kara Maloney, MS, RD, LDN, Mass General Nutrition Services
Nutrition for Marathon Training
- As a marathoner, you need carbohydrates to fuel your muscles and feed your brain. Depletion of glycogen stores usually occurs within 90 minutes, depending on intensity. You don’t want to “hit the wall.”
- As a marathoner, choose carbs as the foundation of your meal (55 to 60 percent of your calories). For details, download our Athlete’s Balanced Plate guide).
- Our bodies need protein, too, but remember, carbohydrates are still the main source of fuel for our working muscles. About 15 to 20 percent of our calories should come from protein. This means you should have a little bit of protein with each snack or meal.
- All marathoners should practice pre-exercise eating.
- Preventing dehydration and low blood sugar is crucial to a successful marathon.
- While dehydration is a main concern for marathoners, drinking too much can lead to problems as well, known as hyponatremia.
- A greater than 2 percent loss of body weight via sweat can significantly harm performance. Beyond 3 percent loss, performance falls sharply.
- Signs of dehydration include thirst, dizziness, weakness and nausea. Serious dehydration can lead to cramps, chills and disorientation.
- The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 4 to 8 ounces of fluids every 15 to 20 minutes of hard running.
- Thirst is a clear signal that your body needs fluids, and you may already be dehydrated by this point.
- Try to drink enough to match your sweat losses, but not to over hydrate.
- Know your sweat rate! To determine how much you should drink during exercise/running, weigh yourself without clothes before and after one hour of training. If you lost 1 pound (16 ounces) in 1 hour, you’ve lost 1 pint (16 ounces) of sweat and should plan to drink about 8 ounces of water every half hour.
- Practice drinking fluids/sports drinks that you plan to use for the marathon during training runs.
- Sodium replacement: when you sweat, you lose sodium, an electrolyte which helps maintain fluid balance.
- If exercising for more than 4 hours, sodium losses can become problematic, particularly if only drinking water during this time.
- Marathoners who drink excessive water dilute the sodium outside the cells which causes too much water to seep into cells and the cells swell – including cells in brain.
- Symptoms of hyponatremia include feeling weak, groggy, nauseous and incoherence.
Sports Drinks vs. Water
- Sports drinks provide a small amount of carbohydrates to fuel the muscles, sodium to enhance water absorption and water to replace sweat loss. But they do not protect/prevent hyponatremia.
- This is why it’s recommended to drink sports drinks/sodium replacement drinks with exercise lasting longer than 60 to 90 minutes.
- Water is sufficient for workouts lasting less than one hour. Longer runs require carbohydrates, i.e. sports drinks or gel/shot blocks in combination with water.
- The best bet during the marathon is to choose a sports drink and foods that contain sodium for those “salt sweaters” or heavy sweaters (losing more than 4 to 6 pounds of sweat, 3 percent to 4 percent body weight pre- to post-exercise).
- It is recommended to add extra salt to your diet, particularly, if you are not acclimatized to running in heat (i.e. Boston Marathon® when it was 88 degrees). You may need extra sodium during the marathon (try pretzels, V8, Gatorade endurance formula or a salt packet).
Food and Nutrition Tips for Marathon Training
- Your main goals during the marathon are to prevent dehydration, maintain a normal blood sugar level and have fun!
- Don’t try anything new, special or different during the marathon. Stick with what has worked for you during training runs.
Pre-Marathon Training Diet
- During training you will learn through trial and error what foods work best for your body, when you should eat them and what amounts are appropriate. You wouldn’t run in brand new shoes – so don’t try new foods.
- Recover post exercise/marathon training – don’t neglect this part! Muscles are the most receptive to replacing depleted glycogen stores immediately after exercise. So eat within 2 hours. By eating carbs with a little bit of protein, you can optimize the recovery process. Protein in a recovery meal can help increase the rate of muscle glycogen storage. Try to have something with some carbs and protein, ideally within 30 minutes after your run or workout, but definitely with 90 minutes.
- During training practice eat your planned pre-marathon breakfast and start some of your long runs at the same time as the marathon starts.
- Practice drinking sports drinks that will be available on marathon day as well as mid-run foods (gels/fruit/candy/food you plan to eat).
- Learn how much pre-exercise food you can eat and still run comfortably.
Week Before the Marathon
- The biggest change in schedule during this week should be in your training (tapering of mileage) not in your food!
- You’ll want to taper off your training so that your muscles have the opportunity to become fully fueled!
- Don’t do any last-minute hard training that may burn off needed carbs rather then allow them to be stored.
- You don’t need to carbo load per se or eat hundreds more calories. Simply by exercising less, the 600 to 1,000 calories you generally expend during training can be used to fuel your muscles.
- During this week – maintain the tried and true high-carb diet (No drastic changes!)
Day Before the Marathon
- Don’t panic about weight gain around a pound.
- Weight gain is reflective of water weight. For every ounce of carbohydrates stored in the body, you store about 3 ounces of water.
- You can tell if your muscles are saturated with carbs if the scale has gone up 2 to 3 pounds.
- You are better off eating a little too much than too little the night before the marathon, but take care to not overeat.
- Be sure to drink extra water, juices, sports drinks, etc.
- Nothing you do the night before will drastically change race day, you should be eating a carbohydrate-rich diet every day as the foundation for every meal during training.
- By Marathon Day, you should be well trained.
- Don’t do anything different: start with breakfast (one hopefully you’ve practiced training with).
- During the marathon: consume 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour and aim to replace fluids and energy (i.e. 1 to 2 packets of gel, plus water, 1 to 2 packets of shot blocks, plus water, or 16 to 32 ounces of Gatorade or whatever you’ve been practicing with.