The Boston Marathon is a major event for runners and non-runners alike. The city even marks race day, also known as Patriot’s Day, a holiday. Runners train for a BQ (Boston qualifying time) for years, hoping to make the cut (men’s age 18–34 cut-off is 3:00:00, women’s is 3:30:00). On April 15, about 30,000 runners will lace up to tackle the 26.2-mile journey from Hopkinton to Boylston.
We caught up with Rick Muhr, a Boston running coach and co-founder of The Marathon Coalition, for his essential tips for navigating the weeks leading up to race day and how to intelligently run 26.2 miles through Beantown.
As with most marathons, you’ll likely wait in the starting area for quite some time before hitting the road. Anxiousness and excitedness sometimes contribute to a quick start, which could be detrimental to your overall performance, especially considering Boston’s elevation map. “How well you manage the first 4 miles of the course determines how the remaining 22 miles unfold,” says Muhr. “The first 4 miles are mostly downhill so you may be tempted to go out too fast and ‘bank’ time. Don’t make this mistake, and then your legs will thank you once you arrive at mile 17 and begin the hills of Newton.”
Instead, Muhr suggests spending these miles establishing a rhythm of total efficiency. Focus on keeping your chin up, shoulders back and down, hands relaxed (imagine holding fluttering butterflies) and close to your torso without crossing your center line, land with a slight bend in your knees and minimize your contact with the running surface by landing quickly and quietly.
Incline training is an integral part to any marathon plan. However, the hills in Boston will get you if you don’t prepare. Anyone who knows a thing or two about the Boston Marathon course has heard of Heartbreak Hill, a 1/2-mile steep incline at mile 20. But what runners may not realize is Heartbreak is just one of four back-to-back hills in Newton, a suburb of the city. And those hills can get you good.
“Running hills effectively requires practice, determination and discipline,” says Muhr. “Properly running hills is not much different than running on normal terrain. By simply making some minor adjustments you can master the most efficient technique and improve your confidence.”
Muhr’s best form tips for tackling hills is to run perpendicular to the ground, keep your chin up, shoulders back and down and hands relaxed and close to your torso. “The goal is to minimize the impact on your legs, run with perfect form, a positive attitude and not burn too much fuel in the process.”
When running uphill, your stride naturally shortens and your cadence slightly increases. Avoid bending from the waist as this places additional stress on your back, he says. The goal: Land quickly and quietly while maintaining a pattern of rhythmic and relaxed breathing.
Months of disciplined and dedicated training can be compromised in the weeks leading up to the marathon without a proper taper. But when you’re about to tackle 26.2 miles, it can be a little unsettling to drastically decrease your mileage in preparation for the big day. “It’s like being asked not to study for your final exam in the final weeks,” says Muhr. “But, your body and mind need a reprieve from the rigors of months of training.”
Muhr recommends a three-week taper consisting of reducing the mileage of your last full training week (which should include your final long run) by 20% the first week of the taper, 40% the second week of the taper and 60% the third and final week of the taper.
It’s never too early to start visualizing what success could look like for you on race day. Are you hydrated? Are your muscles recovered and ready? Are you smiling? “Controlling your emotions before the start allows you to remain calm and conserve your energy,” says Muhr, who suggests thinking through the entire course one turn at a time. “Visualize yourself ‘easing’ up and down the hills and minimizing the stress on your body, running through Kenmore Square with 1 mile to go and realizing you are about to become a Boston Marathon finisher.”
Most runners have been looking forward to receiving support so the first couple tables are hectic and filled with runners. “Stay to the center of the road and wait until the end of the line of volunteers to take aid,” suggests Muhr. There, it’s less congested so you can enjoy hydrating and refueling and remain calm as you transition smoothly back to your normal pace and rhythm.
This is especially important between miles 22–26.2, when your glycogen stores are depleted and you’re feeling tired. Remember why you started this journey to the finish in the first place. “Those last few miles can be emotional,” says Muhr. “You’ll see the historic Citgo sign on this stretch (Warning: It’s much farther away than it appears). Once you turn on Boylston, it may be the closest you ever come to being a rock star. The crowd will be 20 deep, hanging from rooftops, screaming for you. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for, when you become a Boston Marathon finisher for life.”