After months of training, thousands of runners will line up at the starting line for the annual Philadelphia Marathon this Sunday. The weekend festivities also include a half-marathon, 8K, and kids’ run, which take place on Saturday. But it’s the full 26.2-miler that keeps spectators cheering for hours as athletes put their physical, and mental, strength to the ultimate test.
We asked marathon runners how they make it through to the finish line — even when “the wall” starts to hit.
Invest in the right pair of socks
Why: They’ll help prevent blisters.
Steer clear of cotton and invest in a pair of synthetic-material socks, says Ross Martinson, Philadelphia Runner owner and elite athlete coordinator for the Philadelphia Marathon.
“Cotton holds the sweat against your skin,” says Martinson.
Martinson’s go-to pair is the Feetures Elite, made from tight-fitting material that won’t bunch up.
Eat a prerace dinner an 8-year-old would love
Why: Simplicity will mean you won’t wake up with a stomachache.
“Keep things boring. There are so many moving parts to a marathon, so control what you can,” says Jeremy Spry, setting out for his 35th marathon Sunday.
Avoid introducing new foods in the week leading up to the race, Spry notes, and start carb-loading a few days out so that your body can adjust. Just don’t go overboard with the pasta.
“Eat only a little more than you normally would. Otherwise you’re going to wake up feeling sluggish, with a GI tract that’s not in the best spot,” says Martinson.
Buy Body Glide
Why: “Nobody wants bloody nipples,” says JT Kane, cofounder of active adventure company Highline.
Use Body Glide — a balm that comes in a deodorant-stick-like form — anywhere that you might chafe, says Kane, who is heading into his sixth marathon.
Make a morning-of game plan
Why: “You’re already going to be nervous, so you want to create the most relaxed and peaceful start as possible,” says Philadelphia Runner running coach and mentor Liz Pagonis.
Map out race day details, like what you’ll eat for breakfast, which outfit you’ll wear, and where you’ll park your car, in advance.
“I usually have multiple outfit choices for different weather types because that can change in just 24 hours, and I don’t want to be stressing about it,” says Pagonis.
Pack warm throwaway gear
Why: Staying warm before a cold-weather race will help you save energy and stay loose.
“Now’s the time to use your Goodwill-bound sweatpants or hoodies to stay bundled. You’ll shed most of it right before the race,” says Spry.
Every year, marathon volunteers recover more than four tons of discarded clothing to donate to local charitable organizations.
Why: The energy of the crowd can make it all too easy to go out faster than planned, which is bound to cause suffering later on.
To stay on track, Pagonis recommends starting with a pace team.
“Pacers will be near the starting line holding signs that indicate their goal times,” says Pagonis, noting to choose a group in line with your training times. “You can always bail whenever you want or take off at the end.”
Hydrate before you get thirsty
Why: “If you wait until you’re actually thirsty, then you’re too late, and that’s what’ll make you crash or hit ‘the wall’,” says Martinson.
Don’t skip out on the first few water stops, which are likely to help, not harm, your goal time.
Make a refueling schedule, and stick to it
Why: “Even if you’re not feeling hungry, execute your plan so that your glycogen levels don’t get depleted,” says Rich Ryan, owner of running coach business Reinforced Running.
“A good rule of thumb is 40 to 60 grams of carbs per hour, which is about a gel and a half,” says Ryan, who favors Maurten Gel for its neutral taste and ease of swallowing.
Run the mile you’re in
Why: “Thinking about how many more miles you have to log is only going to make everything feel worse,” says Rodney Russen, who has run 30-plus marathons and 20-plus ultramarathons.
To help him stay present, Russen mentally scans his body, identifying areas where he’s holding unnecessary tension. Relaxing a clenched jaw or loosening a tight fist will help conserve energy.
Use landmarks as motivation
Why: Short- and long-term targets compel you to keep your head in the race, whether you’re trying to make it to the next tree or traffic light.
“In the Philly Marathon, the city skyline becomes my savior," says Spry, noting that the course starts heading back toward the city near the 20-mile mark.
Create a marathon mantra
Why: Repeating a positive affirmation can help fight boredom and fatigue.
“At mile 20, it’s easy to think, ‘Why am I doing this?’ It’s when you start to go to that dark place that it becomes so helpful to have somewhere to focus your mind,” says Suzanne Allaire, cofounder of November Project Philadelphia and 15-time marathon runner.
Allaire’s mantra is one word — “legs.” She’ll repeat it over and over again, sometimes incorporating phrases like, “Hey, legs, you can do this.” Allaire says that mantras don’t need to be complicated. Even “believe in yourself” and “you are fierce” can be incredibly powerful.
Why: After hours of training, the marathon is the payoff.
“You’ll never match the energy of race day, and there’s always much to see along the way,” says Lauren Kobylarz, program director of Students Run Philly Style, setting out for her 14th marathon Sunday. “This is the victory lap. Enjoy it.”