As taper pains inevitably surface in the last days before a marathon, I hear from a lot of panicked patients. Those aches and sluggishness are completely normal, and very common. Most likely, they will magically disappear on race day. While your legs are resting up, give your brain something else to focus on — your race plan.

Running a marathon requires just as much mental strength as it does physical preparedness. Here’s our list of things to keep in mind (literally):

Preparation starts at the beginning of race WEEK, not the night before race day. 

You can’t cram for a marathon. Carb loading, banking sleep and proper hydration including electrolytes should all start at least several days before the race, not the night before. In fact, the most critical night of rest is 2 nights before the race. Chances are, you won’t get much shuteye on race eve.

Picture your perfect race. 

Before you get to the start line, picture yourself crossing the finish, and handling everything in between. Close your eyes and run the race you want to have in your mind. If you think about what could go wrong – and mentally solve it – before you hit the course, you’ll instinctively know what to do should those things actually happen.

Start out slow. Respect the distance. 

On race day, you’ll be high on adrenaline and the crowd energy, and your legs will be ready to GO coming off taper. But the goal is to run a negative split, which means starting out conservatively. Hold back for the first half to ensure a strong finish. It’s all about that last 10K.

If you like it, lube it. 

Enough said.

Run your own race, at a realistic pace.

Don’t get competitive. Let others pass. You’ll pass a lot of them back later on. Every five seconds you run faster than your planned pace in the first half will double to your detriment in the second half of the race. You will not ever suddenly get faster in a marathon.

Don’t get too emotional. 

It’s tempting to high-five spectators, enthusiastic kids and your family. Unless you’re just out there for fun, don’t waste the energy. You’ll need it later on. For NYC marathoners, this rule goes into effect much earlier in the day — don’t feel obligated to chat with other runners for the hours you’re stuck on Staten Island. Save that nervous energy for the run.

Be smart. 

Have a realistic pace plan and stick to it. Run the first 20 miles with your head. Run the last 10K with your heart.

Be tough. 

Do not give in to self-doubt or pain (unless it’s severe injury pain). Remind yourself of all the training you put in, and have faith in it. Your body knows what it’s doing, don’t let your brain ruin it. Name that inner critic of yours before the race – and if he speaks up, tell him (by name) to shut the F up. It works.

Sing. Count. Have a mantra (or ten). 

Distract yourself from the repetitive motion by focusing on simple mantras that reinforce a high cadence. Try repeating “1-2-3-4” or “I can, I will” or the lyrics to your favorite song to match your foot falls. Just don’t be surprised if an annoying song is the one that pops into your head first! Just go with it and thank Taylor Swift later.

Set small milestones. 

Aid station to aid station. Friend to friend. Break it up into manageable chunks of distance and tick them off.

Don’t forget to eat and drink. 

Set your watch to remind you if you need to, or make a plan to eat at specific time intervals (not miles, since some of those miles might stretch out if something goes wrong.) This is not the time to wing it! Nothing will derail your ability to stay in the game, both physically AND mentally, than bonking. You should have your nutrition plan nailed from your long runs, but if not, consider this a wake up call and figure it out.

Nothing new on race day. 

Use the same clothing, gear, shoes and nutrition you’ve used on all your long runs. Do not get crazy ideas and new stuff at the expo! Or, if you can’t resist, save it for the next race – not your A one.

Have fun and SMILE at the FINISH. 

Remember, this is supposed to be fun. So enjoy the moment! Read the spectator signs, feed off the crowd, take it all in. Stay focused, but also allow yourself to feel proud of what you’re doing. Our brains are powerful machines, and that positivity electrifies us and helps fend off the wall and physical pain better than even the most successful training runs.

If we THINK we can, we will.

Good luck out there!
Josh