Perfect Your Marathon Performance with a Dress Rehearsal

Whether you're targeting Chicago or a tiny local race, you need a dress rehearsal to perform your best. Image via wikimedia.
Whether you’re targeting Chicago or a tiny local race, you need a dress rehearsal to perform your best. Image via wikimedia.

As we discussed on Monday, fall marathon season is upon us! Cinnamon and I are targeting PRs in New York. Jasmine, Catnip, and Ginkgo are going for it in Columbus. Ginger’s doing a little half late in the fall. Cardamom is taking on Wineglass and Sage is taking on Portland … this weekend! No matter what fall half or full you’re targeting, it’s time to get serious about getting yourself race ready. If you’re like me, to get race ready, you have spent the past several months working on building base mileage, long runs, tempo runs, and intervals. These are the foundations of half and full marathon success.

But there’s another component to reaching time goals that should not be neglected in the final weeks: the dress rehearsal. Just like any performance, a big race performance requires a full dress rehearsal to calm a few of the race day jitters and work out the kinks in your race plan. Here’s how to execute the perfect marathon dress rehearsal.


Practice consuming calories at race pace. It’s important to test your go-to calorie source to make sure it works for you in your marathon gear at race pace. While one gel, bean or block works for you during long runs at a leisurely pace, it might not work so well at race pace. I love Cliff blocks early in the training season, but found out during a goal pace workout that I could not comfortably carry enough of them to get through a marathon. Perhaps worse, I also discovered that they didn’t go down easily while running at goal marathon pace. Another time, I found that one type of gels that seemed to be the best for my stomach on easy long runs (Honey Stinger) have tabs that are a little harder for me to open than another brand of gels (Power Bar). Also, the consistency of gels changes as the weather gets cooler and can become hard to get out of the packets. You need to practice your marathon fueling throughout the season and based on your findings, work out any lingering kinks in your pre-race dress rehearsal.

Practice hydrating at goal pace. Jasmine practiced grabbing drinks from a table she set up on her parents’ street before her killer sub-3 hour marathon performance last fall.  Most runners drink from the paper cups offered by race organizers. If that is your plan, race day will go better if you practice drinking out of paper cups at race pace. If you like using a handheld to carry water and gels like I do, make sure the water flows out easily enough to drink while breathing hard, and practice opening and refilling it quickly so you don’t lose precious time in the marathon. If you plan to race with a hydration backpack or fuel belt (has anyone had the talk with you yet?), make sure you can comfortably run with it at race pace, without chafing and being unduly distracted by the drinking tube.

Practice pacing. Plan and practice your pacing strategy. Do you plan to run even splits at goal race pace the entire time (consider whether this is realistic, considering the terrain)? Do you plan to run a bit faster than goal pace but allow time to walk the water stops? Pay attention to what happens to your heart rate and pacing if you take 30 second breaks every four miles.  Does the reduction in heart rate allow you to go faster, or does the effort of having to speed back up again slow you down (in addition to the time lost from walking)? For myself, I have found it best to avoid walking early in the race to allow my muscles to get really warmed up and can confidently run fast, but later in the race am sometimes helped by a short break to drop my heart rate. See what works best for your body and come up with a plan.

Practice wearing your marathon gear. One of the best mantras I learned before my first marathon was “nothing new on race day.” Make sure the clothes, shoes, and gear you plan to run in are comfortable, reasonably broken in, don’t chafe and can hold the things you need (gels and key) to make it through the course.

Practice eating your pre-race meal. Consuming enough calories on race day are key to making sure your body doesn’t run out of glycogen and you suddenly find yourself running at a snail’s pace or walking. Salty wrote a great post about that here.

At the same time, eating a pre-race meal your stomach is not completely comfortable with could mean that you end up spending precious race time in a porta potty. For each long run this season, I have practiced eating a buttered bagel, kefir and juice a couple hours before my run. I plan to bring these items with me to eat on marathon morning so my body will accept and be comforted by familiar routine.

Jasmine’s latest water stop on her marathon dress rehearsal route.


So those are the elements you’ll be rehearsing, but how exactly do you execute a dress rehearsal run? Just like in theater you want to mimic race conditions as closely as possible.

  1. Schedule your dress rehearsal for 3 weeks out if possible. This will give you enough time to experiment in training and also enough time before your race to make tweaks to your plan if problems arise in rehearsal.
  2. Plan your dress rehearsal as close to the scheduled race time of day as possible. If you’re goal race starts at 7:00 A.M., try to start your dress rehearsal at 7:00 A.M.
  3. Eat your pre-race meal as close to the time of day that you will on race day. This might hurt if you plan to wake up 3 hours before the race, but it’s worth it to ensure your planned meal works. You can always nap later! Also be sure to eat what you plan to eat on race, day naturally.
  4. Set up a course with the drinks you plan to drink in the race, in the cup or bottle you plan to drink them in. If you plan to grab cups or bottles, a table like Jasmine’s works well. If you are going to wear your drinks, then wear them as you plan to wear them in the race.
  5. Wear all the gear you plan to wear in the race. I’m talking the outfit, the body glide, sunscreen, the hair tie, the watch … anything you plan to wear on your body. Do it exactly as you plan to do it on race day. Set your watch on the same settings too!
  6. Pack your snacks exactly as you plan to do it on race day. Going to pin your gels, then do it in your dress rehearsal? Stuff them in your bra or your spibelt. Whatever you plan to do, do it in your race rehearsal.
  7. Run some miles at goal pace. For a marathon, run between 10 and 16 at goal race pace in your dress rehearsal. For a half, 5 to 8 should suffice. Make sure you drink and eat at this pace. Remember, drinking and eating at a leisurely pace is very different from drinking and eating at race pace.

Do you plan a dress rehearsal when training to race a half or full marathon? What do you practice and how do you execute yours?

40-something marathoner frequently found on running paths in New York and Connecticut. Running habit supported by work as attorney/law firm partner. Cheered on by husband and two children.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.