-- Marathon Running Information, Coaching and Advice from Coach Joe English

Training — What Causes Race Day Fatigue?

running-advice-bugA reader named Sarah wrote in with a question about a marathon that didn’t unfold quite as she had expected. After her training going well with three long runs of 20 miles or more and plenty of other miles, she came into the race prepared but then something went wrong. As Sarah writes:

“I really struggled with sleep the week before the marathon. Was particularly anxious and just keyed up for some reason. I traveled with friends and we stayed at a hotel. I woke up Marathon morning feeling okay, but I didn’t have my usual nervous excitement. I was excited about running, but it just felt different. I knew my training was good, but my taper was terrible with the bad sleep and anxiousness. So we get to the race and I started and felt okay. It takes a few miles for me to lock in and get that “i can run forever” feeling. Well, mile 5 comes and goes and it’s not locking in so much. Mile 8 comes and I’m starting to panic because everything feels incredibly heavy and the thought of running the full seems to be very daunting at this point. My legs felt like I was carrying 20 pound weights on each leg. I tried getting my mental game on to get me though it, but it wasn’t happening and I was struggling…”

So the question is what went wrong on race day. It would be easy to say that the fact that Sarah struggled with her sleep the week before the race might have had something to do with her performance, but I don’t think this is really the culprit. It is fairly typical for marathon runners not to sleep well for a few days before their key races and this has been shown in research to have little impact on their marathon performances. There are a few other things here that seem more likely to have come into play.

There are two likely causes for what amounts to an unusual fatigue on race day and both of them have to do with the taper portion of the marathon training cycle. The first is a lack of recovery from the longest training runs that come right before the taper and the second is a taper that doesn’t include enough speed work to keep the body “fresh and fast” going into the race. Let’s look at both of these in turn.

Recovery from the longest runs
The recovery from runs of 20 miles or more can take as much as 3-4 much weeks for many runners. What this means is that the macro-recovery from those runs takes weeks to unfold. This is why the longest run for most marathon runners comes about three weeks before race day — and most runners know that they shouldn’t try to run a long run in the last two weeks before a marathon, because they likely won’t be recovered before the race.

However, let’s back up a bit and think about how this portion of many runners training plans will unfold. Often, runners will do a 20 mile (or longer run) and then do another run of 16-18 miles the next weekend and then another long run of 20 miles the third weekend. For many runners this just doesn’t leave enough recovery time between these two 20 mile runs. They are in essence still aching from their first 20 miler when they run their 18 the next weekend and then they a doubly depleted the next weekend when they attempt the next 20 miler. Some runners may not even run the intervening shorter run that would even make this situation worse.

In Sarah’s case, she told me that she ran three runs of 20, 22 and 23 miles prior to her marathon. Assuming that she put a run in between each of these, that would mean that she five weeks of very long runs in a row and was likely extremely wiped out by the time she hit the last of those runs. The impact: she probably came into the marathon still fully in recovery from those three very long runs. (For more on how many 20 milers you should run, click here.)

We often speak here about the need to run goal paced runs and slower less intense runs on intervening weeks. Here’s a good example where this might come into play. If Sarah was running each of these five runs (the three longest plus the two in between) at approximately the same pace, then she’s just backed up five long runs at the same intensity five weeks in a row. One of the reasons for those relatively slower runs is to assist that recovery that goes on between the more intense runs.

A Taper Too Relaxing
While I think that Sarah’s problem more probably related to the lack of recovery from her series of long runs, another area to investigate would be the make-up of the workouts within her taper. The taper is the time after the longest training in which we unwind from training and accrue the benefits of the training itself. However, during the taper runners need to keep themselves “fresh and fast”. The way to do this is to shorten the length of runs or workouts during the taper, which keeps the body from taxing itself, but at the same time increasing the intensity and speed of those workouts. (Read more about tapering, by clicking here.)

Many of my runners feel like they’ve been sent back to high school to join the track team when they enter their tapers, because they are doing much more work on the track than the rest of the season. These short, fast, workouts keep the legs springy and quick and help keep runners’ metabolism high during these few weeks right before the marathon. If the taper is too slow and relaxed, runners sometimes feel flat on race day, which is exactly what they don’t want to have happen.

Bottom-line: if race day comes along and you’ve feel an unusual sag running at the pace you are accustomed to running, then the place to look is likely recovery from and between the longest runs or a taper that let things slow down too much for too long. Either way, the fitness was probably there, it was just sleeping on race day. In these cases, pick another race about six weeks later, crank up the speed work, and then try again.

Coach Joe English, Portland, Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News


2 responses so far, want to say something?

  1. 1. Training — What Causes Race Day Fatigue? « Running Advice and News June 4th, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    […] To continue reading, click here. […]

  2. 2. 3:40 Hopefull June 7th, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    This really hits home with me. Yesterday, I ran the 2nd of 3 planned 20 milers in preparation for the SF Marathon. The stars must have been in alignment. I had that I can run forever feeling from mile 5 on. I actually ran at MP the entire run (3:40). I thought something was wrong with my Garmin – there was no way I was running that fast. Why couldn't the marathon have been yesterday??? Who knows when that will happen again? I will definetely follow the advice of this article and hope for the best on marathon day. You just never know what race day will bring!

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