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10 tips for running your best New York City Marathon

NYC Marathon Finish Line_Reuters.jpg

Runners cross the finish line at the end of the 2011 New York City Marathon in New York November 6, 2011.REUTERS/Mike Segar

I'm running the NYC Marathon next weekend. Do you have any tips for the course? How do I pace myself on the hills? I hear it's a tough course. Thanks! Ellie

You are in for a marathon adventure, Ellie. Although the New York Marathon is a challenging course, it's one that will draw your strength out through your spirit. There's a reason this marathon is one of the greatest in the world, and the New York people are at the heart of it all.

It is wise to run this marathon by its topography rather than pace on a watch. Doing so will allow you to flow with the ups and downs and take in all the magic at the is the New York City Marathon.

10 Marathon Day Mistakes

Here are ten tips for running in NYC.

Taper wisely

If you're looking to have strong legs come race day, be sure to balance your tourist activities with plenty of restful options. Walking and standing for hours sightseeing can suck the life out of your legs, and though you're not running, it can result in fatigue on race day. Think like a local and fully engage your runner rather than your tourist race weekend. Swing through the Expo and give yourself a time limit to get your race info, shop, and stop at the Runner's World booth. See a Broadway show, enjoy a cup of coffee or tea in Times Square, chill or read in Central Park — remember, the marathon will be your tour of all five boroughs!

Conquer the hills

Whether by bridge or by road, the NYC Marathon rolls, baby. The number one way to tackle hills in a marathon is to do so by conserving energy. Many runners will try to maintain pace on hills, but when you do, it can suck the life out of you by mile 20 (the real start of the race). It takes a lot more energy to run hard up a hill, and many times it leaves you too tired to take advantage of the downs. 

Think like a cyclist (or mountaineer), and use your gears by working with the hill to gain the most for your energy. Run up the hill at a consistent effort rather than a pace. If you're in the yellow zone, keep it in that zone all the way up the hill, which means slowing down. Shorten your stride, use your arms, but let the runners pass you (because you'll be passing them later in the race). When you reach the top, lean into it, open your stride, and let gravity pull you down. Don't go crazy on the downhills; keep it in the effort zone of the moment. Meaning, don't race hard down the Verrazano Bridge! I guarantee you'll have more fun on hills than you've ever had before in your life and it will make a difference later in the race when you still have the mental and physical strength to go fishing (more on that later).

How Form Changes When You Run Uphill

Dress for success

Plan to pack layers of old clothes you can leave at the start line for the pre-race wait. If it's really cold, wear a winter coat and stuff it into your gear check before the race starts to keep you warm while you wait for hours at the start. It will also come in handy to keep you warm at the finish when your body temperature drops quickly. Shivering in the cold is not only unpleasant but also burns up a ton of calories. Another way to keep warm is to wear an air-activated heat patch like ThermaCare on your low back (core); wear gloves, a hat, and a garbage bag to keep you dry in the event of rain; and huddle seated with a group of people.

Pass the time at the start

One of the greatest joys and challenges is the wait at the start on Staten Island. Bring a blanket to sit on, and rest your body. Calm your mind by reading a newspaper or book on your smartphone, stay focused and meditate with an app like Pranayama (my fave), or create a calming playlist. Connect with local runners to learn more about the course and the city they love so much. The later start time is a little tricky with pre-race meals but is very do-able if you plan ahead. Eat a light snack when rising, and set your watch alarm for 2-3 hours pre-race to consume your usual pre-race meal. You'll stick with what your bodyclock knows, and you'll be fueled and ready to go when the gun goes off.

What to Pack for Fueling on Race Day

Eat the elephant one bite at time

This marathon is made famous first by its people (the crowds of support) and next by its hills, bridges, and long straightaways. Standing at the starting line on the Verrazano Bridge can be quite overwhelming, and it helps to write down your strategy on a small piece of paper and tuck it firmly inside your tights. Review the course map, visually break the course up into five digestible pieces, and then focus only on the very next bite as you go.

Bite one – Verrazano Bridge [Miles 1-2]

The start of the race is one you'll never forget. Relax, focus on your breath, and be patient as it will take some time to get moving in the crowds. Pace yourself by your body and breath, and mindfully hold yourself back in the first two miles. You'll hit the highest point on the course about .8 mile in and be graced with the most spectacular view of the New York Harbor, city skyline (Statue of Liberty), and the mass of the running community. Tune in and mindfully run in the present to avoid running this first bite too quickly. It's the most exciting two miles of a marathon in the world, especially as you make your way off the bridge into Brooklyn, with Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" serenading you along the way. Run it slowly, take it in, and set yourself up for the next bite (Borough).

Bite two - Brooklyn and Queens [Miles 3-15]

I coach runners to pace themselves from within rather than follow a predetermined pace, as it allows you to run your best effort on that given day no matter what happens. I have them run by color in the yellow (easy effort), orange (moderate effort), and red zones (hard effort). The key to finishing strong in Central Park is to wait for it and pace yourself in the yellow zone through 15 miles as you make your way through Brooklyn. Runners lose their best race in this section all the time because they allow themselves to get caught up in the excitement of the crowds and the emotion and run too quickly. Tune the crowd out and tune into your body; run at a conversational effort to conserve your energy until you reach the base of the Queensboro Bridge just past 15 miles.

How to Pace Your Next Marathon By Effort

Bite three – First Avenue – Manhattan [Miles 16-20]

As you make your way over the Queensboro Bridge and into Manhattan, dial things up to the orange zone. Not hard, not easy, just right (moderate). This is one of my favorite spots on the course because the crowds are huge, and it feels like you're in Macy's Parade. You'll run down a long, straight stretch on First Avenue from Mile 16 to 19.5, and it's a great time to dial it into your second gear, still keeping in mind this isn't the time to push hard. That comes next.

Bite four – Bronx – Central Park [the final 10K]

As you make your way through the Bronx and over the final bridge in the race (Madison Ave), activate your mental game and pull out some marathon mantras. This will help you navigate the long, gradual hill down Fifth Avenue. This is where your conservative pacing and running by effort will really pay off, but you'll likely run slower due to the incline. Keep your focus forward and on your breath and effort level. This is the perfect time to dedicate miles to the ones that have supported you in your life. Run a mile for parents, one for your buddy or spouse -- keep your mind active and on the positive.

The final three miles is worth the price of admission, as you'll be celebrated by the roar of the crowds, and the rolling hills through Central Park. Focus on using your gears to tackle the hills, perform a head-to-toe inventory on your form to remind yourself to run with good posture, and if you've got it in you, "go fishing!" Cast out that invisible hook and gradually reel in that runner in the pink shirt who's been singing Miley Cyrus for miles. Then focus on your next fish, and the next. Every time you pass a runner (nicely please), you gain a little more energy to push forward. It keeps your mind focused and engaged while you roll through beautiful Central Park. 

When you reach mile 25, set yourself up for the final two right turns, and run it to the finish. Take it all in because there's nothing quite like finishing a marathon in New York City's heart center.
Bite five [the long walk through the finish]: After you finish, you'll get your medal, take your photo, and go on what may feel like the walk of torture (it's long), but it's actually a blessing in disguise. Walking post-race will help flush the lactic acid in your body and bring you gradually back to a resting state. Go with it, take in some calories on the way, and celebrate your marathon finish!

Inspiring Runners of the New York City Marathon