Final Countdown: 5 Training Tips for the Last Weeks Before a Big Race

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It’s October, which means it’s race season. Many runners are amping up their training for big runs this fall, including the New York City marathon in early November and various half-marathons leading up to it.

Loyal Healthland readers know that we’ve been following three of our TIME staffers, who have been training all summer to run half-marathons this month. Our first contender is Liz Grover on TIME’s Imaging Desk, who is running her first half-marathon on Sunday, Oct. 7, in Staten Island, N.Y. “My ultimate goal isn’t to kill myself running this half-marathon, but finish knowing I can run another,” she says.

That’s the right attitude, and there are some key final-week training techniques that can help runners like Grover cross the finish line in their fastest time — but safely. For advice, we enlisted Robert Forster, founder and CEO of Phase IV and Forster Physical Therapy, who works with professional American athletes and several Olympic medalists, including London 2012 gold medalist sprinter Allyson Felix.

(MORE: It’s Not Too Late to Start: Tips for Training for a Distance Run)

Forster met with Grover and immediately recommended that she practice tweaking her step count (see below), even during her final training week. “Running correctly will prevent injuries and improve your run overall,” he advised. Perfecting form is vital, and so are these five other tips from Forster for runners on their last leg of race training:

1. Taper your training workload. If you’ve been training successfully so far, Forster says it’s better to be fully recovered than to sneak in hard workouts at the very end. You’re last long run — which is about 10 miles for a half marathon and more than 15 for a full marathon — should be done three weeks before a full marathon and 10 days before shorter races. This allows your body to recover fully and reap the fitness gains from the long-run training.

About three weeks from race day, Forster recommends reducing mileage by 25%, then cutting back to 50% the following week, and then running 25% of your usual mileage in the final week. Your last few weeks of training should have shorter workouts with more “speed play,” like increasing your pace for a mile at a time during runs. “Be sure to be well rested for race day,” says Forster. “There’s no fitness value to be derived from hard training the last five days before your run. There’s just not enough time for recovery.”

(MORE: How to Cross-Train: 5 Alternative Workouts for Runners)

2. Work on running mechanics. “It’s never too late to improve mechanics and your economy of motion,” says Forster. In your last weeks of training, focus on these three form cues:

  • Arm swing: Elbows should be bent slightly less than a right angle, and remain steady. All movement should be hinged at the shoulder as you swing your arms at your sides. “Think about scraping the ground with your elbows to keep from raising your shoulders towards your ears,” says Forster.
  • Knee rise: Lead your leg swing with your knees by lifting them a bit higher than usual.
  • Increase stride frequency: Count your steps while running, preferably on a treadmill with a visible time display. Count each foot strike for 10 seconds. The goal is to get as close as possible to 30 steps every 10 seconds. After a 10 minute warm-up, increase your step frequency for one minute at a time without increasing your pace or treadmill speed. Then go back to your “old” style and recover for one to two minutes and repeat.

(MORE: The Perfect Playlist: How Your iPod Can Help You Run Harder and Faster)

3. Develop your nutritional plan: As you complete your last few longer runs, play around with meals to figure out which foods you tolerate best.  This way, you can plan your ideal dinner and pre-event meal. “If solid foods don’t sit well with you, investigate the best shake or meal replacement drink you can tolerate without GI distress, like bloating, gas and cramps,” says Forster. And, remember, have your pre-race meal 90 minutes before the start of the event so you have adequate time for digestion.

4. Replace your shoes, if they’re in rough shape: Replace your running shoes if they’re broken down. Examine the wear patterns on your old shoes and twist each shoe from toe to heel. Bend each shoe at the forefoot to compare the rigidity against a new pair of the same model shoe. You will be able to tell if your shoes have lost their support function. Before using your new pair on long runs, Forster recommends breaking them in by wearing them for a few hours each day for two or three days and during short runs.

(MORE: Eat Like A Champ: The Best Foods For Runners)

5. Practice starting slow: On race day, you want to avoid getting too caught up in the excitement and running too fast in the beginning. Practice starting at a pace at least 30 seconds slower than your overall race pace goal. “If you feel good after the first few miles or at one third of the race, pick up the pace and try to hold it with good form,” says Forster. “Your race mantra should be: arm swing, knee rise and quicker steps. When you feel fatigued, swing your arms harder and they will bring you home.”