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Tips for planning an overseas marathon

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

This great idea for a post was given to me by a friend, who suggested I write about some of the things you have to plan for when doing a race away from home.

After running the Berlin marathon last year and the Amsterdam marathon this year, these are the things I have found we need to plan for.

What to bring

I bring a few sets of running clothes so I can go for a few light runs before the race. My clothes for race day, as well as my running shoes and gels, go into my carry on bag.

With all the niggles I had before Amsterdam, I also packed my running survival kit of voltaren, panadol, spikey ball, golf ball and a few other bits and pieces. Some of those things I’m sure I could have picked up at the expo if needed, but better to be prepared!

We bring a small foam roller that we can take onto the plane as carry on luggage. It usually makes an appearance at the airport to pass the time during our stopover. I also bring ‘the stick’, which goes into the checked bags.

What to do on the plane

The most important thing for me is to book an aisle seat! I find that I need to drink a lot of water on planes, especially in the few days before a race. I also like to get up to stretch my legs and move around. Having an aisle seat means you don’t need to climb over someone and are free to move around when it suits you, which for me is a much less stressful way to fly.

When to arrive

This can be a tricky one as you want to adjust and get over jet lag, but don’t want too long before the race. Both this year and last year, the three days we spent in each city before the race, it was constantly on my mind. The short time frame meant we only had to fit in a few light runs to keep the legs moving, which we used as sightseeing runs. The earlier you go, the more fitting in training becomes a factor.

Our flight left Sydney on Wednesday night, and arrived in Europe on Thursday afternoon, before the race on Sunday. When we arrived we planned to run, have dinner, then go to sleep.

Last year, I was falling asleep at the dinner table on Thursday and was tired on the Friday, but slept well at night and by Saturday felt like I had adjusted. I don’t think jet lag was a factor on race day.

This year, we followed the same schedule. I felt great in our run off the plane and was asleep by about 9pm. I felt okay most of Friday, but woke up with a slight headache and feeling of dehydration on Saturday. I didn’t think I was jet lagged, but I also didn’t feel quite as good as I did in Berlin. Perhaps an extra day would have been helpful.

Ultimately, this can come down how long you can get off work! I wouldn’t want any less than the three nights we had each time, for a long haul flight anyway.

My main suggestion is arriving at a time that allows you to adjust to local time as quickly and easily as possible (easier said than done for some destinations), and to go for a light run or walk when you arrive to help shake out the flight and prevent you from falling straight asleep!

Where to stay

Our hotel in Amsterdam was out of the city centre. We booked it based on a tip from a friend who did the race last year. He said the trams from the centre on race day were busy and hard to get on, so booked a hotel that was walking distance to the start. Other things to consider are access to shops and restaurants, and where the expo is, as you will likely need to pick up your bib. In Amsterdam, the expo and race precinct were in the same place. If these locations are separate, it’s worth considering how you will get to both.

What to do in the days before the race

I try to resist the temptation to do a lot of sightseeing activities the few days before the race. Some walking around is inevitable (and helps with jet lag), but if you are trying to see all of the city’s top attractions, you might find yourself tired on race day. Last year, we saw the Brandenburg Gate on a sightseeing run and visited the Berlin wall. This year, we went on a canal boat tour, none of which were too taxing.

What to eat

It can also be tempting to try local food, but if you aren’t sure how your stomach will handle it, you are better off sticking to what you know. The old rule of not trying anything new is key here. Find places that serve food you have eaten before races in the past. For me, it’s a pizza place the night before the race!

When to run

Try to stick to your routine as much as possible. If your training plan included running most days of the week, try to do the same. If you trained every other day, it can still be a good idea to do some light running or walking after the flight to stretch your legs out. Ask your hotel if there is a park or running route nearby, or consult strava to search for segments or routes in the area.

What to do on race morning

I bring some supplies from home for breakfast. My marathon breakfast is a banana and a few bites of porridge. I bring the oats from home and make sure there is a kettle in the room to boil water. Funnily enough, our hotel this year didn’t have kettles. I improvised by using the boiling water from the coffee machine at the breakfast buffet.

I bought my bananas from a nearby convenience store on the Friday before the race. It turned out to be a good decision as it was closed on the Saturday. Lesson from that, plan early!

Make sure you give yourself enough time to get to the start, and try to get your bathroom stops out of the way before you get to the race precinct (again, easier said than done!). The toilet lines in Berlin were impossible. In Amsterdam they weren’t as bad, and while I did line up, it didn’t leave us much time to get to the start.

It’s also a good idea to look up where you start zone is, and how to get there (if that information is available). In Berlin, there were plenty of signs, but it was quite a long walk. Luckily we left in plenty of time. In Amsterdam, everything was much closer, but less signage made it a bit confusing to begin with.

Get to the start early or get as close to the front of your start group if you can. With big fields, overseas races can be crowded, so it’s helpful to be close to the front of your group.

Enjoy the atmosphere! It’s not very often we get to do races like these.

What to do during the race

Be prepared for big crowds! There are some local races with big fields, but not over the marathon distance. Stay relaxed early when you will probably spend a bit of time weaving around people until things settle down.

You will also more than likely run further than the marathon distance. Big crowds make it hard to run the marathon line, and moving around other runners adds extra distance. If you are running for a time, check your progress based on the kilometre markers rather than when your watch beeps, as it will almost certainly be out. I check my overall race time at each 5km mat to see where I’m at.

What do do after the race

Soak up the atmosphere! Get your medal, and don’t forget to get it engraved if that was an option when you entered. If you have time, spend a few extra days in the city to enjoy all the food and sights you didn’t see before the race!

Wear your marathon shirt and enjoy the camaraderie with other runners.

I try to get a walk in a day or two after the race. If you are having a holiday after the race, try to fit a few recovery runs in, that can double as exploration runs.

Most importantly, use the downtime (and post-race high) to research the destination for your next overseas race. The list is endless!

Running in Berlin, Germany
Berlin sightseeing run

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