Marathon Packing and Traveling Guide

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Traveling for a marathon or other race can be a special way to experience both the destination and the run. Whether you are revisiting a favorite place or exploring somewhere new, joining a friend or relative on their home turf or flying solo, planning ahead makes all the difference. Especially if you are aiming to complete a full or half marathon away from home, use this guide and packing list to get prepared—and pumped.

Step 1: Schedule Enough Time

This won't apply to shorter distances, but for a long race like a marathon, give yourself time to acclimate before the race. Select dates that get you to your destination a few nights ahead of the race. Being early allows you to scope out the course, and gives you time to get used to sleeping in a strange bed, shake off jet lag, and adjust to any changes in altitude, humidity, and temperature. Plus, you have time to pick up your bib and race packet as well as any race-day essentials that you may have forgotten to bring with you.

Then tack on a few days after the race for any sightseeing you want to do, since it's best to save this for after you've completed your race. You run the risk of blistered feet or messing up your nutrition goals from too much walking around and eating before the race. Plus, you do not want to be sitting for a long time in a plane or car immediately following a marathon. You need at least a day of light activity and recovery first.

Step 2: Reserve a Place to Stay

Book your hotel room or make arrangements to stay with a friend or relative as soon as you have registered for the race. Many marathons will have deals with certain hotels, but these can fill up quickly. When booking your accommodation, look for something that is:

  • Near the course: Being close to the start and/or finish line means not having to get up too early before a race. It also means that you don't have to battle the race crowds on public transportation after the race.
  • Not too loud: You don't want to be in such a central, busy location that it is noisy and you can't sleep.
  • Equipped with a kitchen: Booking an apartment or a hotel room with kitchenette allows you to manage your meals more easily, and probably save money.

Step 3: Travel Smart

Whether it be booking a flight, reserving a train ticket, or renting a car, don't wait until the last minute. That adds extra, unnecessary stress to your race preparation.

Traveling by Air

Sometimes long distances make travel by air your best or only option. Get a handle on the going rate for flights and try your search on airline websites, airfare search sites, and travel agencies. There are even agencies that specialize in race travel and can help you put together the whole package: Race entry, travel, hotel, and sometimes even sightseeing tours.

Being flexible with your travel dates can help save you some cash. Be sure to check luggage and carry-on allowances, as many airlines charge extra for checked baggage (and this is one trip where you might need to bring a lot of stuff).

Once you are on the flight, stave off illness and stick with your pre-race preparation by:

  • Wiping surfaces: Clean hand rests and airplane surfaces with antibacterial wipes as soon as you get to your seat. Also wash your hands every chance you get, as you can not run the risk of getting sick before race day.
  • Exercising: Stand up, walk around, and stretch whenever you have the opportunity (as long as the seat-belt sign is turned off). You may also want to wear compression socks, especially on the return trip as they may aid in recovery.
  • Eating well: Long-haul flights may offer low-calorie meal choices. If a meal is not offered on your flight, skip the on-board pretzels and pack your own healthier snacks.
  • Drinking water: Recycled airplane air can be dehydrating. Be sure to get enough fluids, but stay away from alcohol. Staying adequately hydrated before a race is very important.
  • Resting: Use the time that you are confined to your seat to get some immune-boosting sleep. You can also practice self-care activities such as deep breathing and meditation.

Traveling by Car

Getting to a race by car means that you do not have to worry about luggage restrictions or arriving at the airport hours in advance. However, driving can still be tiring. For one, you do not have the opportunity to stretch out your legs or get some sleep. You also have to be mentally alert. Depending on the distance between you and your race destination, this can mean mental exhaustion as well. If you are driving:

  • Give yourself ample travel time.
  • Make frequent rest stops.
  • Stretch every time you gas up the car.
  • Pack a cooler of healthy meals and snacks.
  • Travel with a friend and take turns driving.
  • Keep drinking lots of water.

Traveling by Train or Bus

On the plus side, there is no driving, and you can stand and stretch as needed, as well as using the restroom without stopping. You don't need to worry about parking at your destination, either. However, you are at the mercy of the train or bus schedule (and American trains are notoriously late). Still, for short segments in the US and for longer ones in Europe, a train or bus can be a carefree way to go.

Step 4: Do Your Homework

The unknowns of traveling to a new place can be daunting. Be sure to learn more about the city that you will be visiting prior to traveling there. Find out whether the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has posted any travel health warnings or notices, and whether a vaccine is required prior to travel. The race website should have lots of helpful information for you.

Once you arrive, study the the area maps and guides for restaurants and local events provided in your registration packet. Avoid traveler's diarrhea by washing your hands frequently and eating foods that have been properly washed and cooked.

Step 5: Plan Your Food and Drinks

Don't assume that you'll be able to buy specific energy gels, bars, or other food at the destination or the race expo. It's better to buy them ahead of time and pack them, so you're guaranteed to have the foods that you like and you've trained with in the past. Get all your shopping done several days before you leave, so you're not rushing around the day before the race.

Find out whether the tap water is safe to drink (even if it is safe for locals, it could harbor unfamiliar bacteria that will make you sick). If not, plan on buying bottled water. Scope out a grocery or convenience store near your hotel.

As tempting as it is to try all the cuisine of a new place, wait until after race day to explore the local food. For dinner the night before the race, cook your own familiar food. Or choose a restaurant that you know will have something on the menu that works for you. Be sure to make a reservation, because you will not be the only one looking for a meal that evening.

Food Packing List

You'll want to pack foods that you've already experimented with before and during your training runs. Remember the golden rule of racing: Nothing new on race day! 

  • Race fuels: Energy bars, gels, sport beans, or other foods that you've been training with
  • Snacks/breakfast foods: Bagels, pretzels, muffins, fruit, etc.
  • Sports drinks: Try more portable powdered versions—but make sure you test them out during training
  • Salt packets or tablets, if you used them in training

Step 6: Make Your Packing List

Check the weather prediction to see what kind of conditions to expect. But be prepared for weather that's 20 degrees F warmer and 20 degrees F colder than the predicted temperature, as well as for rain.

Essential Items

Carry these in your carry-on bag if you're flying. You can't risk losing any of them if your checked bag goes astray.

  • Running shoes
  • Running socks
  • One set of race-day clothes, including a sports bra
  • Prescription medications
  • Medical certificate if applicable (some countries or races require special paperwork, vaccines, or extra medications)
  • Medical insurance card
  • Identification (passport if the marathon is out of the country)
  • Race entry confirmation (if necessary)
  • Travel itinerary with confirmations and directions
  • Healthy, carbohydrate-laden snacks for the drive or flight

Your Race-Day Checklist

Keep these in your carry-on as well, unless you are picking them up at your destination, such as race number and tissues, or you are very confident you can buy them at your destination, such as sunscreen or Band-Aids.

The night before the race, lay out everything you will wear or bring with you to the start. You may not need all of these items (such as Body Glide, energy gels, and extra warm-up gear) if you are doing a shorter race such as a 5K or 10K.

  • Any paperwork required for race check-in
  • Race number and safety pins
  • Timing chip if separate from bib
  • Body Glide or Vaseline to prevent chafing
  • Sunscreen
  • Lip balm with sunscreen
  • Running hat or visor
  • Hydration bottle holder (if you plan on using one)
  • Tissues or toilet paper (in case they run out at the Port-a-Johns at the start)
  • Food you usually eat for breakfast before running
  • Running watch with GPS or ability to take splits; don't forget a charger too
  • Sunglasses
  • Band-Aids or NipGuards
  • Shoes and orthotics if necessary
  • Singlet or short-sleeve or long-sleeve shirt for the race, depending on the weather forecast
  • Sports bra
  • Shorts, tights or other running pants depending on weather
  • Socks
  • Old long-sleeve t-shirt and sweatpants (to warm up at the start of the race and then throw away once you warm up)
  • Gels or sports drink if you've been training with them
  • Energy bars if you'll be standing around for several hours before the race
  • Big plastic garbage bag (to sit on while you're waiting or wear if it's raining at the start)

Post-Race Gear

These can go in your checked luggage, along with a bag you'll use to bring them to the race (make sure there is a gear check available).

  • Extra socks (including compression sleeves or socks)
  • Extra shirt and shorts/pants
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Towel
  • Healthy, carbohydrate-laden snack in case there is no food available post-race
  • Ibuprofen
  • Plastic bag for ice or dirty clothes
  • Flip flops to slip on after the race

Other Useful Clothing and Items

  • Street clothing and shoes
  • Toiletries including a travel-sized first aid kit
  • Earplugs
  • Pillow from home if it will help you sleep better
  • Travel alarm
  • Directions to race and number pick-up
  • Area maps or guides for restaurants and local events
  • Extra cash or credit cards
  • Gloves
  • Warm hat (to wear at the start or during the race if it's cold)
  • Foam roller, lacrosse ball, or other massage tools
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