Final Countdown: A Comprehensive Punch-List Planner for Race Day
Here's what you need to prepare for in the final weeks before the big day.
This planning guide is designed for the big event, the one you’ve been building toward for months. It’s not necessarily a marathon, but it’s a run that you really want to nail. Let’s assume that this is not a local event with the possibility of popping back home and grabbing the racing flats you left on the front porch. Use this punch list for the out-of-town events that make for memorable running moments—make sure they are good ones and not the painful, “Then I realized I’d left my race bib in the rental car” kind.
6 to 4 Weeks From Race Day
At this stage, hopefully you’ve been training for several weeks, even months, already, but you probably haven’t gotten overly specific to the particulars of the racecourse yet. This is a good time to change that by scouting the course and customizing your workouts to suit the event you’ve targeted. Most big races provide detailed graphics of the course on their websites, including an elevation profile—this is highly useful information that can inform decisions like how much hill work to do. You may also be able to see where the aid stations will be, and what kind of food/drink products will be available. Many coaches emphasize the importance of practicing your race-day nutrition as closely as possible in training, so make your choices now.
There’s plenty of time to find an airline ticket, reserve a car and grab a hotel room, right? Maybe not! Some events, particularly the ones in smaller cities, fill a good portion of available rooms, especially the ones that are most convenient to the start/finish. The biggest races in places like Boston, Chicago and New York City will have plenty of rooms, but will you be able to secure one that won’t break your budget? Shopping early gives you the best chance of success.
- Gather course info and adjust training to suit
- Plan nutrition strategy and find out what will be offered
- Practice race strategy and nutrition at home with “simulator” efforts
- Book your travel early to find the best value and location
RELATED: Workout of the Week: The Marathon Simulator
3 to 2 Weeks From Race Day
If your target race is an ultra, marathon or a half, you’re almost to the taper phase (finally!), but there are still some tough workouts to get through. Anything shorter and you probably won’t back off the intensity or length of your workouts until about a week before the race. If you haven’t bothered with creating a simulator workout that reflects the elevation profile and other characteristics of the racecourse there’s still time.
A good mantra during this window is that it’s better to get to the start line 10 percent undertrained than five percent over-trained. It’s a delicate balance—you’re trying to hit the workouts that will maximize your race potential while avoiding going down in flames with an injury or too much accumulated fatigue. Moments like this are when working with a mentor or professional coach can make a huge difference. If you’re self-trained, do your best to avoid overcooking your workouts, keep up with the foam rolling and other self-treatment options, and maybe even splurge on a restorative massage session.
Many races send an e-mail or post a pre-race document on their websites during this period. Read it! You might be surprised to learn that racers are required to board a bus to reach the starting line and private cars are prohibited. Or that headphones are banned (you can stop working on that playlist). This is also a good period to work on selecting your gear, including the shoes, socks, shorts and top you plan on using. Wear the full kit for at least one of your final long/hard efforts, and also pick some contingency items for foul weather.
- Keep pushing hard—these are the workouts that have the biggest impact on your race performance
- But don’t be afraid to do a bit of pampering—pay attention to little flare-ups and do your best to address them
- Carefully read the pre-race information provided by the organizers
RELATED: Nailing Your Marathon Taper
1 Week to Go
For goal races longer than 5K (where you might only lighten the training load for a few days) the last week before the race is almost certain to see a reduction in both the length and intensity of your workouts. Stick with your normal running routine as much as possible, but be sure to err on the side of being too rested—there is no more fitness gain to be made this close to the big day. That said, it’s possible to over-rest, so make sure to get a few short sessions of intensity in this week.
Remember, the final week before a race will see a significant reduction in the amount of calories you burn, so be wary of overeating. But be sure to eat enough that your energy reserves stay high, with an emphasis on quality carbohydrates.
It’s time to prepare your bags. Most packing disasters occur when a rushed effort leads to jamming everything into the black hole of a duffle, so be sure to lay everything out where you can see it first. The last-minute power-packing session often results in way too many things in some categories (five race shirts) and missing items in others (no rain jacket). If you plan on using your favorite gels and/or drink mix during the run make sure it gets into your bag. It’s also a very good idea to devote a special pocket exclusively for paperwork—race entry documentation, hotel/car reservations, bib if you received it in advance, etc. Another important consideration is figuring out where you will eat before and after the race—reservations lend peace of mind, and may be a necessity if dining options are limited.
- Taper phase is here, but that does not mean completely shutting down your training
- Stick to your regular running routine as closely as possible
- Never pack by shoving gear into the abyss of a bag—lay everything out where you can see it
RELATED: The Final Countdown: 15 Expert Race Week Tips
Race Weekend and the Big Day
Most coaches advise a light run the day prior to racing. ZAP Fitness coach Pete Rea is one of them. “The overwhelming majority of the feedback from age-group marathoners is consistent with the pros: A day off two days before the race will leave you refreshed with pop in the legs, whereas a day off immediately preceding the race often results in heavy legs,” Rea wrote for Competitor a few years ago (the full article is linked below). He recommends an easy 15- to 18-minute run the day before your race.
When the starter’s gun finally fires there’s nothing left to do but begin running. The most important piece of strategy is to avoid flying off the start line and exhausting yourself before you reach the finish. Read this excellent article on pacing strategies and do your best to run the second half of the race as fast or faster than the first half.
A big concern, especially in the final few days before the run, is to avoid tiring yourself out with pre-race hoopla. The expo area is an exciting place, but if you find yourself lapping through the booths multiple times it’s a good idea to make sure you’ve collected that race number and timing chip before beating it back to the hotel. A little sightseeing can add to the fun, but look for the most restive options, like choosing a carriage or bus tour over a big walking excursion.
Finally, be sure to have a game plan for the morning of the run. These things start early, so plan every step from waking and eating to getting to the start line in immaculate detail. If you’re using a race bag make sure to pack it carefully—again, lay everything out where you can see it—and label it as directed. Your race bib and timer chip are paramount concerns, and it’s always nice to remember to bring your shorts and shoes. Make sure that you are hydrated (your pee should be a pale yellow) but don’t go overboard and guzzle so much water on race morning (or during the run) that you become vulnerable to the dangerous condition known as hyponatremia.
- Run for at least 15 minutes the day before your race
- Don’t overdo it at the race expo or with sightseeing—rest up and eat well
- On race day, make sure to get to the start line on time, with a carefully packed race bag
- Have a pacing strategy and stick to it; try hard and have fun!