How To Prepare For Your First Race Of The Year
This guide breaks down what you should be doing as early as two weeks out from your big race to get to the finish line ready to run.
It’s still early in the year, and many of us are shaking off the cobwebs and trying to remember what it feels like to run hard. Maybe some of us are getting ready for our first big race ever. That requires practice and preparation.
“Racing is a skill,” says Joe Rubio, head coach of the Hoka Aggie Running Club. That means it’s something you get better at the more you do it. So consider these early season races a chance to figure out what works for you. Test warm-up techniques, shadow more experienced athletes, figure out if you’re someone who likes a little more or a little less rest in those final days.
“Keep track of what you have success with,” says Rubio, even if it means writing it down in a log. And then all your preparation will leave you very prepared when it comes time for your big race. Here are guidelines on how to prepare in those final weeks.
The biggest mistake people make is “they have no idea of pacing,” says Greg McMillan, founder and head coach of McMillanRunning.com. To avoid making that mistake, McMillan recommends doing a few short workouts at goal pace about two weeks before. For a 5K race, that might mean doing 6 x 30 seconds at 5K pace or, for a half-marathon, running 6 x 800m at half-marathon pace—not faster.
Jay Johnson, author of Simple Marathon Training, agrees. Pace is an important thing to nail down in the final weeks, including at least one race-pace workout in this period. For example, he says, if you’re getting ready to run a 5K, then maybe do 10 x 400m, with a five-minute jog, then a hard 800m.
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Johnson also recommends a shorter race-pace workout about five to six days beforehand. For a 5K, you might do a similar workout to above, but with only 3,000m worth of work. Or, for a half-marathon, you might do a longer effort at half-marathon pace a week or two before, and then just 3 miles at your goal pace the week of your race.
But: “Don’t crash train,” says McMillan, meaning don’t try to cram everything in at the last minute. Especially in these early-season races, it’s important to remember you aren’t necessarily in PR shape yet and you won’t get in PR shape by cramming in everything at the last minute. Instead, rest, recover and cut back on your volume.
“We normally do what we normally do, we just do less of it,” says Rubio. He typically has his athletes do their last hard effort four days before the race and then cut down training volume by 15–20 percent the last few days, while still including shorter fast efforts.
And make sure you’re getting as much sleep as you can, says Johnson. “Just an extra 15 minutes a night, over the course of five to seven days prior to the race, will help.”
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Although you’ve been resting the week before, you don’t want to rest too much. It’s rare for people to find success by taking off the day before their race. Johnson recommends a short, easy jog, with four or five stride efforts and plenty of recovery jogging in between.
Then, make sure you’re ready for the next morning. That means making a checklist, says McMillan, and dressing yourself mentally from the inside out: shoes, socks, shorts, top, warmups, bib number and accessories. Pick up your packet and check in the day before if possible. Have it all set aside and ready to go. And make a plan for what you’re going to eat, where to park and when you’ll need to leave to get there on time.
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The key to many things on race morning is planning, preparation and practice. Rubio has his athletes wake up at least three hours before the race start to get moving. Some of them even do a five- to 10-minute walk or jog as soon as they get out of bed.
Then, eat and drink whatever it is you plan on eating and drinking—which may take a few races to perfect. And know that you’ll probably need to go to the bathroom a few times. Rubio recommends getting to the race site about an hour beforehand, which gives you plenty of time for more bathroom breaks and a warm-up.
Most of his athletes then do an extensive warm-up, with 2 to 3 miles of jogging, some flexibility drills and strides. If you can, scope out the start/finish during your warm-up and even jog down that last mile to the finish, so you can picture it.
Give yourself time to change clothes, pin on your number and get to the start ready to go.
And remember: This is fun. “Enjoy the whole thing,” says McMillan. Think of it as a “rust-buster,” something to get yourself moving again, see where you are, and test out what works for you (and what doesn’t).
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