How not to blow your race before you get to the starting line.
On the plane ride to a half-marathon in California a few years back, one of the runners I was coaching casually commented she’d just started the Atkins Diet that week and had already lost five pounds. Despite my carefully-worded suggestion that she aim to ingest some carbs for energy over the remaining 48 hours leading to the race, she stuck to her nearly 100 percent protein diet right up to the start, ran OK through mile 8, then staggered through the final 5.1 feeling “really tired… like I was running in mud.” Really?
Sage Advice: Stick to the daily and race day nutrition/hydration plan that worked best throughout training, particularily during long runs, and save the dieting for the offseason.
Take It Easy
Many of the runners I coach have made the mistake of enjoying the sites and attractions in the host city a bit too zealously in the days leading to their goal race. Often this includes standing in long lines, walking dozens of concrete city blocks, skipping important meals (unless you count a corn dog as a nutritious meal) and avoiding optimal pre-hydration levels. Too often this has resulted in “dead legs” and a disappointing result on race day.
Sage Advice: Schedule your travel to arrive at the race city with just enough time to pick up your packet and relax. Then plan to stay a few days after the race in order to check out the local attractions all the while enjoying the therapeutic benefits of a short, easy walk as active recovery. Consider travelling for 5K and 10Ks instead of just the marathon, to enhance your enjoyment of the host city before and after the race.
Visualization can be an effective tool in the days leading to your big race, but it works best when framed in a positive light. I’ve had runners stuck in a vicious cycle of visualizing “NOT going out too fast,” which then has the negative consequence of accessing and reliving the specific memory of them “going out TOO fast.” As a result, many age-group athletes are prone to either unintentionally repeating the mistake on race day or feeling so overcome by anxiety thinking about it that they woefully underperform.
Sage Advice: Visualize your race through a prism of positivity, such as, “I will pace the first mile optimally,” or “I will welcome late race discomfort as a sign I am experiencing just the right sensations for achieving my challenging goals.”
Beware the Expo
The race expo can be a wonderful experience full of amazing energy and great deals, or, if you aren’t prepared, it can be a snake pit full of danger at every corner. Common race expo errors many runners make include spending way too much time standing and walking on a concrete floor, trying food and drink samples that didn’t agree with them, listening to all kinds of advice from otherwise well meaning vendors and fellow racers—none of which was likely to be of any benefit, and could have undermined months’ of careful preparation.
RELATED: Race Day Checklist
Sage Advice: The keys to a successful expo experience are to limit your stay to 30 minutes or less, get your packet and T-shirt first, grab all the free samples you like for trying after the race, quickly purchase any last minute supplies you may have forgotten at home, then head for the exit and the comfort of your hotel room. And for those temped to take last minute advice from strangers, trust your training, trust your coach, trust yourself!
Beware the Course Tour
At my first Boston Marathon, I rode the bus from the finish to the start in Hopkinton. I was relaxed and enjoying the energy of my fellow racers on board while taking in the sights along the way. Unfortunately, after about 30 minutes I started to get really freaked out about how incredibly far we’d driven and how I would have to run this distance if I wished to become a Boston finisher.
Sage Advice: Since then, I’ve followed and shared this advice regarding pre-race bus or car rides. Don’t look out the window! Instead, start up a conversation with anyone about absolutely anything but how far you’ve been driving. Or read the newspaper, close your eyes and listen to music or simple take a nap. Also, even if you have a car at your disposal, I’d advise not driving the course ahead of time. With traffic, map-reading and wrong turns, it’s bound to take longer than you think, and that can only detract from your mental outlook.
Don’t Do Too Much
Many runners enjoy travelling to a race back in their hometowns or bringing along family and friends to major races to help support them. Unfortunately, I’ve observed too many racers who end up spending way too much time and energy supporting their supporters—sightseeing, dining at exotic restaurants or staying up way too late. Come race day these athletes are simply tuckered out from all the pre-race entertaining they’ve done over the preceding days and nights.
Sage Advice: Before arriving at the race, let your supporters know what you need to have your best race, which likely includes ample time to yourself to accomplish pre-race tasks and relaxation. If this is awkward for you, then lean on a spouse or understanding family member to help run interference as best they can.
Stay Out of the Spa
Sports Massage is an excellent tool for prepping the body to race, as well as for expediting and maximizing recovery. Unfortunately, some runners choose to receive a massage too close to race day and/or from a therapist with whom they are unfamiliar, and their legs respond poorly on course.
Sage Advice: If you think you’d like to use sports massage in the days leading up to the race, then plan to do so the day or two prior to one of your final long runs or race rehearsals. Then, if all goes well, ask your massage therapist to provide you some basic instructions for selecting a therapist in the race city, as well as some notes on the exact treatment protocols to best match the successful massage you received during training.
Keep Calm and Carry On
Most veteran racers have experienced minor injuries or illness over the final days and weeks leading to their goal race. The novice tends to accompany these issues with a huge amount of anxiety, as if their entire training season is about to go up in flames. Ultimately, the additional nervous energy and panic can lead to other problems, such as a lack of sleep, poor eating habits and decreasing confidence.
RELATED: Three Common Taper Mistakes
Sage Advice: The savvy racer knows the taper period is often fraught with minor “niggles,” as they are known, and use those as a sign to know their body has had enough training and is ready to race. Listen to your body, try to get more rest and any necessary treatments. It can be a good idea to chat with your coach or fellow racers about any particularly stubborn or acute pain. An outside perspective may be needed to help diagnose an actual injury and the need to consult professional medical help, as opposed to a phantom injury that may be solved with some ice and race day adrenaline.
Trust Your Training
Most runners are nervous during race week about many things, but more often than not they tend to question their fitness. With a less-intense workout schedule during the tapering phase of training, we all tend to get antsy and have physical, mental and emotional pangs that encourage us to do more. As such, some are unable to follow a coach’s advice and instead ill-advisedly head out for an extra workout or two. Amazingly, I even had a runner admit to running a 20-miler two days before a marathon “just so I could know what the course felt like.”
Sage Advice: Most experts agree that it takes a week or more to reap the physiological benefits of a workout, so any training you do during race week is not going to help you until the following week at the soonest. A good race week taper schedule includes frequent running over shorter distances to aid freshness for both the body and the mind. If that’s not enough, one trick I’ve learned for getting a boost in confidence while you sit in your hotel room is to have printed out a copy of your running journal or a list of all the runs you’ve done during your build up to the big day. That list will most likely impress you enough to avoid the need to head out for any extra runs over the last few days before the race.
Ditch the Music
It’s common for runners to spend hours during their taper period building the perfect playlist for motivation throughout the race. Unfortunately, a lot of runners who choose to wear headphones end up with what I consider to be an inferior race experience, or as New York City Marathon CEO Mary Wittenberg, offers, “You miss out on the thrill of running with millions of spectators cheering you on.” Believe it or not, it’s also harder to get into a consistent running rhythm while listening to music. The constantly changing beats in your ears don’t mimic what should be a consistent harmony between your running stride and your breathing pattern.
RELATED: Headphones Made For RunnersThis piece first appeared in the February 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.
Scott Fliegelman is the owner and head coach of FastForward Sports, a running and triathlon training group based in Boulder, Colo.