Mark Will-Weber in The Quotable Runner writes, “Running is real and relatively simple… but it ain’t easy.” His words never ring more true than on race day. Every race is a learning experience, and we’ve certainly made our share of mistakes in the 80+ races we’ve run, from 5K to 50 miles. Some mistakes were beyond our control, others were our own fault—and a surprising number occurred before the race even started. In the hope that our practice makes you perfect, and with key insights from RaceRaves members, we present the first in a two-part series featuring battle-tested advice to improve your race day experience. On your mark, get set, GO!
1) Trust your training
As obvious as this may seem, it’s the sun around which all other advice revolves. As a runner, you’re only as good as your training. And the better your training, the more prepared you’ll be when the going gets tough. Or as Peyton Manning eloquently put it, “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” Come race day your training will determine whether you feel the pressure, and whether you reach the finish line with a smile on your face or looking to punch someone else in theirs.
At longer distances such as the half or full marathon, there’s no such thing as beginner’s luck. Train for the distance, and you’ll reach the start line knowing that when—not if—you hit a rough patch or two during the race, you’ll own the moment and have both the physical and mental fortitude to push through it. On the other hand, if you’ve cut corners or fallen short in your preparation, don’t expect to suddenly rise up and channel your inner Meb. Trust us, it’s a whole lot better to suffer privately in training than publicly on race day!
2) Have a plan, and stick to it
Stop us if this sounds familiar—you’re standing at the start line feeling good, your mind formulating a vague pacing plan that goes something like “I’ll just start running and see how I feel”. True, it’s important to listen to your body, and a “play it by ear” strategy will suffice if your only goal is to reach the finish.
In most cases, however, you’ll not only feel fine at the start line—thanks to the emboldening power of adrenaline, you’ll feel great. Like, Usain-Bolt-on-100m-final-night great. And without a well-defined pacing plan, you’ll likely fly out of the chute all smiles en route to a very fast first mile. Which is well and good if you’re running a one-mile race. Otherwise, a fast first mile will come back to haunt you later, once that initial adrenaline wears off and fatigue inevitably sets in.
“Stick to your plan,” urges Chicago-based runner Dan Otto (@otter). “Don’t change your mind at the starting line just because conditions are ‘perfect’ or because you feel ‘extra fast’ today!”
“Try to plan your first mile as the slowest mile,” recommends 27-time marathoner Dan Solera (@dansolera). “This gives you time to warm up, get your head in the right place and save your energy for the tougher miles.” Sub-two hour half marathoner Jen Lee (@jen_l) agrees, adding, “There’s nothing worse than walking during the second half of a race, knowing that you went out too quickly.”
So unless your goal is to keep your body guessing and hit the wall before your fellow runners, do yourself a huge favor and plan your pacing—at least for the first few miles, before your training takes over and your body settles into its natural rhythm. As the miles add up, you’ll be glad you did.
3) Don’t trust other runners (or spectators)
More to the point, don’t trust other runners’ pacing. Just because you lined up near the 8:00/mile pace group doesn’t mean you should trust anyone other than the pacer to stick to that pace. This is particularly true at the start of a race, when everyone is high on adrenaline and quite certain that today is their day (see #2 above).
You’ll likely pass and be passed by many runners over the course of a 10K or longer distance, so don’t hitch your wagon to the wrong horse—e.g. an undertrained, overexuberant runner with a poor sense of pacing—and end up ruining your day. Stay within yourself and “run your own race,” advises race veteran John Pitzel (@slomojohn).
Be wary, too, of well-meaning spectators—and not just those clamoring “Almost there!” at mile 2. During many big road races, raucous supporters line the streets, creating a wall of noise that motivates exhausted runners onward. Sometimes, however, the road to an early bonk is paved with good intentions. During the New York City Marathon, for example, at the transition from the Queensboro Bridge to Manhattan, an energizing burst of spectator support causes runners to accelerate by nearly 5% on average in this mile (source: New York Road Runners). For an 8:00 mile, 5% equates to 24 seconds—probably not your best strategy in mile 17 of a marathon, and an oops many runners regret long before they reach Central Park. So nod, wave or smile at the sidelines, but remember—energy saved is energy earned.
Unless you’re running a 100-mile ultramarathon, we wouldn’t recommend sleeping during a race. But the sleep you get during training and tapering will go a long way toward determining whether you shrink or shine on race day. Unlike nutrition or training, where there are many roads to race day success, there’s no substitute for sleep—no scientifically proven shortcut, no alternative path to mental and physical recovery. Critical physiological processes are activated only during REM sleep, and plenty of scientific studies attest to its importance.
And though they may not read the scientific literature, elite runners know this to be true, with many of them logging ten hours of sleep per night plus one or more naps during the day. Kenyan runner and women’s half marathon world record holder Florence Kiplagat insists on 16 hours of sleep per night. That’s more than some new parents get in a week!
If, like many busy runners, you shrug off experts’ recommendations of 9 hours of sleep per night as an impossibility, then at least be smart enough to recognize the truth—that your refusal/inability to allow yourself adequate rest and recovery won’t change the fact that your body absolutely needs it to perform its best. Sure, thanks to adrenaline and muscle memory you may be able to get away with an abbreviated night’s sleep before a race, but only if you’ve slept well in the days leading up to the event. And as Ironman triathlete Jimmy Nam (@jimmynam) points out, “If you manage to get a great sleep the night before the race—bonus!”
For an excellent primer on the importance of sleep for athletes, we’d recommend Sleep to Win!: Secrets to Unlocking your Athletic Excellence in Every Sport, by Dr. James Mass and Haley Davis.
5) Study the course map
For many runners this is a no-brainer—of course you want to know the route you’ll be running before you run it. But this advice extends beyond conspicuous hills, since it’s often not the size but the placement of the hills that exacts the greatest toll on tired legs. Examine the course elevation profile to recognize hills not only by how steep or how high they are, but by where they fall along the course. Despite being overshadowed by one monster ascent in mile 8, several short but steep rollers in mile 12 could wreak havoc on both your pacing and mindset, particularly if you’re not expecting them.
Identify not only major climbs along the course, but key descents as well. Downhill running, while generally faster, punishes the legs more than uphill running, and hammering a downhill early in the race could cause your quads to betray you later. The Boston Marathon course, for instance, is notorious for its initial descent out of Hopkinton, which results in many first-time participants burning out by the time they reach the Newton Hills in mile 16. Shifting gears from uphill to downhill running (and vice versa) also expends significant energy, particularly in trail races where unrelenting hills can be a fact of life. “Train for the terrain, on the actual course if you can,” suggests Bay Area runner Pete Storz (@petesinca).
Finally, study the course map to identify possible points of confusion, for example nodes where different streams of runners (i.e. marathoners and half marathoners) diverge, or anywhere the potential exists for a wrong turn. Adding extra distance to your race is a surefire way to spoil the experience, and we’ve yet to find a race that awards its finishers a bigger medal for running a 14-mile vs. 13.1-mile half marathon.
6) Skip the front of the aid station
This recommendation is specific to larger road races such as the World Marathon Majors (Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, New York and Tokyo) and other big city races. Many of these events have sprawling aid stations made up of several tables on one or both sides of the street. And for most runners, their immediate instinct is to pull into the first aid station they see on their right. (Did you know? 90% of consumers unconsciously turn right on entering a store.)
Don’t do it! Familiarize yourself with the course layout ahead of time and, if possible, resist the temptation to follow the crowd, which inevitably slows to a walk and creates a traffic jam at the front of each aid station. Rather, bypass the first few outstretched paper cups in favor of those less-visited volunteers down the line or on the opposite side of the street—they’ll appreciate the company. Just be careful in your choice of cup, since many aid stations feature water in one place and sports drink in another.
Stay tuned for Part Two—in the meantime, share your own tried-and-true race day advice in the Comments below!
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