Picking up where we left off with the second in our two-part series featuring battle-tested advice to improve your race day experience, from start to finish. And check out Part One if you missed it. Read on and run strong!
1) “Nothing new, on or in you” (thanks to Dan Otto, @Otter)
For seasoned runners this falls under the heading of “common sense,” which is ironic given that most of us learned it the hard way. From shorts to shoes to nutrition, race day is an ill-advised time to test out that new piece of gear (chafing, anyone?) or make tweaks to your diet—even if you did get a sweet deal at the pre-race expo. There are enough variables you can’t control on race day (weather & rogue railroads come to mind), so you’ll want to carefully dial in those you can. You don’t want an otherwise magical day spoiled by an easily preventable blister.
Training runs are not only great for getting in racing shape, they’re also the perfect time to break in new gear and fine-tune your nutrition. Even training with the same brand of sports drink or gel you’ll encounter on race day can help ease your mind. And a relaxed mind means an easier race (see #3 below).
2) Fatigued? Focus on your breathing.
Some runners rely on motivational mantras in the later stages of a race, when fatigue mounts and their form starts to deteriorate. We prefer instead to focus on our breathing.
As a runner, poor breathing techniques can put you at an immediate disadvantage. For instance, if you always inhale as you step with the left foot and exhale as you step with the right, then with each breath you’re effectively lifting your body on the left side and dropping it on the right. This in turn subjects the right side of your body to greater impact forces, rather than distributing these forces equally. Do this for long enough, and over time you’re likely to suffer from imbalance injuries.
By contrast, a regular pattern of inhaling for 3 steps and exhaling for 2 (or 4) steps—preferably practiced and incorporated during training—restores a sense of rhythm and balance that tend to go missing late in a race. This 3/2 (or 3/4) breathing pattern also serves to reduce biomechanical stress by alternating your stepping and landing foot with each breath. And when you’re mentally & physically focused on maintaining an “in for 3, out for 2” breathing cadence, you become more attuned to your body’s feedback and less aware of fatigue. After all, a tired brain makes a poor multi-tasker.
Read more about the theory and practice of this breathing technique here.
3) When the going gets tough, smile!
Conventional wisdom tells us smiling uses fewer facial muscles than frowning. But you wouldn’t know it from watching runners late in a race, where frowns—if not outright scowls—predominate.
The problem with frowning stems from a concept scientists call perception of effort, which is basically a euphemism for “level of suffering.” According to Samuele Marcora, Director of Research at the University of Kent School of Sport & Exercise Sciences, most of us stop running not when we experience muscle fatigue, but when we feel we’ve suffered enough. In other words, it’s the mental perception of our effort, rather than the effort itself, that induces us to quit before our physical well runs dry.
What is more, studies suggest that negative thoughts and facial grimaces increase perception of effort, leading to a greater feeling of fatigue than a positive mindset and relaxed countenance. As Matt Fitzgerald writes in How Bad Do You Want It?:
Crudely put, an athlete can have either a good attitude or a bad attitude about any given level of discomfort. If she has a good attitude, she will be less bothered by the feeling and will likely push harder.
So listen to Mom and turn that frown upside down! Spectators and volunteers will respond in kind. And as Ellen Lee (@sfgal78) points out, with photographers stationed along the course smiling also means “you’ll be much happier when you see your race day photos later.”
4) Find someone to shadow.
If no official pacer is available, finding a “rabbit” to shadow later in the race can help carry you to the finish. Identifying another runner to focus on—someone who is moving at the pace you want to be moving at—provides a surge of motivation while helping to take your mind off your own fatigue. And if your target happens to either drop back or pull away, simply transfer your focus to another, like a frog hopping from one lilypad to the next.
Likewise, this strategy comes in handy in a headwind—for example during this year’s Big Sur International Marathon, where gusts on Hurricane Point reached speeds of 40 mph. In conditions like Big Sur, find someone (or better yet, a group of someones) who is running a pace similar to yours, and tuck in behind them to block the wind. As a taller runner I’ve had others draft off me, and I don’t blame them a bit—in fact I’m always happy to help another runner reach the finish line faster. On race day we’re all in it together!
5) Channel your inner Olympian.
Watch the finish line at many road races, and you’ll notice finishers who look too exhausted, too preoccupied or simply too cool to appreciate their achievement—they cross the line, glance down at their GPS and absentmindedly accept the medal handed to them by a friendly volunteer. In doing so, they pass up a key opportunity.
Insignificant though the gesture may seem, channel your inner Olympian by letting the friendly volunteer hang the medal over your neck (feel free to imagine your country’s national anthem playing in the background). After all, how often do any of us get to feel like an Olympic medalist? This is a fun way to celebrate your accomplishment while at the same time thanking a volunteer for letting you sweat on them. And though this small ceremony will do nothing to improve your finish time, it may just help you savor your success. Considering all the hard work you put into training for that moment, you deserve it!
And the lightning round—some final nuggets from RaceRaves members:
“Arrive at the race site early to avoid the stress of looking for parking, bathrooms, start line, etc.” – Ellen Lee (@sfgal78)
“Make a checklist for packing, wear less clothes than you think you should and arrive early.” – Angela Knotts (@Angela)
“On race day, DEFINITELY take your own roll of toilet paper from the hotel!” (Editor’s note: this is especially true for trail races, and not a lesson you want to learn the hard way.) – Susan Koenemann (@susank)
“Even if you don’t have to go [before the race], line up for the portapotties anyway.” – Eva McDonald (@Samoyed)
“Pack yourself a special treat for the finish line—knowing that there’s some treat you LOVE waiting for you at the end of the race can help you get through those last few miles. Or maybe you really enjoy dry bagels and (1) complimentary Michelob Ultra, in which case you can ignore this suggestion.” – Dan Otto (@Otter)
“I think people spend too much time focusing on the desired outcome. I’d tell them to enjoy the race/event. Have fun & race HAPPY. I mean seriously, you paid for this, now enjoy it!” – Amanda Carey (@2tallfritz)
“Have fun on race day. I used to run for speed/time; I don’t do that any more. Now the race days are easier and the memories with friends are better.” – Wally Hines (@wghines)
“Always set one unquantifiable goal, such as enjoying your day or finishing strong.” – Jen Lee (@Jen_L)
Agree? Disagree? Got your own tried-and-true race day advice? Let us know in the Comments below!
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And for more helpful articles, check out our blog!