Finally, the weeks and months of training have reached their logical conclusion and you are ready to toe the line at a race! Races are great fun and provide an accessible competitive outlet but there is more to successful racing than simply turning up and running. Get the most from your racing experience by following these tips and guidelines.
In reality, your race day preparation started during the week leading up to the event as you tapered your training and addressed all the other little details associated with running in a race but that doesn’t mean you can sit back and relax just yet. As the saying goes, prior planning prevents poor performance so don’t leave everything to the last minute and end up panicking. Panicking uses energy that would be best used running a new PB!
1) Plan your route to the race and check the start time
Make sure you leave yourself plenty of time once you arrive to check in, get your number and warm up. Remember, there maybe be hundreds or even thousands of other people doing the exact same thing so give yourself more than enough time. Make sure you build in some extra time in case things don’t go exactly as you might hope. If the race is more than a couple of hours from your home, consider travelling there the night before so you can relax safe in the knowledge that you are already on site on the morning of the race.
2) Pack your running bag the night before
Make a list and check everything off as you put it in your bag. Don’t forget pins for attaching your number to your vest, your water bottle, and any sports drinks or energy gels you intend to consume during the race, your registration number, warm clothes for after the race, post-race food etc. Remember, race day is not the time to start trying new things. Stick with your normal running shoes, your regular running clothes and sports drinks that you are used to. A small change can result in a big disaster so stick with the tried and tested.
3) Try to eat a normal pre-run meal
You’ll probably be nervous in the hours leading up to your race. This is perfectly normal. Some people find nerves interfere with their appetite. Try and remain relaxed and eat your normal pre-run meal 2-3 hours before you are due to start. Stick with food you know you tolerate well and are high in complex carbs. Porridge or toast are good examples but any food is better than no food. Drink some water too but don’t do overboard and drink more than normal or you may find your bladder is uncomfortably full. Just sip small amounts to keep your fluid levels “topped up”.
4) Warm up as you normally would
It’s all too easy to get suckered in to doing a different or longer than normal warm up simply because you are nervous, have time on your hands, or see other runners warming up differently. Save your energy for running. Don’t warm up too early to then find yourself standing around waiting and getting cold again. Try to time your warm up so that you only have a few minutes left between finishing your warm up and starting the race.
On colder days it’s worth having a disposable top you can keep on right up to the start of the race. Whip it off at the last moment and then discard it. Many runners wear plastic bin bags before a race and this is a good option if you don’t want to throw away your warm up top. You could also pass your top to a non-running friend but that means you may have to move out of the pack to locate them. Finally, make sure you use the bathroom before heading off. Nerves can have a laxative and diuretic effect so don’t be surprised if you need to go a couple of times!
5) Find a good position at the start
Depending on the number of runners, you may find yourself in a very big pack on the start line. Unless you have aspirations of winning the race, don’t hog the start line. Likewise, if you are expecting to run well, don’t position yourself at the back of the pack. Some races will put up estimated finishing times so that runners of a similar standard can start together. Position yourself according to how you expect to run so that you don’t get held up by slower runners and don’t impede those faster than yourself.
6) Stick with your race plan
When the gun goes off make sure you resist the temptation to set off like a bat out of hell! Stick with your race plan at least for the first mile or so until you get into a comfortable running rhythm. Setting off too fast can make the latter stages of a race really tough and whatever time you made up in the opening stages may end up being lost in the latter. If, after a mile or two, you are feeling good then by all means start to push the pace a little – it is a race after all. By this time, you should have a good idea as to how you are feeling and whether you should run faster than you initially intended.
7) Start your stop watch as your cross the starting line
Unless the race has computerized timing, your race time will start from when the gun goes off. In very big fields, it might take you a few moments to actually cross the line and start so having your own timer will ensure that you end up with an accurate finishing time and also will know if you are running at your planned pace per mile.
8) Make sure you use the drink stations
Depending on the length of the race, these could be every one to three miles. Drinking on the run takes practice so if you choose to skip one station and then manage to drop your drink at the next you could easily end up dehydrated. In longer races and on hot days it pays to slow down and even walk at drink stations to ensure you remain well hydrated. For shorter races, where dehydration is less of an issue, you might even decide that you don’t need to rehydrate at all.
9) Keep track of your progress by using the mile markers
Most races post mile/kilometer markers so you know exactly how far you have got left to run. Use these mile markers to help you pace yourself to a good result. Keep an eye on your speed and adjust accordingly. As you reach the latter stages of the race it’s time to start pushing the pace a little in search of that elusive personal best. Remember, this is a race and you should endeavor to cross the finishing line feeling as though you have given it your all. I always made a point of trying to pass as many runners as possible in the closing stages of my races…it might not have been many but chasing down someone in front of you is easier than simply trying to run faster alone. Other people will be doing the same to you I promise!
10) Remember to cool down properly
Avoid cooling down too fast by keeping moving, putting on some warm clothing, and following your normal cool down routine. After a race you might well feel like simply collapsing in heap and then heading home.
11) Ensure you refuel and rehydrate properly after the race
Don’t just slip off the pub for a pie and a pint – although you do probably deserve to! You should have packed some proper post-race food and drink so consume that before that well deserved and celebratory beer…
12) Review your performance
Once you get home and the dust has settled, analyze your performance and think about what went well and what aspects of your race you would like to have done differently. Make a note of any changes you would make and implement them next time. Make a note of areas of your running you were pleased with and what aspects of your performance you want to improve. Don’t dive straight back into running the very next day but instead start planning your next block of training while addressing the areas of your performance you want to improve. Pick a future race to work towards and then ease yourself back into training ready to do it all again in a few months’ time.
Sometimes, things don’t go to plan and, for any number of reasons, you end up having a not so good race or even end up DNF – short for did not finish. This happens to many runners and while it is frustrating and upsetting is not in itself a failure.
Even when things go awry you learn something about running and racing. Chances are that, with some analysis in the cold light of day, you will be able to identify what went wrong and how to fix it.
Hindsight is always 20/20 so don’t be too hard on yourself if your race day was less than perfect. Instead, record your mistakes and learn from them and make a point of not making the same errors again. By learning from your mistakes you increase your chances of getting everything right next time.