When I hear the words “Hey, good luck for your race tomorrow” I often wonder whether the sentiment will make that person run any better, or whether the statement will turn an untrained athlete into this super human who will come from the rear of the pack to take out the race in some bewildering magical run.
For me, “good luck” is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Sure, there are things you can’t control, such as the weather or how other competitors run, but unless you are prepared the best you can be, you’ll never make the most of any opportunities that present themselves on race day.
Firstly, as everyone knows, to prepare for any race you must train for it.
So rather than talk about the obvious, let’s take out the guess work on the smaller details that will lead to race day being more enjoyable, and memorable for the right reasons.
During your training block
Set some goals for the race, whether it be a specific finishing time or just the achievement of completing the distance, and review regularly throughout your training to make sure you are on track, or are able to adjust your goals to manage your expectations of your performance on the day.
Follow your training plan as your coach has prescribed, to the best of your ability. It may not always be perfect – and sickness and injury can sadly upset your plans – but don’t let things like rainy weather stop you from completing your sessions. As part of that training, it’s not just about running the distance, pace and time, but also testing out your fuelling and hydration and what you plan to wear on the day. Experiment early in the training block, and refine it until you get the right combination.
If you’re a woman, take note of your menstrual cycle and the impact this has on your running. It is a great idea to pay attention for a few months and if you find your hormones do have an effect on your running, then plan how you will manage your energy (do you need extra fuel?), and how you will be most comfortable if have your period on race day.
A week out from your race
Drop your training load down and the intensity but not distance. Do everything at an easier pace and keep it comfortable. Avoid cramming in any missed training sessions as the effect won’t make any difference on race day (if anything, it could have a negative effect as you will be more fatigued and prone to injury).
If possible, get up each day at the time you intend to get up on race day so your body starts to get into a routine.
This is also the time, if you haven’t already done it, to organise how you are getting to the race. Are you driving yourself or getting dropped off? Are you car-pooling or taking public transport? What time do you need to leave home? What are the drop-bag arrangements? How are you getting home from the race? These issues can be very stressful to sort out at the last minute, and traffic and transport issues on race day can play havoc with your mindset during the race. Get organised early.
A few days before
Rather than go into a great debate on the benefits or disadvantages of carb loading before a race, just keep it simple. Now is not the time to try a new spicy Thai dish or Big Daddy’s famous 20/10 chilli burger. Instead give your body something simple and easily digestible—these few days are all about creating the perfect pre-race poo.
Rest. Yes rest is a part of training and adequate rest a few days before the race (whether it be some extended nanna naps on the sofa or an early night a few days out) will do your body a good deed and put a bit of pep in your step on race day. It is quite common to have a restless sleep the night before any big race, so bank a few extra hours of sleep in the week leading up to it.
If you’re starting to get nervous, do something fun, take in a movie, go on a date or take your mind somewhere other than worry about the race. Think carefully about including a big night on the beers though (save it for the post-race celebration if that’s your style).
Also check out the weather forecast for race day and determine if your chosen running outfit, shoes and so on will still be the right selection. Stock up on supplies – whether that’s gels, electrolytes, your favourite lollies or fruit, or things such as sunscreen, anti-chafe cream and lip balm – don’t leave it to the last minute. You don’t want to upset your routine with a dash to the servo the night before your race.
This is also a good time to brief your family and friends about what will happen on race day, especially if they are planning to be there to cheer you on. If they need to get up at sparrow’s to drive you to the race, break the news early and emphasise how important it is that they are on time. Make sure they do their research and can look after themselves on the day. The last thing you need during your pre-race warm-up is a frantic phone call from your mum because she doesn’t know where to park the car.
The night before
Conduct your pre-flight check: shoes, underwear, watch, hat, change of clothes, deodorant, towel. Check your watch settings, make sure lap reminders, km splits and other options are adjusted to ensure you are good to go.
Do the pre-race “flat me” and get that photo out on social media and hashtag the hell out of it—after all, your training leading up to the big dance needs some likes and encouraging comments. You could be inspiring a friend or colleague to start their own journey, so be proud of your commitment.
Eat your favourite tried-and-tested pre-race dinner. Pack your gear and get as much ready as you can so you don’t need to worry about it in the morning (this will also help you sleep better!). Set an alarm, make a backup alarm, then catch some sleep.
Hopefully your pre-race poo was the first thing you did after waking up, but if not, don’t stress because there are toilets close to the start line (and you know where they are because you looked it up a few days ago!).
Collect your bib (if you don’t already have it) and use the safety pins provided to attach to your shirt.
Allow a little bit of extra time for traffic on your way to the race—it’s always best to have a little bit of time up your sleeve.
Take any tried-and-tested pre-race nutrition prior to your warm up. By now you should have worked out the perfect amount of time between eating or drinking and the start of your run.
Do a warmup—a little jog up and down the road and some dynamic stretches to get the legs moving and the engines ready to go. A simple warm up routine may be a 5-10 minute jog, 10 deep squats, and 20 leg swings on each side.
During the race
Don’t jump the blocks and run to feel. Remember it is a race so you can go above your training effort but not so much it is unsustainable. Try to hold even splits then re-assess as you get further.
Smile! It costs nothing and gives everything. Smiling in a race, whether it be at a photographer or passing friends or strangers in the crowd, a simple smile activates your orbitofrontal cortex, the region in your brain processing sensory rewards. This suggests that when you view a person smiling, you actually feel that you’re being rewarded, so smile away.
Finish strong! The brain is a funny thing and the moment we see the finish line we automatically know whatever pain we are going through will stop as soon as we cross the finish line. When you see that line or hear the crowd, go for it and finish strong. No matter what your result, smile and celebrate that finish line.
Enjoy the fruits of your hard work, marvel at the shiny medal and fulfilment of completing your goal. If you didn’t reach your goal, that’s ok. You’ll feel all sorts of emotions so don’t be afraid to let it all out. Remember that even less-than-ideal races are great learning opportunities. It can be helpful for many people to write a race report – whether it’s a four-page essay or short post on facebook – an honest reflection of the good, bad, ugly and glorious aspects of race day can give us motivation for next time and build our character.
If you’re running at the Western Sydney Marathon in a few weeks’ time, good luck… or should I say “happy preparation”.
- Coach Handy