As any veteran runner will attest, lots can go wrong before a race. And believe us, a last-minute goof is the last thing you need after weeks or months of training. * The following guide will ensure that the nightmare scenario–missing clothes, no timing chip, stuck in traffic–will never happen to you, and that you’ll arrive on the starting line ready to roll. * Most of the advice applies to any race distance, but it’s especially important before a longer race such as a marathon, which requires more preparation.
The Day Before
Logistics: Double-check directions to the start on a street map, or print a map and directions from MAPQUEST.COM. Gas up the car. Read the entire entry form, which may contain crucial information about checking in, parking, or some other race detail that affects what time you need to arrive. Finally, pack your race bag (see “Race-Day Checklist,” page 55) after checking the weather forecast.
Do all this early enough on the day before your race. This way, you’ll have ample time to hunt down any missing information or items you’ll need on race morning. If you procrastinate too long, you’ll have to deal with the stress of preface preparations at the worst possible time–bedtime.
Physical preparation: A walk, walk/jog, or easy run the day before a race will keep your muscles limber. Don’t do too much, however, or you’ll fatigue those muscles. Twenty or 30 minutes is plenty.
Other than the easy run, try not to do much else: no tiring yard work if you’re home; and no spending hours on your feet at a theme park, museum, or the race expo if you traveled to the race. This is a day to go to a matinee or catch up on reading. An exhausting schedule will rob you of the energy you need for the race.
Mental preparation: Mentally “rehearsing” a race will ease your jitters. This will be easier, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the route, if you drive the course (or at least the hills or last few miles). Find a course map or directions on the race entry form or Web site, set your trip odometer on 0.0 at the start, and take note of the location, length, and steepness of all hills as you drive. Also, record the mileage points of major intersections and landmarks en route so you can divide the course into segments, making it easier to devise a race plan.
Even if you don’t drive the course, set aside time for a mental dress rehearsal. You can do this on your run, or even on the couch. Imagine yourself at the 1-mile, halfway, and last-mile points. What are your goal times at each spot? If you’re too slow or too fast, what is your plan: speed up, maintain, or slow down? By anticipating all reasonable scenarios, you won’t be caught off guard.
Food: The cardinal rules of prerace eating: Stick to familiar foods, and emphasize carbohydrates. The latter is true for every day, of course, but before a race of 90 minutes or longer, it takes on added importance because you want to fill your glycogen storage tank to “full.”
“For breakfast and lunch the day before a race, don’t eat any more or any less than you normally would, but be sure you’re getting plenty of carbohydrates,” says Kristine Clark, Ph.D., R.D., Penn State University’s director of sports nutrition. “Stick to what you’ve tried and what works for you.”
Drink: It is essential to hydrate the day before a race that’s long, hot, or both. “You need to consume lots of water the day before a long race,” says Clark, “because it will allow you to sweat more on race day, which will cool your body more efficiently.” Take in 8 ounces per waking hour in the last 24 hours, though this doesn’t all have to be “straight” water. Soup and juice are about 90-percent water. Fruits and vegetables are good sources, and even cooked pasta is two-thirds water.
The Night Before
Logistics: With your schedule planned and bag packed, just one detail remains: ensuring that you’ll wake up with plenty of time the next morning. First, set your alarm clock. Second, set your running-watch alarm or a second alarm clock, or arrange for a wake-up call. You’ll rest easier knowing there’s little chance of snoozing through your alarm.
Physical preparation: The evening before the race, even more than the day before, is a time to relax. No dancing, clubbing, or staying up late. Sex is fine if it’s relaxing and not an endurance contest itself. If you’re traveling with kids, reserve a suite so everyone can sleep on separate schedules (“Kill the alarm, Dad, it’s 5 a.m.!”). Follow your usual evening routine, and hit the sack at the same time you normally do.
Mental preparation: Choose a calming and distracting activity, like watching a movie or reading a good book, to occupy your mind with something other than the race. If you end up tossing and turning half the night anyway, don’t worry about it. Your race performance won’t be affected unless you also slept poorly the previous night or two. Sleep research shows that mild sleep deprivation has little effect on physical performance.
Food: Some runners can devour an enchilada grande the night before a race, while others have to settle for a child’s portion. Hey, whatever works. But to ensure you don’t go to bed too full, the safest bet is to eat an early and relatively light dinner with an emphasis on easily digestible foods like carbohydrates (pasta, potatoes, or rice) and lean proteins (poultry, fish, or eggs).
“High-fat and high-fiber foods stay in the gut longer,” says Clark, “so steer clear of them the night before a race.” These foods include burgers, beans, whole-wheat products, and most dairy products.
Drink: Hydrating on race eve is tricky. Don’t drink at all, and you risk dehydration during the race. Drink too much, and your full bladder will disrupt your sleep for bathroom breaks. The best strategy is to drink juice or a sports drink (for their electrolyte content) hourly, then stop drinking an hour before bedtime. Coffee and alcoholic beverages can disturb your sleep, and cause other problems, so it’s best to avoid them.
The Race Morning
Logistics: Your alarm should buzz early enough to allow at least a half-hour to wake up, get dressed, and eat, plus expected driving time, plus an hour at the race start (see the timetable that follows), plus a 15-minute cushion of time to account for unexpected problems.
Most of your time at the start should consist of warming up, relaxing, and conversing with running friends–not standing in lines while your legs stiffen and nerves fray. So skip the registration line by pre-registering (this normally saves you a few bucks, too). If you missed the deadline, allow extra time for sign-up on race morning. Also, avoid the porta-john delay by hitting a gas station restroom on the way to the race.
Physical preparation: Every road-race veteran develops a preface ritual through trial and error, but if you’re new to racing and want to eliminate some of the “error,” here’s a sample timetable for a race that starts at 9 a.m.:
8:00: Arrive at the start area.
8:00 to 8:10: Visit the porta-john line if needed, before it gets too long.
8:10 to 8:15: Slather on a lubricant such as Vaseline or Body Glide to protect skin that’s vulnerable to chafing and blisters: toes, feet, inner thighs, and nipples.
8:15 to 8:20: Walk at a moderate clip to begin your warmup.
8:20 to 8:30: Accelerate to a jog, or a brisk walk if it’s a marathon.
8:30 to 8:40: Do some light stretches while chatting with friends or mentally reviewing your race plan.
8:40 to 8:50: Strip off your outerwear and leave it in your car or the “sweats area.” If you choose to wear racing flats, change into them and double-tie the laces.
8:50 to 8:55: Intersperse slow jogging with some 20-second, speedy pickups to prepare your mind and body for the race.
8:55 to 9:00: Position yourself in the appropriate pace group if these are designated. If not, line up with the runners who look like they’re your speed. Listen to the announcements. Jog in place, if possible
9:00: The gun fires. Or not. If the start is delayed, periodically shake your legs loose, jog in place, and stretch lightly while you wait. Once you’re off and running, start at a comfortable speed.
Mental preparation: “Before a race, the key is to think only positive thoughts,” says Frank Webbe, Ph.D., a Florida sports psychologist and marathoner. “If a negative thought intrudes, immediately replace it with a positive thought. This is called `thought stopping.’ For example, think about what a beautiful day it is, or how fit and healthy you are, or start a conversation with another runner.”
Webbe believes that mulling over your preface plan can be helpful, too, but only if it doesn’t add stress. “Relaxation is so important, because stress wastes physical and emotional energy,” he says. Staying relaxed should be the focus of your preface routine.”
Eating on race morning is a balancing act. For short races, you may want to pass entirely. On the other hand, says Clark, “You don’t want to be hungry on the starting line, even for shorter efforts.”
She recommends a small, easily-digestible, fiber-free meal at least 1 or 2 hours before the race. This mini-breakfast might be an energy bar, a bagel smeared with peanut butter, or white toast and a banana. Whatever it is, try it a couple times before a hard or long training run to see how your stomach handles it.
Consume plenty of water or a sports drink on race morning. “Most sports drinks contain the three electrolytes–sodium, potassium, and chloride–that you need to replace what you lose in sweat,” Clark says. “Drink at least 12 ounces in the last 20 minutes before any long or warm race.” If you normally have coffee for breakfast, that’s fine. A new study on caffeine shows it isn’t that much of a diuretic after all. Other research shows it may even improve your endurance.
Do’s & Don’ts
Different strokes work for different folks, but some rules always apply:
1. DO pack your race bag the day before.
2. DO find out about the course.
3. DO drink plenty of fluids.
4. DO mentally rehearse your race plan.
5. DO set two alarms.
6. DON’T tire yourself out with activities.
7. DON’T try unfamiliar foods.
8. DON’T tolerate negative thoughts about the race.
9. DON’T overeat on race morning.
10. DON’T overdress.
What to wear?
Along with overeating, overdressing is the most common of all rookie mistakes. You should feel chilly at the starting line, because once you begin running, your inner furnace will click on. Here are some guidelines:
Above 50 degrees: Shorts, singlet or short-sleeve T-shirt, visor cap, sunglasses.
35 to 50 degrees: Shorts, short-sleeve or long-sleeve T-shirt, lightweight gloves.
Below 35 degrees: Tights, long-sleeve T-shirt and vest or jacket, gloves, breathable hat or earmuffs.
On chilly days, your inner layers should consist of synthetic-blend materials that wick moisture and prevent chafing. Outer layers should come from the Goodwill pile, such as an old sweatshirt and gloves that can be tossed aside at an aid station once your body or the air temperature heat up. For more help, consult the interactive “Dress the Runner” feature in the Shoes & Gear/Apparel section of RUNNERSWORLD.COM.
As for shoes, the only absolute law regarding race-day shoes is that they shouldn’t be new, nor should they be worn out. Beyond that, shoe choice depends on many factors. If you’re heavy or biomechanically challenged, you should probably wear your everyday training shoes because of their cushioning and stability. Otherwise, consider wearing racing flats or performance trainers, especially for race distances of 10-K and below, where cushioning is less of a concern.
Make sure your bag is packed with these items:
1. Cap (optional)
2. Cell phone (to call home after your great race)
3. Change of clothes, socks, and shoes
4. Energy bar or gel
5. Entry form
6. Extra shoelaces
7. Full water bottle or sports drink
10. Racing flats or performance trainers (optional)
11. Safety pins (for your race number)
12. Street map
13. Sunglasses (optional)
14. Timing chip, if any, secured on race shoes
15. Toilet paper
17. Water-resistant sunscreen (SPF 15+) if sunny
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