Running had always been a place of relief for me. I didn’t use the term “stress” back in my college days, but running was my “go-to” when I wanted to “get away.” — Becca Tebon
I remember the night before a race, I wouldn’t get any sleep. I guess it was because I was so excited. Back in the day (geez, am I sounding old or what?) I ran hard and tried to place. It wasn’t often I took first place, but I was fine with second, third, fourth or even fifth place. As of today, I haven’t run in a 5K race in over 6 years (unless you count a couple of fun scavenger-style races). Restarting was a tad harder than I imagined.
I had to mentally prepare. might mean overthinking sleep, food, hydration, or how your legs feel. And in looking for the race-morning secret, they sometimes undermine themselves through over-complication.
I thought it might be helpful, especially for first-time racers to review WHAT TO EXPECT and HOW TO PREPARE.
The list of things I have seen and WHAT NOT TO DO:
— Sleeping pills for the first time the night before the race
— Taking Immodium for the first time on race morning, having extreme amounts of stress related to bathroom breaks
— Eating no food because of stomach worries
— Eating all the food from the continental breakfast because of bonking worries
— Drinking a heavy protein shake 90 minutes before their high-altitude trail marathon. As you can imagine, that did not end well.
Here are 6 tips for race morning.
So let’s think a bit too much about what you shouldn’t overthink. As always, stick with what works for you if it varies from this advice.
1. Sleep Before a Race
It’s normal to feel demotivated, nervous, or sleep-deprived when you wake up, don’t judge, and turn up your “Let’s have fun” mentality. Find comfort in a routine, and give your brain time to recalibrate to the day.
The same goes for nerves. Being nervous means that you care and what you’re doing is worthwhile. Heck, being nervous should be one of your main goals of race day. Otherwise, you might as well just do a training run.
Perhaps most importantly, don’t worry about pre-race sleep. Studies show sleep the day before a race doesn’t really matter. I have seen athletes win national championships with literally zero sleep, and I have seen others have the worst races of their lives after sleeping a blissful 10 hours.
2. Hydrate Before a Race
Hydrate no matter what, caffeinate if you’re into that. Start thinking about hydrating in the 2-3 days leading up to the race.
The basic principle is just to avoid starting your race dehydrated. How that works in practice varies a ton among athletes based on physiology and background, but the general guideline I use is to have a small glass of fluid after waking. Follow that up with another 8-16 ounces in the 75 minutes before the start, adjusting downward if waking and racing are close together, or if you drink coffee or tea, or if your bladder is the size of a teacup.
3. Eat Before a Race
Top off glycogen/glucose stores, ideally 2+ hours before race time (can be closer for lower intensity race).
Most of your energy stores are filled up before race morning, so pre-race breakfast is not about filling up the tank, but topping it off. Here’s another place where people vary a ton. I usually recommend something like an energy bar or instant oatmeal for a few hundred easy-to-digest, carb-heavy calories. But I have seen some people have success just having coffee and an electrolyte drink and won an ultra after eating 6 packets of oatmeal and 3 bananas (seriously). This is one of those places where you should focus on doing what works for you.
For lower intensity races, you can usually eat a bit more and closer to the race, since digestion won’t be substantially impeded during activity for most athletes. For short races, try to make sure you have plenty of time to digest. I generally do not eat before a 5k race if it’s first think in the morning. If anything, perhaps a banana.
4. Arrive Early Before a Race
Arrive at the race site at least 45-60 minutes before if possible.
Life is complicated. Don’t make race morning complicated too. Giving yourself more time to relax and getting ready will take away some of the confusion and stress of the day.
5. Warm-Up Before a Race
Around 30 minutes before, do a short jog, or a more complex warm-up routine for more intense races.
Even longer races benefit from warm-ups due to their neuromuscular, metabolic, and psychological benefits. It can be as simple as a five-minute slow jog, followed by a few dynamic stretches. Giving your body plenty of time before the race to start the warm-up has the added benefit of allowing you to center yourself emotionally before the race start.
6. Stride Before a Race
Do a few strides and stay hydrated while waiting for the start.
After you finish the short warm-up run, you’ll have some more time to kill. To me, that time is a magical window into what life is about. You’re there, going for it. Why? What’s the point? It doesn’t matter. You’re present, actually there, not just physically there and mentally thinking about kids, work or taxes or whatever. BE PRESENT. SMILE. ENJOY! Some people like to create or listen to a playlist to keep their breath and stride in sync, while some people just go into the “the zone” and get lost in their stride.
Do a few strides just to feel that coiled power of your legs, reflecting on all you did to get there. Sip some fluid, think about how amazing you are, and smile.
Racing isn’t a test. Racing is a celebration. And everybody loves a celebration.