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(edited 9/15/09)

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Fall is a big racing season for many endurance athletes. After a long, hot summer of training, you want to get the most out of that effort on race day. In the final few weeks before a big race, there’s very little you can do to improve your performance, but a lot you can do that could hurt it.

Training is a process of stress and adaptation. You can think of training in terms of cost and benefit. The costs of training are damage to muscles and joints, a weakened immune system, fatigue, and a risk of injury and illness. The benefits are that in response to the training stress, your body adapts and becomes stronger. That adaptation doesn’t come overnight. It typically takes 6-8 weeks to adapt to new levels of training stress. Training stress and adaptation will be the subject of a more in depth article later.

Count back about eight weeks from your big race. That should be the last time you introduce any new element to your training. New means increased distance or intensity (as well as any new type or training). This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do any more hard or long workouts. It takes more than one workout to adapt to a new training level. You need to repeat those peak distance or intensity workouts to adapt. However, over the final eight weeks of training, don’t add additional distance or intensity, or any new routines to your training.

I know many marathon training programs, for example, continue to increase the long run until two or three weeks before the big race. They are designed to get a new marathoner to survive a marathon, not to excel. Continuing to increase the distance may build confidence, but you won’t have time to adapt to that distance. If you’ve just increased your long run to 16 miles (for example) 8 weeks out from a marathon, you still have to adapt to that distance. You may be better off repeating the 16-mile run, rather than increasing the distance. Continuing to increase the distance until your taper increases the chance of injury, may leave you fatigued at the race, and probably won’t make you any fitter.

The focus during these final several weeks should be on peaking for the race. Many of your runs should be at race pace/effort*, or slightly faster/harder. This will get your body more used to the running at the right pace, and easier to settle into that pace on race day. Doing some of your runs a little faster/harder also help. That way, when you settle into your race pace, it will feel easy. You should still do your long and easy runs at a slower pace.

There may not be a lot of benefit to running a lot faster than race pace at this stage. If, for example, you’re training to run a marathon at an 8:00 pace, just because you can blast a few 400s in 1:40 (6:40 pace), doesn’t mean you should. If your target race is a longer race, the faster speed work should come earlier in your training.

*I use “pace/effort” because for many of us in Colorado, your race may be at a higher or lower altitude. If you’re going to race at sea level, that same sea level pace will feel harder at a mile high; that same sea level effort will be slower at altitude. If you’re racing up in the mountains, it’s the reverse. There’s a benefit to practicing both.

Race Simulation
This is a good time to practice race conditions. This includes doing more training runs at race pace and effort. If you are racing at sea level (coming from altitude), you should practice running both at race pace and effort – race pace at altitude will be at a higher effort than that at sea level; race effort will be at a lower pace.

Run in the morning, at race time. If you prefer to run in the afternoons or evenings, like me, this means changing your habits and forcing yourself out of bed early, at least some of the time. Practice the whole race morning routine a few times, including waking up early and eating your pre-race meal. That can be a challenge if racing in another time zone. I recently (5/3/09) did a marathon on the east coast with a 6:30am start time. That meant getting up and running at 4:30am Denver time.

You can benefit by doing an actual race as practice. This can help you prepare for the nervous energy and hassles of race morning. Just remember that it’s for training, and not a goal race. It should be a shorter than goal race distance, or easier than goal race pace/effort. For example, run a half-marathon at marathon race pace/effort

Final Prep
The final couple of weeks is a balancing act of competing forces. On the one hand you want to be fully rested. When training consistently, you never fully recover. Even though you may not feel tired, muscle fibers are always fatigued and your immune system somewhat compromised. On race day, you want every muscle fiber to be as fresh as possible.

On the other hand, you don’t want to lose any fitness or become “stale.” “Stale is like the feeling you have when getting up after sitting on the couch or at your desk for a few hours. If you sit too long, your muscles and blood vessels contract. You want to maintain that race-like sensation in your muscles, and maintain your body’s metabolic efficiency through to race day. There are ways of doing that while allowing your muscles to more fully recover.

The way to do that is to progressively reduce your training volume while maintaining the intensity. The intensity should primarily be at race effort, certainly no harder than you’re adapted to. This “last hard” effort is typically a series of intervals at (or slightly harder than) race pace/effort. The interval length should be up to 3-4 minutes long for a 5km-10km race, and up to 10 min long for a marathon, with 50%-33% of the time recovery (easy jog) between. Don’t go too hard on the hard intervals, and don’t take too long on the recovery. For example, for a marathon, you might do a ladder (climbing up in distance, then back down) workout of 2-4-6-8-8-6-4-2 minutes hard (race pace or slightly harder), with 1 min easy at the short end, and up to 3 min easy between the 8 minute intervals.

The taper, or when you do this “last hard” workout, depends on the race distance, your fitness level, and your individual body. This “last hard” workout should be about 5-7 days prior to a 5km-10km race, 10-12 days prior to a ½-marathon, and 15-17 days prior to a full marathon. These are just averages. The less your training base, the more time you need to taper. After this “last hard” workout, but shorten the interval length and volume. For example, you would shorten the marathon intervals to 2-4-6-6-4-2, or 3 x 6 min repeats, then 3 x 4 min several days later, etc. Listen to your body. If you’re tired, don’t be afraid to take an extra day off or shorten a workout.

Also start increasing the very short, leg turnover drills (assuming you’ve been doing them already). Sometimes called Striders, these are short sprints focusing is on how fast you can stride, not how fast you can run. Sprint for 20-30 seconds, about the length of the straight on the track, gradually building your speed for the first half, then carrying that through to the end. Do not reach with your stride – keep it as short and fast as you can. Do 4-10 repeats (depending on whether you’ve been doing them before), with a full recovery between sprints; this is about leg speed not aerobics (heart rate). As you get closer to the race, these “striders” will replace the intervals.

The 2-3 days before the race should be very easy. Sometimes there’s a 48 hour delay in feeling tired from a workout, so I may take the second day before completely off, or nothing more than a walk or short/easy jog. The day before, do an easy jog, perhaps 20-30 minute, with a few short bursts of speed getting up to race effort. The purpose here is just to keep the muscles loose and the juices flowing.

Resting includes life as well as training. Avoid lifting heavy items, gardening, and other tasks that have you standing or squatting for long periods. Try to avoid stressful situations at work and home. Try to stay off my feet and keep my legs up as much as possible the last few days.

Tapering can be hard for some people. It’s my favorite part of training. I can relax, get rested, and let the anticipation build. On the other end, I know someone who couldn’t tolerate tapering, so paid extra money to do an Ironman two weeks before the target race. If you’re in the latter group, quell your anxiety by doing another race (or two) - shorter, and/or at least part of the effort easier than your target race.

You lose very little fitness by cutting back on your training, while allowing your muscles to more fully recover. It’s better to show up a little under trained but well rested, than 1% over trained.

Little Things
Take care of the little things that can annoy you at the race. I don’t like long nails, and I don’t like them uneven. I trim my nails several days in advance, giving them time to smooth out without getting too long. Find your own peeves and take care of them.

Carbohydrates (glycogen) and fat are your main energy sources in exercise. We all have plenty of fat (you use less than a pound of fat’s worth of energy in a marathon). Glycogen depletion is a key limiting factor in races over 90 minutes.

For those longer races, you can increase your glycogen stores. About 4 days before the race, do a moderate depletion run, about 1:00-1:30 at slightly less than race effort, and eat low carbs (40%-50%) throughout the day. This will stimulate your muscles demand for glycogen, while minimizing the damage from a longer depletion cycle (as was practiced with the old carbo-loading methods). Then, eat a high carb (70%-80%) diet for the final three days. It’s not unusual to gain some weight doing this. Most of this is water – you store 1 pound of water for every 700 calories of glycogen - which will help prevent dehydration during the race.

The day before, avoid anything that can cause digestive problems. I avoid dried fruit and beans for 24 hours before a big race. Eat your last big meal 12 hours before the start. This will allow you to fully digest the energy before the race. You want the blood flowing to your muscles, not your stomach during the race.

Make a Plan
It’s a good idea to make a plan, both for the race itself, and race day logistics.

Plan your race gear. It can be simple for a short running race, or quite complex for a long and multi-event (triathlon, adventure race) race. When I was doing triathlons, I would make a list of gear, food and clothing. As I packed it, I would check it off the list (after too many experiences of repeatedly unpacking stuff the night before just to make sure). Bring extra, especially the small stuff that doesn’t take up much room. You’d hate to show up at the race to find out that you have a hole in your socks, your shoelace broke, or it’s colder than expected. I always bring a variety of clothes I can change into at the last minute.

Plan your route and timing, and allow extra time (for traffic jams, road construction, getting lost, etc.).

Make a plan for the race itself. Set a target pace and stick with it. It’s easy to get excited and start too fast. Having a target can help prevent that, especially at sea level (if coming from altitude). Trust your training to know how fast to run. If you’re not sure, take an educated guess, but err on the side of starting too slow. There’s a rule of thumb that says for every 10 seconds too fast you run the first mile of a marathon, you’ll lose one minute/mile over the final 10km.

You can adapt your plan once you’re into the race. If it’s extremely hot or cold, or windy, you’ll want to slow your pace from the start. As you settle into the race, listen to your body. If you’re straining to maintain your target pace too early in the race, it may be time to back off. If you’re feeling good, it may be OK to pick up the pace. However, do this cautiously. Knowing when and whether to do this comes with experience. There are many examples of people going to sea level to run a marathon, being sucked into starting too fast because it feels so easy, only to suffer later on (myself included).

Should you set multiple goals? There’s some disagreement on the value of that. Sometimes setting a back-up goal (or a series of back-ups) can give you the excuse to back off. You may be better off with setting your primary target, and having another goal that’s the least you’d be satisfied with. For example, your primary goal may be setting a PR, but you’d be satisfied with qualifying for Boston. If you can’t meat your primary goal, the secondary goal can still keep you going. If the second goal slips away, and just finishing isn’t enough, then it’s time to consider dropping out and saving yourself for another day.

Race Morning
Wake up a few hours early. Getting a lot of sleep the night before isn’t critical. It's more imporant that you sleep well in the preceding days. It takes a couple of hours for your energy systems to kick into high gear, for your muscles to warm up, and your blood vessels to expand before the race. Many elites will go for a short, 10-15 minute jog, three hours before the race. Then they will come back to eat and finish their pre-race routine.

You only need 200-400 calories to replace what you’ve lost overnight. It can be as much about not feeling hungry as it is topping off your glycogen stores. Your pre-race meal should be light and easy to digest. What you eat is very individual. Some people like oatmeal, toast or bagel with jam, or some fruit. I usually take my calories in liquid form – a recovery drink with a 4:1 carb:protein ratio – and may eat a small handful of granola (just to feel something solid). A longer race doesn’t mean that you need more calories, it just means more digestion time (I can tell you the story about the two egg sandwiches I ate 40 minutes before the 2004 Leadville 100 run, that I could still feel sitting in my gut 6 hours into the race).

Arrive early at the start. It’s better to have extra time to kill than to waste energy rushing and worrying.

Managing bathrooms can be a challenge. I’ll stop drinking an hour before the start. This allows time for the fluids to run through my body and to get to the bathroom well before the start. I might take a few sips just to keep my mouth moist. I’ll start drinking again about 10 minutes before the start.

Warming-up helps, even for a marathon, even if you’re a back of the pack runner. You want your muscles warm, and your lungs and blood vessels expanded before they need to work. Start from a very slow jog, and gradually build to your race effort over 10-20 minutes. The shorter the race and colder it is, the longer warm-up you need. Finish your warm-up 10-15 minutes before the start, then continue to move slowly to stay loose. About 5 minutes before the start, do a few strider sprints - 20-30 seconds, build to full speed over the first half, keep your stride short and focus on stride rate rather than absolute speed. Do two to four for a longer race, and up to ten for a 5km, finishing 1-2 minutes before the start. If you have to line up early, do your warm-up in advance, continue to move to stay warm, and sprint in place if there’s room.

Prepare smart, and have a great race.