Ready to Race
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
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.
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
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 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
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
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.
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.
(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.
good idea to make a plan, both for the race itself, and race day
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
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.
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
Prepare smart, and have a great race.