The OCD Guide to Race Prep

As we are getting into the fall and goal races are coming up, I gave a talk at my local marathon clinic about race preparation. Training for a race takes a huge effort and commitment – a bit of planning can help ensure you get to the start line prepared to run your best. This list comes from ten years of both running and inline skating races. It’s a bit OCD, but I try cover all the bases.

4-6 weeks Prior to the Race

All the Gear

Use this time to finalize your equipment for your long runs to get accustomed to them. This applies to all the gear – clothes, hats, hydration belts, electronics, etc. Now is the time to find anything that doesn’t work well over a multiple hour workout. It could be as little as something that bounces too much, that needs a bit of adjustment, to gear that chafes and causes blisters. A common saying among experienced runners is “nothing new on race day” and you break this rule at your peril.

Another thing to keep in mind, the weather on race day can be different than what you have been training in. For a fall race in October or November, it could be a lot colder than the heat of summer you’re used to during the training cycle. This means that the clothes you race with may be tights and long sleeves, instead of tanks and shorts.

Sproingy Shoes

Given all the time, blood sweat and tears expended to get to the starting line, I am of the opinion that you should race in fresh shoes. These will become your training shoes for the next season anyway.

For newer marathon runners, the safe bet is to race in the exact same model you are using for long runs. If it works, don’t fix it. Changing models introduces an element of risk. If you want to change, you should be able to identify a benefit to justify the risk in doing so. For example, if your current shoes aren’t working for you. If you are changing shoes, do so at least a month before the race. This gives enough time to test them for a couple of weeks and revert back to other shoes if they don’t work out.

If you’re using the same model, get the new pair a few weeks prior. This leaves enough time to break in your race shoes with a few short runs and one long run to ensure there are no manufacturing defects or other issues. Despite advances like laser welding the 3D printing, shoes are still assembled by hand, so there can be some variations between units of the same model. By using them, they are proven and you’ll know what you’re putting on your feet, come race day. If you find a problem, there is still time to deal with it. Some runners will use a brand new pair of shoes on race day. This may work out fine, but why take the risk?

Fed and Watered

Another thing to test out in the weeks before the race are eating habits. Learn what works for you, not just during long runs, but what to eat for dinner the night before, and breakfast as well. Figure out how much time you need between eating a meal and starting the run. The rule of “nothing new on race day” applies to food leading up to and during the race as well.

To that point, think about your in-race hydration strategy and schedule. Will you be using the nutrition provided on-course, or bringing your own? If you are going to use the on-race electrolyte drinks and gels, find out which brands will be offered, and train with those to get accustomed to them.

Everyone is different – some runners are comfortable with having everything catered on course, others carry everything to make sure they have what they need. I prefer carrying my electrolytes and relying on picking up water (the heavy part) on-course. That means I carry all gels and a couple of small bottles of double-strength electrolyte drink. I also have a few extra electrolyte tablets to dissolve in the additional water I pick up.

Race Intel

Review the race route and learn where the challenging parts are. The best option is to speak to runners that have run the race before. They can also give you useful information about the other parts of the race – the expo, starting area, local transit options, etc.

If that’s not available to you, the expos of major marathons will often have race briefings presented by experienced runners. Also, review the elevation map and Google Street View of the course.

If it’s a local race, go ahead and run sections of the route.

Confirm your race registration and if applicable, your travel and accommodations.

Goal Pace

Re-evaluate your goals for the race. Look at your training logs to see how your training is progressing, compared to plan. How do you feel after long runs, hills, speed work and other intensity sessions? Are you meeting your training pace goals? Are you completing the mileage on your plan? Based on these assessments, re-evaluate your goals, as needed. Talk to experienced runners and coaches for advice. Mid-season races can be a good benchmark as well. Typically, these will be shorter than your goal race and you can use pace projection guides like McMillan Running to help estimate your expected half or full marathon time.

T-Minus 1 Week

Aside from tapering, the week before the race should be used to start the nutrition and hydration preparations leading to race weekend.

Final Arrangements

Review the expo pickup location and times, as well as the start location and timing. Many major races will close their corrals well before the race start, so make sure you have planned travel to the start line accordingly. When to leave home or the hotel, transit options, etc. Have a Plan B – how else can you get to the start line if something unexpected happens to your original plan?

RTFM. Read all the race materials and race rules. Some races have specific rules for bag checks and what you are allowed to carry on-course (e.g. no backpacks). Do not get caught on the wrong side of these rules.

Finalize your plans with loved ones and friends for meeting up with them after the race.

Rest

It’s a given than most racers won’t sleep well the night before a race. Use the week prior to start banking some sleep to help mitigate the effects. The sleep on Friday night before a Sunday race is particularly important.

If you are travelling, make sure you account for some additional rest to acclimatize, particularly if you are racing in a different time zone or altitude.

Eating

If you are carb loading, consider ramping up the week prior. It helps to do this, rather than eat a giant pasta meal the night before a race.

Consider what you will need for breakfast. Most races will have very early start requirements and many hotels won’t have food available before you need to leave. Determine how to build a breakfast that works for you, using only a convenience store. This could be fruit, cereal, energy bars, etc.

Start-Line Warmth

Buy throwaway clothes that you can wear to the start line and then toss as the race begins. Your local thrift store or sports outlet store is a good source for this. Garbage bags with head and arm holes cut out are quite effective. Tube socks with the toes cut out make for excellent arm warmers. Emergency blankets from previous races are handy. Use some tape to secure it around you.

Don’ts

If travelling by air, don’t luggage check anything that is mission-critical to the race. This means your shoes, race outfit and any other equipment like hydration belts, electronics, etc. If your checked luggage gets lost or delayed, you still want to be able to race without scrambling to try to replace equipment with new and unproven gear.

Weather. I don’t look at the forecast more than 72h in advance, since it’s likely to be wrong. There’s no point is stressing yourself over that kind of uncertainty. Be prepared for anything.

The Day Before the Race

Watered and Rested

Stay hydrated. Carry a bottle of water or electrolytes around with you. You want to enter the race in a well-hydrated state.

Rest those feet. This can be hard at a destination race, where you are tempted to walk around and play tourist. Book a bus tour or show to limit the time on your feet. You can use your Fitbit or activity tracker to set an inverse goal – e.g. less than 5000 steps for the day.

Equipment

Race kit pickup. Make sure you have all items in the race kit – bib, chip, shirt, bag check bag, etc. The expo can be a great place to get deals on running gear, or try out and buy items not available locally. Take advantage of that.

Review your outfit options, based on the weather forecast for the following day, particularly the temperature difference at the start time vs. expected finish time. If possible, keep your options open as long as possible. E.g. tops to wear a few km into the race, and arm warmers that you can roll up if needed. If you have a cheering squad, consider positioning them early enough on the race course to allow you to drop off any extra clothes you no longer need after getting warmed up. Most runners have a tendency to overdress, so keep that in mind. If there is rain forecast, dress for the temperature, as if it will be dry. If it’s raining, trying to stay dry is pointless – any jacket waterproof enough in the rain will cause sweat to condense inside and cause overheating.

Charge all electronics – GPS watch, phone, music player and leave them on the charger that night. The last thing you want to wake up to is a dead device before the race.

Checklists

I use a number of checklists to help me track everything. That way, all the info is out of my brain and I can focus on other things, knowing that I haven’t forgotten anything. Here are some sample checklists:

Day Before

  • Charge mp3 player
  • Charge GPS watch
  • Charge cell phone
  • Clean, check hydration system
  • Check gels/food
  • Set alarm
  • Attach chip
  • Layout clothes
  • Mix Electrolyte drinks
  • Pack and tag bag for bag check

Race Morning

  • Weather check
  • Stretch
  • Eat breakfast
  • Meds / pain reliever
  • Pack water
  • Pack gels
  • Pack Keys
  • Pack hydration system
  • Bottle of water
  • Safety pins and zip ties
  • Bodyglide
  • Underwear
  • Inner layers
  • Tights
  • Socks
  • Check mp3 player
  • Check GPS watch
  • Check Cell Phone
  • Hat / Visor
  • Sunglasses
  • Gloves
  • Arm warmers
  • Throwaway clothes

Conclusion

Planning is half the battle and hopefully with this guide, you’ll be able to arrive at the start line ready to roll. Did I miss anything? Do you have your own pre-race tips? Let me know in the comments below.

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