With so many months of training behind you, you may be struggling, like many runners do, with how to manage the emotional rollercoaster leading up to race day. You’ve made it this far, so hang tough—navigating the final lead-up is critical to your attitude, fun factor, and performance on race day.
Let’s dive into the training, nutrition, and mental tactics to arm yourself with so you’re ready to toe the start line feeling confident and at ease.
2 weeks out (14 to 7 days): Tame the Taper Crazies
For first-time endurance athletes, running less as race day approaches, aka “tapering,” isn’t quite the vacation from tough training it sounds like it should be. As your mileage winds down, you might find yourself fighting cravings, feeling jittery, and channeling your newfound extra energy into late-night DIY projects (remember when you alphabetized your book collection or photo documented all your kids’ school projects?). Here are some simple ways to stay on track so you can perform your best on race day.
The last long run is your final chance to practice race day fueling and pacing. Make sure to include brief walk breaks to simulate slowing down at aid stations or managing heart rate on inclines. Walk breaks help relieve fatigue, reset run form, lower heart rate, and provide an opportunity to fuel and hydrate. At this point, it can be tempting to add mileage or workout days, but now is not the time to ramp up training. Stick with your plan. Your body needs to recover and prepare for race day.
With your training load decreasing, you’ll need to adjust your caloric intake. Eat smaller, more frequent meals, eliminate calorically dense, nutrient deficient pre-packaged foods, and cut out or decrease sweets. (Treats will taste much sweeter after the race). Make sure meals and snacks have a balance of veggies, lean protein, whole grains, and fruit. A big plate of pasta alone isn’t balanced and won’t give your body the nutrients it needs to repair and recover. Simply by reducing your training volume and eating the right balance of nutrients, you will be filling your glycogen stores. Resist the urge to overeat during your taper and avoid eating within 2.5 hours of bedtime if your schedule allows.
Sleep is fundamental to proper recovery, allowing the body to adequately repair and improving mood and energy levels. If you can swing it, aim for an extra hour of sleep each night during this phase. Avoid bright screens before bedtime, keep the bedroom cool and dark, and get in bed 30 minutes before you want to fall asleep. During the day, practice meditation (15 to 20 min) to decrease stress and reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels.
1 week out (7 to 4 days): Dial in the Specifics
The old adage, “the hay is in the barn,” rings true at this point in your training schedule. There is nothing you can do to gain fitness, but there’s plenty of opportunity to wreck havoc on your hard earned progress if you don’t play your cards right. The goal is to reach the start line fit and fresh—not fit and fatigued.
Less is more, so when in doubt, opt out. Take time to stretch and perform range of motion exercises after each run. Foam roll but don’t go too hard or deep, and include the whole body, not just the leg that feels tight. Get a massage four to five days out, and ask the therapist to use a light to moderate touch to avoid causing tissue damage. During at least one of your runs early this week, include a few short pickups in speed (30 to 60 sec) with faster foot turnover to stay fresh and remind the body of various efforts.
Stick to foods your body knows, and don’t overdo it on the carbs. Aim for nutrient-dense whole foods such as fruit, veggies, lean meats, and healthy fats. Most of your starchy carbohydrate consumption should be pre/post tune-up runs and not later at night when your body metabolically doesn’t need it. Avoid caffeine after 10:00 a.m. to ensure quality sleep.
Stay calm and remind yourself that you have done the work. Control the things you can control (your attitude, nutrition, sleep, stress, race-day outfit and shoes, fuel, etc.), and don’t fret about the things that are beyond your control (weather, other competitors, deviations to the course or aid stations, etc.). If you’ll be traveling for your event, pack now to eliminate the stress and lessen last-minute shopping trips.
3 days out
If it hasn’t happened already, count on bodily aches and pains to rear their ugly head. Though you swear that hamstring tweak will sideline you on race day, chances are, it’s just nerves that will disappear once the race is underway.
During your training sessions, be mentally present. Try not to focus on your to-do list or get to distracted by your playlist. Focus on your form, relaxed breathing, and staying aware. Imagine yourself in the race—calm, pacing wisely, smooth and consistent—grateful for your body’s ability to go the distance.
If you plan to use caffeinated gels or fuel supplements during the race, decrease your caffeine intake by 25 to 30 percent to ensure you get the boost you’ll need on race day. Increase easy-to-digest carb intake to 60 percent, avoid uncooked meats, reduce fiber, and avoid spicy and fried foods.
If you’re concerned with your finish time, try to redirect your focus to staying in the moment, and not a mile ahead. Your race outcome is determined by the process; focusing on a pace or finish time is the opposite of being mentally present. On race day, focus on your form, breathing, fuel and hydration plan, staying consistent, and sticking to your strategy.
The Day Before the Race
The 24 hours before the cannon fires may feel like the longest day of your life. You’ve been to the race expo to collect your race chip and number and there’s nothing left to do but sit and wait, tick tock, tick tock… Plan to watch a movie, read a book, take a nap, or spend down time with your family and friends with your feet up.
Early in the day, go out for a short 15 to 25-minute run. Once you feel warmed up, include three to four 30-second pickups with at least one minute easy in between to shake off staleness. Finish with a short walk to bring heart rate down and stretch/foam roll lightly (nothing deep).
Increase your sodium intake (especially if the forecast is calling for warm and/or humid conditions) by adding salt to your meals and eating salty foods like pretzels. (Test drive this during training to determine which foods work best for you.) Lunch is the most important meal the day before the race. Opt for rice, pasta, pizza, potatoes, or a sandwich along with lean protein and lots of water. Don’t overhydrate. For dinner, have a light meal: try a deli meat and cheese sandwich, hummus and pita, yogurt and fruit, a banana with nut butter, and crackers or pretzels.
Envision yourself at the start line, maneuvering through aid stations, and near the end when the body feels fatigue. Review your race plan and how you will handle each section of the day. Recognize that feeling nervous is a sign you care. You’ll burn off that bottled up energy soon enough.
Final Tips for the Big Day
With your lead-up strategy dialed, don’t forget about the goal itself: Race day. Below are some tried and true tips all seasoned racers know—commit them to memory, practice them, and make them part of every race you do. For me, and many of the athletes I coach and interact with, they are the pillars of successful racing:
- Grab hydration (sports fuel and water) at each aid station along the race route.
- Consume gels early in the race, since the digestive system is less effective as fatigue sets in.
- If you feel good at the beginning, that’s great, but control your effort and keep it easy. You feel good because you tapered and are fully recovered. Don’t sabotage yourself by starting out too fast and trying to “bank” time.
- Run your own race, not the person’s next to you (unless of course, they’re a pacer)
- Remember to smile and thank your body for the ability to go the distance.
- If I said it once, I’ll say it again: Stay in the moment. Execute wisely, stick to your plan, and let the easy miles be easy. This way, when the tough miles hit later in the race, you’ll be well prepared.
Now, eat up, rest well, and dream of the finish line!