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Readying Yourself for Race Day

Although there is still a little snow on the ground, it’s officially spring and you know what that means: racing season is here! Whether you are a veteran runner, weekend warrior, or newbie, here are some ideas to improve your race day experience.

Get enough sleep in the week before race day.

Be sure to get your zzzzzz’s (Sleep is what puts the tiger in the cat)

In the week before a race, make sure that you are getting about 8 hours of sleep at night. Chronic sleep deprivation compromises your body’s powers of recovery and concentration. However, if the excitement of racing the next day means that you don’t get a good night’s sleep the night before a race, don’t sweat it. Studies have demonstrated that a sleepless night before a race doesn’t typically affect race performance.

Take an easy run on the day before the race.

Run the day before, but make it easy…really easy.

Should you run the day before a race? Some runners think it will hurt their performance on race day, but most coaches and sports scientists now think that running the day before a race is helpful. It improves blood flow to your muscles and calms your nerves. Running the day before also primes your neuromuscular system to activate your muscle fibers on race day.

How much should you run? Twenty to thirty minutes of light running can be enough. Some runners will also throw in some 100-meter strides at the end of the run to remind their bodies that they will be running quickly the next day.

If you usually take a day off of running before your race, try taking a day off two days before instead. This can be particularly useful if you have been training hard earlier in the week. 

Fuel and hydrate sensibly in the immediate pre-race window.

This looks good. The evening before your race? No.

Use some common sense. Don’t eat your last major meal too late in the evening right before your race and eat something familiar. This is not a good time to try out a new cuisine or restaurant.

Be sure to hydrate properly during the days before your race. This is not something that can be “crammed” in at the last moment, so nurse that water bottle frequently throughout the week.

How about alcohol? On the negative side, it dehydrates you and there is some evidence that alcohol’s depressant effects can carry over to the morning of the race, cancelling out the benefit of your last run. On the plus side, a glass of wine or a beer can help some people relax. If you plan to drink beer, wine, or liquor, build in some extra water. (No one wants to get to the starting line with a hangover.)

Eat something for breakfast on race day.

A traditional race-day breakfast: a good balance of carbs and protein

The ideal race-day breakfast is another topic that generates a lot of discussion. It’s only ideal if it works for you on race day. The best way is to experiment with what works is to eat some test breakfasts before a hard morning workout and observe how you perform.

Most runners like a light breakfast of carbs and a little protein consumed two-and-a-half to three hours before the race. Too much protein is difficult to digest and can cause gastrointestinal issues during a race. A banana and a slice of toast slathered with some peanut butter or Nutella is a classic.

If you find that you have trouble with solid food before your race, the smoothie is a good way to go. Just be sure that you take it easy on the dairy, as this can also lead to gastrointestinal issues during a race.

Your race-day breakfast can also vary depending on the race and the weather conditions. Some runners, for example, insist on a stack of pancakes to top off their body’s glycogen stores before a long race. On very hot days, a breakfast smoothie made with lots of ice can help to cool down the body. Explore your options and find what works for you.

The warm up – do one!

Static stretching? Best to avoid on race day.

How should you warm up? It depends on the length of the race and the weather conditions. Shorter races like a 5K require intense sustained effort from the start, so you’ll need to get to the starting line already warmed up. Try a mile of very easy running to get everything ready. You might also want to try doing four to six 100-meter strides immediately before the start to help you prepare for faster running.

If you are running a longer race such as a half or full marathon, limit your warm up run so that you don’t deplete your carbohydrate stores. Take an easy five-minute run and remember that you can start more slowly and warm up as you are racing.

Finally, be sure to end your warm up ten to fifteen minutes before your race. You don’t want to do your warm up so far ahead of time that you cool down before the start.

Avoid static stretching before a race. A bit of muscle tension is necessary for quick, dynamic running. Static stretches –– gradually increasing a stretch while holding the same pose –– can make one’s muscles too loose. Try, instead, some leg swings, after your warm up run.

Balance “Nothing new on race day.” with “Be flexible.”

While it’s always good to have a tested plan, don’t let your race preparation rituals verge towards mystical superstition. No race was ever blown because the runner missed her pre-race banana. Stuff happens. Perhaps you got a late start, arrived later than anticipated at the race, and had to shorten your warm up. Don’t stress about it. This might be the day when you find out that a shorter warm up works better for you.

Remember, this is fun. Sometimes we can develop such rigid ideas of what we need to do to prepare for a race that we lose sight of the joy of running. Be open to serendipity – and prepare to make some magical discoveries as life happens.

What are some of your race day preparation rituals that work for you? Please tell us all about them in the comments.

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