You spend months and months preparing for race day and though it is true a few bad workouts won’t make or break your race, what you do just before the gun goes off has a big impact. That’s why, just as you practice different race-day scenarios through speed work, hill repeats and more, you should practice your routine for the morning of, as well.
“Try to have your practice runs and workouts mimic your race day — that way nothing is ‘new’ on racing day,” urges Matt Thull, former USA National Half-Marathon team member and founder of Thunderdome Running. “That routine and practice applies to your regular warmup routine, eating and fueling, and that also mirrors the workouts and runs you do.”
There are things you can do the night before your race — such as laying out your clothes before bed and getting a good night’s sleep — that can help your morning go much more smoothly. However, if you’re winging it the morning of, there is a much greater chance of making one of the mistakes coaches commonly see.
As you near the starting area — or even board a bus headed there — you can feel the buzz and energy of race morning. From music to announcements to runners chatting in the port-a-potty line, there is a lot of sensory distraction at play. It can be easy to get caught in the excitement and people watching, so having a precise routine can help you stay focused on what you should be doing (versus what everyone else is doing).
“Way too many runners do not have a final 45–60 minute precise routine leading up to the race start,” shares Thull. “Race day is full of energy and distractions and that final hour before a race, for a large percentage of runners, seems to be missing some important preparation pieces or varies too much each race. Runners either get distracted or don’t leave enough time to warm up or prepare properly and don’t follow their routine.”
Thull says this routine should consist of a small amount of running — including any faster strides or sprints — to get your legs warmed up, any final nutrition or calorie intake needed, some stretching and mental preparation. If you’ve practiced this beforehand, you will be able to easily tune out distractions and stay focused so you don’t mindlessly copy what other runners are doing.
Being advised that you need a routine doesn’t mean you need to pad it with unnecessary things to fill time before the race. Don’t feel the need to add things to your warmup just because you see other runners doing it. This is especially important when it comes to loosening your muscles with stretches.
“Now’s not the time for stretching muscles you don’t use in running,” explains George Berg, running coach at Running Wild and holder of multiple USATF National Track & Field Masters titles. “Too many times I see people pulling muscles. I ask, ‘Do you run races with your arm twisted behind your back? Why stretch that now?’ The answer is usually they saw someone else doing it.”
If your race doesn’t have a corral system, which determines where you line up at the start line based on your projected pace and finishing time, this mistake still applies to you. Though some races assign corrals, others have you seed yourself in a corral. For the races without them, you are in charge of lining up in the correct place. The mistake here often involves starting too close to the front of the pack, often at a pace you can’t hold. You’ll either start out too fast, get in the way of faster runners or both. Where you start the race matters.
“Stay in the correct corral,” advises Berg. “Too many times people sneak up to be with one of their training partners or friends and get caught up in the moment.”
Taking this even further, it is important to give yourself enough time to line up in the correct position. Thull adds that he often sees runners racing around the start trying to get to their correct corral just minutes before the race. With large races, there can be a lot of corrals that are blocked off and have only one entry point, so giving yourself plenty of time to get settled is important so you don’t expend too much energy — or have too much stress — minutes before your race starts.
It is natural for race-day nerves to kick up, especially with a big goal race where you are hoping to set a personal record. However, getting too much in your head while waiting for the race to start can set you up for disaster. Make sure you are able to enjoy the atmosphere and be present — after all, you’ve worked hard.
“Those final minutes before a race are where runners can take in all the race-day fun and energy compared to making the mistake of overthinking about the hundreds of things that can happen when the gun goes off,” notes Thull. “Instead, think of one or two ‘big’ racing strategies or goals and focus on only those.”
All of this leads to the start of the race, where you are off and on your way toward the finish! The excitement and pace of other runners can be quite the whirlwind, causing one of the biggest mistakes of all: running way too quickly right as you leave the start line.
“There is a natural rhythm your legs and body system flow through at the beginning of races,” Thull reassures. “If you start out too fast, you stress muscle tissues more immediately instead of in a more natural flow and you fatigue more quickly. Runners need to remind themselves it is impossible to start too slow — but you can easily start too fast.”
Berg echoes this sentiment and stresses that by practicing your race day pace beforehand, you will have a natural feel for your pace to avoid starting out too quickly come race day.
“Practice running too quickly in your training every now and then to make sure you know how to deal with it if you get a little anxious to get back on pace,” Berg adds. “Avoid staring at your watch; if you can run by feel, you’ll know deep down if you’re going quicker than normal.”