You’ve signed up for the big race, put in the requisite training time and, suddenly, race day is looming on the horizon, and you’re a little freaked out. The good news is you’re not alone. At the start line, you’re going to be surrounded by people just as nervous as you are. (Why do you think the pre-race port-a-potty lines are so long?)
The other good news is most of your freak-outs can be mitigated with a bit of preparation. We asked dozens of runners and racers to share their biggest race-day bugaboos and found solutions — from purely emotional to completely practical — to guarantee a smoother race day. It’s rare a race goes perfectly, but some careful preparation can rule out obvious issues, like forgetting your shoes. (You laugh now, but it has happened!)
Let’s dive in.
Fear of oversleeping and missing the race, which leads to not sleeping at all.
The solution: First, stop freaking out. Sleep expert Dr. Amy Bender says occasionally having one bad night of sleep won’t hurt your chances in the race too much — but freaking out about it will make things worse. If you know you sleep poorly the night prior to a big race, make sure you’re banking extra sleep the week leading into it. As a runner, you should already have your sleep setup dialed. Think: cool, dark, quiet room and a gentle lead-in to bedtime that doesn’t involve sending just one more email. If you’re traveling to the race, make sure you’ve worked out how to sleep with a sleep mask and earplugs if you know the hotel will be loud, and have a sleep kit prepped so no matter where you are, you’ll be comfortable.
Panicking that you forgot something — like shoes.
The solution: Unfortunately, the pack-repack-unpack-repack cycle that can happen when you obsess about this can lead to anxiety and even worse sleep. That’s where these two tips come in. First, have a ‘master gear list.’ Write out everything you need to be comfortable at a race, then print and laminate it, and stick it in your favorite gear bag. Now, you won’t be trying to keep everything straight in your head. Second, pack as much as possible two nights out, rather than the night before the big race. This way, you have time if you realize you need new shoelaces, and you have less stress and fewer pre-race day reminders when you’re trying to calm down and sleep before the big race.
Wondering why you ever wanted to do this in the first place and wanting to bail.
The solution: First of all, know that it’s OK if the race doesn’t go great, so why are you worried? Authors of “The Brave Athlete,” Dr. Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson know failure is inevitable. Bad races are going to happen, and that’s OK. In fact, sometimes Marshall has even had his clients do poorly on purpose to teach a valuable lesson — the world doesn’t end because you didn’t hit a PR in a 5K. Second, it’s hard, but focus on the physical and your game plan for the race. If you can’t shut up the negative voice that wants you to quit, drown it out by thinking about the splits you’re planning to run, your race strategy, the temperature of the air, the music playing on the loudspeaker … Do whatever you can to change the negative conversation to a neutral — or even positive — one.
Not having enough of a warmup or timing a good warm up with getting a good start position.
The solution: You should always plan for some type of warmup, not just because your muscles need it (they do), but because your brain needs it, too. Even if you just jog the parking lot a couple of times to stretch out your legs, make the most of it — add a sprint or two, make sure your shoes and socks aren’t chafing and that your hat is properly in place, and potentially top it off with your go-to ‘pump it up’ song that you reserve for occasions like this. Don’t stress too much about the quality or quantity of your warmup, just make sure you do something.
Baking in enough travel time to make sure you arrive to get body and mind dialed.
The solution: On race day, the early bird does get the worm — or at least, the prime parking spot. You may need to sacrifice a few snooze-button cycles and opt to eat breakfast in the car instead of at the kitchen table to snag a prime spot, but it’ll be worth it when you can saunter to the start line feeling less frazzled. A few minutes less sleep won’t impact your race as negatively as the parking lot freakout. (Pro tip: the day before, if possible, assess the parking situation, ask volunteers how crazy the morning gets or ask someone who’s done the race before. Ironman in Louisville, for instance, starts seeing people line up by 2 a.m. to get a good spot despite the race not starting until 7 a.m.)
Making sure to eat and drink without nerves getting in the way.
The solution: The biggest race-day pitfall is trying the free samples and ending up with serious tummy trouble. Don’t try new things on race day, both in terms of your breakfast at home and drinks, gels and bars during the race. Have a plan before race day, and stick to it. (Most pros have it down to a science, with exact times that they eat ahead of the race. Write it down if you have to.) To avoid the port-a-potty issue (or make it less of an issue), start hydrating as soon as you wake up in smaller amounts, rather than chugging a 20-ounce bottle 30 minutes before the race.
That moment on the start line just before the start gun goes off …
The solution: Have a mantra in mind and prepare to use it. “I’m doing this because it’s fun,” is always a good one. Pairing it with a physical gesture, whether it’s tapping fingers together, or circling your wrists, can help ground you and bring you back to a calmer state. But also, experiment with what helps you: Some racers find chatting and smiling on the start line is actually calming and performance boosting, while others need to be quiet and in their own heads. Both methods are great, so figure out what works for you. Finally, remind yourself that getting to the start line is the hardest part of the race.
The solution: Know your trigger foods, and avoid them in the couple days ahead of the race, and on race day. That might mean skipping oatmeal on race morning and opting for waffles instead, since the fiber in oatmeal can lead to a gastric distress. A lot of racers struggle with stomach issues ahead of a race no matter what they eat — and if you’re one of them, add extra port-a-potty time to your morning. For some, a warmup might seem excessive, but could be entirely necessary not just to warm up your muscles, but to let your bowels do their thing. Lastly, don’t feel shy about asking to get to the head of the port-a-potty line if you’re about to start racing and only spectators are waiting to use it. Just ask if you can cut the line — most people will say yes.
Having too many distractions that it’s hard to focus.
The solution: Sunglasses and headphones work here. If you know you end up focused on everything but yourself, create personal space by using sunglasses and headphones to avoid eye contact and signal that talking to you is off-limits. If your family is coming to the race, warn them that at a certain time (set beforehand), you’re no longer the dutiful wife/mother/daughter/husband/father/son. You’re the athlete, and you need to be in that zone.