How to Build a Flexible Race Plan

Jason Fitzgerald
by Jason Fitzgerald
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How to Build a Flexible Race Plan

Tenacity and perseverance are common traits in runners, and many of us will rigidly stick to a training plan, come hell or high water.

And for the most part, that’s a good thing! Pushing yourself to run and race regularly is demanding, and those who put the appropriate time and effort into their training are often the ones who see the best results.

There is a time and a place, however, to be flexible.

After you have followed your training plan — done the workouts, logged weeks of heavy mileage and survived the taper crazies — race day will finally arrive. But race day doesn’t always go as planned. Sometimes that’s due to a factor that is completely out of your control, such as weather, and other times it’s due to a mistake in your race preparation or execution.

Either way, planning ahead and being flexible will give you the best possible outcome on race day, even if things don’t pan out exactly as you intended.

Prerace Preparation

Control what you can, and don’t waste time and energy stressing about what you can’t. We can’t change blazing temperatures or a persistent headwind, after all. What you can control, however, is your prerace routine and knowledge of the race, as well as how you execute your pacing strategy.

If you’re new to racing, you may not have an established routine for the 24–48 hours heading into your race. But it’s always better to be over-prepared than underprepared.

Set up a system for yourself, and work on perfecting it as you race more regularly. Simple planning and execution of your routine will help you avoid many prerace mishaps. Here are some essentials to account for on race day:

Race Gear

This includes the obvious — your shirt, shorts, shoes and socks — but also the less obvious:

  • a hat for sun or cold
  • compression sleeves
  • sunglasses
  • hair ties
  • watch
  • gloves

Think about all the possible conditions you may encounter, and plan accordingly. Will you be standing around in the cold at the start? Bring extra layers that you can pass to a friend or donate.

Is there a chance of rain or snow showers? A hat can do a great job protecting you from both.

Will there be blazing sun for the length of the course? Sunscreen or clothing that offers UV protection can be critical.

Make a list of everything you think you might need — and triple-check it. When you’re traveling out of town, this becomes even more essential. If you’re flying, pack your most important items (namely your shoes) in your carry-on. Most gear can be replaced, but running a long race in new shoes is setting yourself up for disaster.

Race Nutrition

In the 24–48 hours before your race, stick to foods that you know, and avoid any new or exotic ones. If you’re traveling, make sure you research your dining choices and have options that won’t upset your stomach. If necessary, bring familiar foods from home for your race-day breakfast.

Race Details

Nothing will derail your race more quickly than getting lost and arriving late. Make sure you know exactly where you’re headed, especially for big races that may have road closures. Know when and where to register (if the race offers same-day registration), when and where to pick up your race packet and number, where to drop off your race bag and, perhaps most importantly, where the porta-potties are. Also for big races, familiarize yourself with the location of your corral, and allow plenty of time to position yourself appropriately.

Race Strategy

Once you have taken care of the planning details, race day is all about executing your strategy. Familiarize yourself with the course by studying the map, turns and elevation profile, and running sections of it in training, if the event is close to where you live. You should have a plan for your warmup and a pacing plan that accounts for the course and your goals. Eliminate as many questions as possible to keep race-day stress to a minimum.

Flexible Strategies for Success

Despite your best intentions or maybe due to circumstances beyond your control, race-day mishaps will happen! Flexible strategies that provide a variety of alternatives to your original race plan are the key to dealing with them successfully. Here are five common problems, as well as strategies to handle them effectively:

1. The problem: Going out too fast

It happens to the best of us. The gun goes off, you head out from your corral and, several miles later, you suddenly realize you went out much faster than your planned race pace.

  • Do this: Get back to your goal pace — or one that’s slightly slower — as quickly as possible. Pay close attention to your splits over the next several miles, and follow your pacing plan. The longer the race (and the more miles you spent going faster than planned), the more impact this mistake may have, but that doesn’t mean you can’t regroup and finish strong.
  • Not this: Panic! You already exerted extra energy, and stressing about your mistake will only waste more. Focus on the things you can control for the rest of your race, like pacing, hydration and nutrition, and tackle each mile as it comes.

2. The problem: Going out too slow

While going out too fast can be problematic, starting your race more slowly than planned can be equally stressful. Maybe you arrived late and got stuck in the crowd, or seeded yourself in the wrong corral. No matter what the reason, it doesn’t mean that your PR is out of reach.

  • Do this: While you may be anxious to speed up, keep a steady effort and pick up your pace gradually over the next several miles. Catching up in a marathon or half-marathon will be easier than in a shorter race simply because the longer distance allows you more time to gradually work back down to your goal pace.
  • Not this: Try to catch up too quickly. Weaving through crowds and pushing your pace faster than planned can quickly lead to disaster. Stay within 5–10 seconds of your goal pace or you risk overexertion. Take your time, and you’ll be back on track before you know it.

3. The problem: Weather woes

The weather on race day will always be beyond your control. All you can do is prepare as much as you can in training and deal with the conditions as efficiently as possible on event day. Getting less-than-ideal weather on race day often means making reasonable changes to your race expectations.

  • Do this: Adjust your expectations before you get to the start line. When heat and humidity are high, or if you’re facing extreme cold or a strong, continuous headwind, it’s time to make some amendments. Adjust your race pace from the start, and pay close attention to how you feel as the race progresses. Adequate hydration is essential when it’s hot. Cold weather may decrease your urge to drink, but it’s still important to stay on top of hydration requirements in longer races, no matter what the temperature.
  • Not this: As conditions get increasingly extreme, you expect to perform as well as you would under ideal circumstances. Don’t do this, and don’t wait until too late in the race to make an adjustment. Starting at your original goal pace and simply hoping for the best will likely spell disaster, especially in longer races.

4. The problem: Can’t hold your pace

Maybe your goal pace was overly ambitious if you suffered from a running injury during training. Or perhaps it’s late in the race, and the effort to maintain your PR goal pace has become increasingly challenging.

  • Do this: If you’re having trouble holding your pace, try breaking the race into smaller segments. Pick targets to run to — no matter how short the distance — and appreciate each small victory. Even though it sounds counterintuitive, sometimes picking up the pace with a short surge will help your legs feel better. And make sure you’re staying hydrated and taking in adequate calories. Sometimes a late-race slowdown is a result of inadequate fuel. If your pace truly is too ambitious, then adjust your expectations, slow your pace slightly, and focus on finishing strong.
  • Not this: Beat yourself up mentally over how you’re feeling, and get caught up in thinking about how many miles you have ahead of you. Not doing this can be easier said than done, but this is not the time to stare at your watch and fret over your pace. Don’t assume that all is lost, either! Embrace the effort, and don’t let your physical fatigue bring you down mentally.

5. The problem: Mental fatigue

Sometimes mental fatigue is a worse enemy than physical fatigue on race day. Where your mind goes, your body quickly follows. Staying focused and positive is essential to run your best possible race.

  • Do this: Stay focused on the task at hand, and follow the sage advice to “run the mile you’re in.” Find comfort in the fact that these challenging segments may be short-lived. Use a positive mantra or music, run by feel, and avoid looking at your watch constantly. All of these strategies can help push you through the finish line.
  • Not this: Get bogged down in negative thoughts. Don’t wait until race day to employ strategies to help you through challenging efforts; practice these techniques during long runs and tough workouts to prevent you from feeling overwhelmed on race day.

No matter how well you plan and execute your race-day strategy, things can go wrong, sometimes spectacularly. The more experience you have, the better equipped you’ll be to deal with problems as they arise.

Even new runners can strategize to make the best of any race. Stay flexible and prepare for these common scenarios, and soon you’ll successfully tackle anything race day throws your way.

About the Author

Jason Fitzgerald
Jason Fitzgerald

Jason is the founder of Strength Running, a USA Track & Field certified running coach and 2017’s Men’s Running’s Influencer of the Year. Learn more about how he can help you run faster.


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