Understanding the Power of a Pre-Race Plan

By: Mackenzie L. Havey

Practice makes perfect when it comes to all aspects of marathon training, including your actions when you're not out pounding the pavement. Case in point: Your pre-race routine. Establishing a strategy for how you'll attack the 24-48 hours leading up to gun time can make all the difference in terms of race day success.

“Having a pre-marathon routine, including things like what you'll eat and how you'll warm up, can help calm pre-race nerves and give you your best race day," said Lindsay Leigh, a coach for No Limits Endurance coaching service in Absecon, New Jersey.

“Race morning can be hectic and stressful. Nerves are running high and the energy of other runners around you might affect how you feel," added Khem Suthiwan, a Denver-based coach for Mile High Multisport, a coaching service and training group. “By having an established pre-marathon routine, you know exactly what you need to do to get ready before your race."

To be sure, you've put in months of training and made sacrifices to get to the start line, so it's only natural to have race day jitters. Studies show that a routine offers familiarity and confidence in an already stressful environment to allow you to put your best foot forward when the gun fires.

Every marathoner's pre-race routine looks different, so it's important to practice it prior to workouts or shorter lead-up races to make sure what you're doing works for you. When mapping out your routine, consider the following four components of any good pre-race plan.

Prep Your Legs:

Remember the cardinal rule of marathon running: Don't do anything you wouldn't normally do in the days leading up to or the morning of the race. It can be hard to resist spending hours wandering the race expo floor or exploring a new city if you traveled to the race, but both are out of your regular routine and can zap your legs. Be intentional about putting your feet up in the 24-48 hours prior to the race.

When you get to the start line, you should have an established warm-up. While it may sound crazy to add any more distance onto an already long race, research shows that wrarming up—perhaps with a short shake-out jog or active stretching routine—can help ready your body for competition.

“All you need to do is a few minutes of jogging with a few 5-10 second pick-ups where you increase your leg turnover," advised Suthiwan. “This wakes up the legs and gets your heart rate up a bit. By doing this, you also avoid heart rate spikes early on, which usually happens when you don't warm up."



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Prep Your Stomach:

There's no one-size-fits-all marathon diet. What works for one runner, won't for another. Leigh suggests focusing on carbohydrates.

“The day before the race, I like to have athletes make breakfast the biggest meal of the day, followed by lunch and dinner," she said. "Every meal should have plenty of carbs and you should be prepared to snack between meals on high-carb foods while sipping on a drink with electrolytes.

"Ideally breakfast the morning of the race is something high in carbs again and low in fat," she continued. “The golden rule, though, is nothing new. Pre-race is not the time to experiment."

Make sure you pay attention to what works for your stomach and what doesn't during training so you can avoid problems on race day.

Prep Your Mind:

Getting into the right headspace on race morning isn't something that just happens—it takes practice. Leigh tells her athletes to work on staying present in all aspects of their lives leading up to the race to establish a focused mindset.

“Staying in the present helps keep pre-race nerves controlled and on race day it can be the best mental strategy to give you your most successful day," she said. “It helps an athlete focus on the process instead of the outcome, like heart rate, pace, what and when to drink—instead of worrying about their time or placement during the race."

Suthiwan is also a proponent of visualization and meditation on race morning.

“These things help get your mind focused on what you are about to do," she said, "plus it keeps you from getting caught up in everyone else's nervous energy."

Visualizing yourself feeling strong, running with confidence, and crossing the finish line successfully are images that can help carry you through the toughest moments of the race. To help hone a more present-centered mindset, short meditation sessions in the days leading up to, and the morning of, the race can offer a grounding effect.

Prep Your Gear:

The simpler you can keep your gear list, the fewer things you'll have to remember on race morning. During training you probably figured out which things are non-negotiable, like your favorite pair of socks or anti-chafing balm. Check the weather a day or two out from the race and begin to gather everything in one place.

“The night before the race, set out your clothing and gear in the order you'll be putting them on," said Suthiwan.

This allows you to take stock and do a final check to make sure all your gear is present and accounted for. This means pinning your number to your shirt, affixing your timing chip to your shoes, and putting any gels or other necessities into your race belt. Don't forget to include your most important piece of gear in this dress rehearsal: Your shoes. Especially if you're traveling to a race, double check that you know where your shoes are and that the laces are strong and sturdy enough to hold for 26.2 miles.