After they figure out the details for the next day’s workout, they give their minds a rest.
While the details of their nocturnal rituals may vary, serious runners say their evenings are dedicated to one primary goal: setting themselves up mentally and physically to run their best the next day – and for the long term. Here’s how they do it:
1. They zone out.
There’s a time and a place for detailed race visualisations. But many pro runners spend their evenings entertaining themselves with non-running-related content.
At university, where he set five school records on the track, Willie Milam had a pump-up playlist to gear him up the night before a competition or tough session. “I would get nervous, a little more of an adrenaline rush thinking about the next day, which would cause me to not sleep as well,” he says. “Eventually, I realised that’s wasting time and energy.”
Now that he’s 25 and training with the Roots Running Project in Boulder, Colorado, USA, Milam and his two roommates spend their nights streaming comedies or mysteries. (They just finished Making a Murderer, and get their laughs from go-tos like The Office and Parks and Recreation.)
Meanwhile, 26-year-old Lindsay Flanagan – who recently ran a 2:29:26 in the Frankfurt Marathon in October – is hooked on HBO. She’s loving the last season of Girls, as well as Silicon Valley, Big Little Lies and Veep.
2. They work out the kinks.
Of course, these runners can’t put their type-A tendencies completely to rest, even when they’re winding down. Many combine their leisure pursuits with recovery techniques.
Flanagan, for instance, wears her NormaTec recovery boots while watching TV. Milam and 24-year-old Joanna Thompson – a US Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier – haul out their foam rollers to work out some of the kinks from the day.
Ten to 15 minutes on her Trigger Point roller keeps Thompson’s otherwise-tight hamstrings loose, she says – and if she hits a particularly troublesome spot, she might grab a lacrosse ball or softball to dig deeper.
3. They text their training partners for long runs.
Natasha LaBeaud Anzures logs 210km a week on top of a full-time job in public relations and operating a nonprofit running program for kids, called 2nd Recess, in San Diego, California, US. Her husband/training partner/2nd Recess cofounder Marco Anzures also trains at a high level while working as a professor and coach at San Diego City College.
The Anzureses run easy together in the evenings and train hard as a pair most mornings. But for long runs on Sundays, they enjoy having a bit more company.
So Marco Anzures spends many Friday evenings texting the other runners they know in the San Diego area to coordinate. Once Natasha Azores finds out who’s on the roster, she might do a little up-front work on appropriate conversation starters. She knows some of their friends religiously follow track and field news, so she’ll take a spin through the headlines to be ready.
“Especially if we’re going out at a quicker pace, I like to throw something out and let everyone else handle the rest of the conversation,” she says. “That way it’s kind of like live radio – I can just listen to it.”
4. They fill in their training diaries.
After dinner, the Anzureses spend time tracking their training. In her paper planner log, Natasha Anzures notes race dates and physical therapy appointments, then composes a paragraph outlining what happened during that day’s workouts while it’s fresh in her mind.
She adorns especially good days with huge smiley faces and sketches sad faces or storm clouds for challenging sessions. And she keeps past years’ diaries on a shelf, where she can easily refer to them later.
“I’ve found typically talking about any small things that may be bothering me, whether that’s nerves about a workout that’s coming up or or anticipating for a race – fleshing them out in that time has been effective, that way they’re not interfering with my sleep,” she says. “And we need to maximise sleep, as much as we can.”
5. They sleep in their running clothes…
Every early-morning runner has been there – the frantic search in the dark for matching socks or a clean sports bra that makes you late to meet your training partners (or even miss your kilometres altogether).
Elites aren’t immune from these struggles, or to the temptation to crawl back in bed at the first hint of an obstacle. “Everyone still has days where you’re just tired and you don’t really want to move,” Thompson says. She solves this by hitting the hay in running shorts and a moisture-wicking shirt, especially when it’s warm out. “It saves time – and then I don’t really have to think too much,” she says.
6. …or at least set them out.
Even those who prefer pyjamas at least make sure their training or racing supplies are in order before lights-out. “I like to have my clothes laid out for the next day’s training prior to bed and my bag packed for the track or other workout – it’s comforting to know I will be ready to roll in the morning,” Flanagan says.
And for most runners, that goes double for races. “I always have my uniform ready, watch charged, and Nike flats packed; this helps keep anxiety on race morning to a minimum,” she says. Milam, too, spends a few minutes in his hotel room to get his gear organised, including pinning his race bib to his jersey.
7. They fret over the forecast.
Elite marathoner Luke Puskedra is currently training at altitude in Flagstaff, Arizona, USA, for the Boston Marathon. At 2136 metres of elevation, the winds can often build to a blustery 64 km per hour by late morning, he says. So he eyeballs the weather the night before a long run to see if he should start a little earlier than planned.
Diego Estrada, 27 – who ran a 2:13:56 at last year’s Chicago Marathon – lives and trains in Flagstaff’s weather swings year-round. He takes meteorology a bit more seriously when planning the next day’s workouts. “Sometimes it’s windy, it snows, it rains, it monsoons,” he says. “Every night I’m on Accuweather trying to figure out the right time, trying to see the wind, if I should drive down to lower elevation.”
8. They premix their rocket fuel.
He didn’t start drinking coffee until college, but once he did, Milam found it offered a welcome jolt. “On workout and race days, it gives me that little extra burst of energy, and gets me a little excited and focused,” he says.
So before he hits the sack the night before, he loads his drop coffeemaker with fresh grounds. He’s not too picky about the brew, he says. Bulk beans from the supermarket do the trick. And he doesn’t mind that his model doesn’t have a timer. Knowing he actually has to walk down to the kitchen and hit start “kind of gets me up and going too,” he says.
9. They reconnect with their families.
Earlier in his running career, Puskedra, now 27, believed he had to stay highly focused at every waking moment. As a result, he often wound up overtraining and peaking weeks ahead of time. “Seasons have ended because of that – I’ve shot myself in the foot because I was ready too early,” he says.
Puskedra now keeps his training days regimented. “Repetition is my favourite, that’s where I’m most comfortable,” he says. But after 5 pm, he does his best to stop micromanaging and turns his attention to the role of husband to his wife, Trudie, and father to not-quite-two-year-old Penelope. They’ll eat dinner together, then play games, watch cartoons, or take a walk.
Those hours of togetherness took on even more importance after Penelope underwent successful treatment of cancer last year. What’s more, Puskedra doesn’t have a coach or an agent, so Trudie plays a key role in managing his career. Spending unstructured time together in the evenings ensures they stay connected on a more personal level.
10. They take a few deep breaths.
Kaitlin Gregg Goodman, 30, ran in all three Olympic trials distance events (5K, 10K and marathon) last year. Now, the member of the Strava Track Club juggles her own training with earning her master’s degree in public health at Brown University in the US and coaching runners through the online platform Training Joyfully. Her biggest challenge in the evening is “turning her brain off” from all these endeavours.
To drift off more easily, she puts in earplugs to silence distractions, then takes several slow, centering breaths. She learned the technique from sports psychology coach and Irish Olympian Ro McGettigan, and says it works at nighttime – and beyond.
“I’ve found that a few deep belly breaths helps calm both my body and my mind and prepare me for sleep,” Goodman says. “I use this breathing technique in training, too – before a big scary workout, before races, and now in grad school, when I’m feeling the stress start to get to me.”