Just hours after completing a recent marathon, I raised a bittersweet toast to a race I was already eager to forget. Training for it had cost me countless pancake breakfasts with my kids, and attending it nearly emptied my bank account. But instead of basking in the PB I’d promised my running buddies, I flashed back to futile porta-loo stops, wardrobe malfunctions, and hitting the wall mid-race- which was scary! How did I go so wrong?
You don’t have to be new to racing to mess up. I’ve run seven marathons and 12 halfs, and I’ve heard many more experienced runners say even they have stepped into the same common pitfalls that ruined races for me. But I’ve had enough. After consulting with good coaches, I now have a game plan to avoid these blunders next time out. Read on and be the beneficiary of my mistakes.
Mistake #1: I trained wrong
As a native Coloradan, I have long assumed my mountain-girl lungs would have me feeling downright bionic at sea level. But it turns out running trails at altitude in subfreezing temps is not the best way to train for humid low-elevation road races that can get surprisingly warm midcourse. Duh. “That’s one of the biggest mistakes I see people make,” says Henry Guzman, a Boulder, Colorado, coach who has run 101 marathons. “If you don’t train for the conditions you’re going to be racing in, your body won’t know how to adapt to the course or to the terrain.”
Lesson Learned: Tailor your training to your event
If you’re traveling to an event, there’s not a lot you can do to control elevation and climate changes. But you can study the surface, average weather, and elevation of your event, and plan your training accordingly, says David Manthey, a coach with Runner’s Edge of the Rockies: “Training specificity is key.”
For instance, runners targeting a road race should do at least 65 percent of training (most long runs and some speed sessions) on asphalt. This gets your body used to the pounding and repetitive motion of running on the roads. Hitting trails and park paths for easy and recovery runs and some hill workouts helps you avoid overuse injuries, says Manthey.
If your race is in warmer climes, do a few long training runs in the hotter part of the day, wearing extra layers. When Chris Clark of Anchorage was training for the 2000 Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials–which would take place in Columbia, South Carolina–she did long runs of up to 32 kilometres on a treadmill, with the heat cranked up and the fan off. (It worked: She won the Trials.)
Elevation changes prove more logistically challenging: Ideally, those who live above 6,000 feet should try to drive to lower elevations for a few marathon-paced long runs. Flatlanders preparing for a higher-altitude race should get up high for a few training runs. High-intensity hill workouts can also help you get used to being oxygen-deprived. And be realistic: Lower your goal time by 10 to 30 seconds per mile for a flat course above 5,000 feet–and even more for a hilly route.
Mistake #2: I got psyched out
Because I am a resident of Estes Park, Colorado, you might assume I have a home-field advantage in our local marathon. Indeed, many experts say training on the actual course is ideal physical and mental preparation for what you’ll face come race day. But I felt like I knew too much. Miles before the dreaded climb around kilometre 27, my body and psyche were already revolting in anticipation. I surged on an early downhill, and then slowed way down on a relatively flat stretch before the big climb, two voices in my head arguing over whether I should bank time or save energy. By the time I faced that hill, my quads were trashed and my momentum was sapped by nerves. It ended up being one of my slowest finish times ever.
Lesson Learned: Prep body and mind
Study the course’s profile, and plan workouts to match the terrain you’ll encounter. If you’re training for a hilly race, spend one day a week training on uphills and downhills. “You need to learn how to run smoothly and efficiently going downhill so you can absorb shock with your quads better,” says Sean Coster, a Portland, Oregon–based coach and exercise physiologist, “and also learn how to transition into running uphill when you’re eccentrically fatigued from running downhill.” Incorporate strength-training exercises, like lunges and squats, into your routine, and do a few hill repeats at the end of a run when you’re already tired.
To counter dread, use visualization and mantras. A couple of weeks before race day, picture yourself running up your hill with strength and power, “picking your knees up, pumping your arms, and breathing deeply,” says sports psychologist Kay Porter, Ph.D., author of The Mental Athlete. Establish a mantra like “strong” or “powerful.” Plan to draw on those images and words. Once the gun goes off, take your race one mile at a time. “People get ahead of themselves and freak out,” says Porter. “Try to stay in the moment.”
Mistake #3: I didn’t fuel up
Distracted by glorious views, rockin’ Zydeco bands, or spectators bearing cowbells, I have been known to let more than 20 kilometres go by before popping my first chews. At one race, I figured I’d save my Turbo Double Expresso shot until I really needed the jolt. But by the time that need reared its head–in the form of a weird, presumably low-blood-sugar-induced tingling in my face–it was too late.
“Once you dig yourself into a hole, it’s very hard for your body to catch up,” says Kim Mueller, M.S., R.D., C.C.S.D., a 2:52 marathoner and founder of San Diego–based Fuel Factor Nutrition. It’s hard to restock your tank because it takes oxygen to digest food and to pump blood to your muscles. “A lot of runners overwhelm the gut and end up with all those calories swishing around in there making them nauseous,” Mueller says.
Lesson Learned: Train your eating
During training, experiment with pre-run and on-the-run fueling, and once you establish what you can handle, stick with what works. Mueller recommends eating 75 to 125 grams of carbs for breakfast (like a white bagel, or low-fiber cream of wheat cereal and a banana). If you will have hours on race morning before the gun goes off, down an energy bar two hours before the start and nurse your sports drink all the way to the corral. The average runner burns roughly two-thirds of her body weight in calories every 1.6 kilometres, says Mueller. Take your first fuel at the 10-K mark and aim to replace 25 to 30 percent of the total calories you burn between there and the finish. For a 68-kilo runner, that’s around 2100 calories (or five to six gels).
Mistake #4: I arrived late
En route to an East Coast race, I listened to rain pelt the airport rooftop for seven hours before I caught a connecting red-eye that got me to my hotel just before sunrise the day before the race. I had slept zero hours that night–the night that coaches say matters most, since nerves keep most of us awake on race eve. “People try to cut it too close and end up spending all their pre-race energy being stressed out,” says Star Blackford, a Clif Bar pace team leader and veteran of 140 marathons.
Lesson Learned: Get there early
Traveling to a race? It can take more than 24 hours for your body to recover from the swelling and dehydration that a pressurized airplane cabin can yield, says Guzman. To keep it to a minimum, shun alcohol and caffeine–both diuretics–bring your own water, and wear compression socks on the plane. Arrive at least 48 hours before the start so you have time to do a 30-minute shakeout run, get a good night’s sleep, spend a few hours at the expo, and lounge the night before the race. (For cheapskates like me, consider staying at an inexpensive hotel by the airport the first night.)
Racing close to home? You want to arrive an hour before the start so you can pick up your number, check your gear, hit the porta-loo, and be at the starting line 20 to 30 minutes before the gun goes off–so you don’t waste precious glycogen stores sprinting to the start. (Been there.)