Updated: Aug 15
I love races but always feel flustered and stressed on race day. Please send help!
For runners, the race day routine is sacrosanct. We all have our own personal rituals, and we swear by them. For most runners, the act of having a routine is actually more important than what is actually done the night or morning of the race.
We as runners just need to feel like we are preparing the right way for the race, but short of downing a six-pack or polishing off a whole Domino’s pizza, there isn’t much you can do the night before a race to blow it. The work has already been done and the hay is in the barn. The race day routine just serves to get the athlete into the right headspace and feel ready to run. Our Chaski coaches have put their heads together, and here is our best advice for runners to prepare themselves to race.
The evening before the race
When figuring out what to do the night before a big race, it’s best to work backwards when planning your evening. If the race begins early in the morning, that means the alarm clock will be going off early (for evening and night races, it’s best to just try and have as normal a day as possible leading into the race). Transitively, that also means that you’ll have to go to bed early in order to rest up for the following morning’s race and wake up feeling as though you’ve still got a full night’s worth of sleep.
The night before a race – especially anything half marathon and above – fuel up with something simple and easy to break down like pasta with a basic tomato sauce (avoid the chicken parmigiana, Michael Scott). Importantly, stick to a meal that you’ve eaten and tested out before big workouts during your buildup, then continue hydrating throughout the night until you go to bed.
After dinner, it’s best to keep yourself entertained and in a good mood. Anything that can keep your mind off the upcoming effort goes. Watch a movie, play cards with friends, read a book, or FaceTime your family back home if you’ve traveled for the race. These activities all have something in common: they provide you with a distraction from the upcoming race while allowing you to remain in a resting position.
Before hitting the sack, make sure that everything that you’ll need in the morning is placed together. You don’t want any last-minute surprises at the start line! This includes your singlet and racing flats, gels, Vasoline, warm-ups, and charged watch. Additionally, review any race day logistics so that you know exactly where you should be going, what time you need to leave in order to get to the start, and what time you should begin your warmup. Lastly, review the course, including elevation profile, and mentally prepare yourself for the hardest parts or where you’ll plan to make aggressive moves.
To get yourself ready for bed earlier than usual, skew your whole evening schedule earlier. For example, if you want to go to bed two hours earlier than normal, try to eat dinner two hours earlier than you usually would. After that, everything else will follow suit. If you need to go to bed super early, drink some chamomile (or Sleepytime tea), which helps increase the body’s production of melatonin.
It’s best to wake up about three to four hours before the starter’s pistol. Your body will respond better to being given extra time to wake up slowly and more naturally, rather than jolting out of bed, gulping down a cup of coffee and hoping to run your best race.
Ty's Pro tip — during your harder training efforts, practice getting up about the same time that you will on race day! This way, you can practice your routine, and it won’t feel incredibly foreign on race morning.
When the alarm goes off, no matter how early it feels, get out of bed right away. Don’t risk it with the Snooze button! Turn the lights on quickly to start the awakening process. If coffee is your thing, brew a normal cup. If you can handle black coffee, that’s best for race day, avoiding any unnecessary dairy or artificial sweeteners. While your coffee is brewing, do a last check that everything is ready to go, and then don’t think about the race until it’s time to leave.
While sipping my coffee, try to mentally engage in an activity that is not directly relevant to the upcoming race. It’s all about avoiding obsessing or psyching yourself out about the race. Ideally, you’ll have a friend or family member with you the morning before the race to ease some of the tension and pre-race jitters.
Generally speaking, try and leave your home or hotel in time to get to the race about 60 to 75 minutes before the gun. However, this depends on the size of the race, and how long of a warmup that you’ll do. If you’re going to be cramped up in a big corral (hopefully this will still be a thing post-COVID), it may be best to avoid getting there too early so as not to spend too much extra time standing on your feet before the gun.
Before the gun
Once you arrive at the starting area, promptly locate areas of importance: check-in, bathrooms, bag check, somewhere warm (and dry) to sit, start line, etc. If you have a bit of extra time before beginning your warmup, find a quiet and comfortable place to sit and relax. It’s best to avoid getting yourself too “amped up” or “pumped up,” especially before a longer race.
If you’re too fired up when the gun goes off, you’re more likely to go out too hard and blow your whole race in the first 15 minutes. Instead of listening to music that really gets your pulse going or adrenaline surging, try a relaxing podcast or a meditation
app that will keep you calm and help you get into a flow state.
Devon's Pro tip: Always be conservative with your pre-race schedule; it’s always better to have a couple of extra minutes than to feel rushed and consequently skip part of the warm-up. You can always run an extra stride or two if you feel yourself getting chilly.
More adrenaline is the LAST thing you need at the start of a big race — especially for races that will last over an hour — you want to keep a level head and not go out like a madman during the first few minutes of a race.
Mike's Pro tip: While you are training, I'd recommend that you develop a routine to prepare your body for an intense effort. For me, these preparations include jogging, drills, and even some strides for shorter efforts. Plus, always allow yourself some extra time to use the bathroom, change out of warmups, and get to the starting line on time.
The amount of time that you’ll need to spend warming up depends on the race distance. For a marathon or 50K, a jog of five or ten minutes should do it. Then do some light drills, followed by a couple of strides. All in all, this should take about 40 minutes.
For a shorter race, like a 5K, jog for about 20 to 25 minutes, perform a list of more extensive drills, run 5-7 strides, and then run roughly 200m at goal race pace. It’s counter-intuitive, but your pre-race preparations for a shorter distance should actually be much longer than for a longer race. You need to prepare your muscles to be firing at maximum effort right away, as opposed to easing into a steady pace that should feel painfully easy for the first few miles of a marathon.
Becky's Pro tip: Adjust your warmup to comply with the race day weather. If it’s hot outside, spend a little bit less time warming up. During a summer race with high temperatures, the body will warm up faster (and trust me, you’ll want to save your energy for the race itself). The idea is to get the legs moving without generating too much body heat. If it’s super cold or raining, bring a trash bag (with a hole cut in the bottom) that you can wear over everything until just before the gun. Or, you can visit Goodwill (or dig through the bottom of your closer) for some large sweats that you don’t care about ever seeing again.
On the line
The first thing you need to do at the starting line is to find a position relative to where you expect to finish the race. If you’re on the actual line, you should be expecting to compete for the win; if not, you should position yourself further back.
Mike's Pro tip: For larger races, start your warm-up earlier, as you generally need to be in the starting area earlier. Some races like the Boston Marathon require you to be in your starting corral an hour or more before you’ll start running! That’s a lot of extra time for your body to lose the effects of your warmup as you’re just standing around waiting for the gun. Luckily in the marathon, the first 5K can serve as a second warmup.
Once you’re in position at the start line, try to talk to the people around you. Not only will you figure out if someone nearby hopes to run a similar pace, but you will also remain relaxed in the tense minutes before the start. Unless you’re battling for the top spot in a World Marathon Major, most runners on the start line just want to help each other and work together to get to the finish line and accomplish their goals.
When you’re on the line, it’s important to always make an effort to smile and stay positive. There are multiple studies that prove that mood and athletic performances are closely correlated and that smiling is a sure-fire method to elevate your mood.
While some athletes put on a “game face” while waiting for the starter’s gun, try to smile from ear-to-ear, think about your loved ones, picture a previous race that went super-well, or even think about the ice cream sundae that you’re going to eat after the race. The race is the reward for all of the hard work you’ve put in during months of training. It’s time to show off and enjoy the rewards for your labor!
Final thoughts: Expect something to not go according to plan
Remember, there is almost always something that doesn’t go quite ‘right’ on race day. Whether it’s the fact that the race starts an hour late, or you’re not allowed to move, speak, or leave your designated position on the start line for the 15 minutes before the gun, there’s almost always something surprising that happens on race-day morning.
While it’s great to have a routine so you can go through the motions without having to stress about what you’re doing, it’s also important to be flexible and let that routine adapt to new and unexpected situations. A wise coach once told his athletes, “The great ones adjust,” and that’s certainly true of race day. The athletes that are able to shake off the interruptions to their routine are the ones that will come out on top and go home with
Let us know!
What do you do in the hours leading up to a big competition? What’s the weirdest pre-race issue you’ve ever had to deal with?