By Pete Hitzeman
For those about to Pig, we salute you!
The weeks and months of preparation have all come down to this. All the dozens of training runs and lifting sessions, the aching muscles, the early morning wake-ups, all have been endured to be ready for this single event.
It's time for the big race, and you couldn't be more excited!
But now is not the time to lose focus. A lot of newer athletes and racers make critical mistakes in the days leading up to their event that can undo so much of the hard work they have put in during training. Doing taper week right can make the difference between a great day at the races, and a miserable survival slog.
So here's a list of pitfalls to avoid and strategies to try that will get you to the starting line primed and ready to rock.
Taper Means Taper!
Resist the urge to cram in a few last-minute runs and workouts. Even if you had some hiccups in your training schedule that kept you from getting in all the long runs you wanted, it's too late now. Trying for one last long run to shore up your endurance or one last tempo run to bolster your pace won't do you any good.
It can take up to two weeks for the positive effects of those runs to be realized by your body, through appropriate rest and recovery. That means that you won't be in any better shape for having squeezed in that last-second training, and there's every chance that you'll be under-recovered and over-fatigued come race day.
Now is Not the Time to Try Anything New
By all means, shop the deals available at the event expo, and support the vendors that support the sport. But on race morning, stick with what's tried and true. No new shoes (blisters), new socks (same), or new nutrition products from your goodie bag (upset stomach). As cool as it is, don't race in the event t-shirt (chafing!). Think back through your longer training runs and which ones went well. Do whatever you did for those runs, right down to what pair of shorts you wore.
Scored a sweet deal on some new shoes at the expo? Great! Wear them the week after the race.
The same rule applies to your pre-race meal. Skip the huge pasta dinners and the "carb loading." Your body has been replenishing its energy stores all through your tapering phase, if you've been doing it right. The night before a big race is not the time to try that new Thai Fusion restaurant. If you can, have a normal dinner at home, with maybe a little extra salt on your sweet potato. If you're staying out of town, look for a local restaurant (or better yet, a grocery store) that serves things similar to what you typically ate through training. It's been working for months; it'll work for you now.
One kind of "loading" you do need to pay attention to is hydration. The last few days before your race, make sure you're drinking plenty of water and electrolytes. This will help the recovery that's happening during taper week, and ensure you don't arrive at the start line in a dehydrated state.
Speaking of Nutrition...
You don't need to fast the morning of the race, but don't overeat, either. Training in a fasted state is an effective way to induce your body to utilize fat as an energy source and improve your body composition. But race morning is the time to play your trump card, and give your body some natural sugar to readily burn as the miles wear on.
My race morning routine includes a cup of coffee, a banana, a couple eggs, and maybe a Clif bar to keep myself from feeling hungry during the race. The earlier the race starts, the more I may eliminate from that lineup. For instance, if I have to be up before 5am (because race directors are not nice people), I'll probably skip the eggs.
What to Wear?
As mentioned above, race morning is not the time to try any new attire. Wear shorts, a shirt or jersey, socks and shoes that you have already tested in your training, and haven't caused you any problems over longer distances. Blisters and sensitive body parts getting chafed can turn a nice day into an extended nightmare.
Keep an eye on the weather as the race approaches, but don't overdress! You'll only need rain gear if it's truly pouring, and you'll get plenty warm enough in shorts and a t-shirt if it's anything above 50°F. I've run races in the low 40s in just shorts and a tank top, and while the first mile or so was uncomfortable, I was more than happy later in the race as some of my competitors were red-faced and sweating buckets.
If you're concerned at being too cold at the start, try hitting up your local thrift shop! For about five bucks, you can get a set of warm-ups that you can wear to the start, and then toss along the side of the course as you get warm.
The Race Morning Routine
Plan to have all of your food down by 90 minutes before your start time. Reduce your fluid intake to just the occasional sip with about 45 minutes to go. The last thing you want is an upset, sloshy stomach as you storm off at the start, or to have to stop and pee three times in the first five miles.
Don't forget to get warm and get loose! It seems like you'll have plenty of time to do both in a longer race, but the fact is that running uses a very limited range of motion, and isn't great at priming your body for the effort of those long miles at the end.
With about 30 minutes left until the gun goes off, it's time to start getting warm. This is also a good time to ditch/stash your extra clothes (you'll only be cold for a minute!) and hit the porta-johns for the last time.
Start by jogging easily for 5 minutes to get your heart started and your blood flowing, then do a few sets of skipping, deep lunges, toy soldiers, high knees, butt kickers, star touches and/or high knees. Don't neglect your core and arms. They'll be working all morning, too!
10 minutes before the race start, move into your start corral. Your body is ready, and you've done everything right to get you here. Be calm and confident in your training and preparation. Visualize your race, remember your strategy, and keep moving to stay warm until the gun goes off.
Enjoy the atmosphere and the energy of the start line, but don't get too excited! There's still a long day ahead of you. The adrenaline of a big event sends a lot of runners out the gate like a shot. More often than not, those are the same ones you'll see standing with their hands on their knees by the roadside, several miles in. Go out at a level of effort far under what you feel like you could do. It will pay off later in the race, when you've still got energy to burn, and others are flagging.
Don't Forget to Have Fun
The best thing you can do for yourself to have a good race is to HAVE FUN. None of us are racing for money, so relax and enjoy the experience, even if you're trying to hammer out a new PR. Read the funny signs, high-five a few spectators, and chat with your fellow runners. The race is just the expression of the fitness you've spent the last few months (or years) building. Enjoy the fruits of your labor and that post-race high. You've earned it!