Jeff Gaudette—Runners put a lot of thought and planning into their training schedule, and with good reason. The right combination of hard workouts, recovery efforts, weekly mileage and long runs are the main ingredients necessary to run a new personal best. An often overlooked, yet critical component to running fast, however, is executing in the final days and hours leading up to the race. Even small mistakes in this tiny timeframe before a race can spell disaster regardless of how fit you are.
To help maximize your chances of success on race day, let’s look at three of the most common pre-race myths and learn why (and how) to avoid making these same mistakes before your next race.
Myth 1: Warming up will make you tired for the race.
Many beginners don’t recognize the importance of warming up before a race. Not only will a warmup prime your muscles for hard running, it will dramatically increase performance and help prevent injuries. When I’ve asked runners why they don’t warm up, the number one reason is that they’re worried it will make them tired before the race.
Don’t feel ashamed if you’ve made this mistake. We all have. I remember thinking my high school coach was crazy when he told me to jog for 15 minutes before the start of my race.
“Uh coach, running makes me tired and I’ve got this big race to run, you know.”
Of course, I was wrong. If you’ve put in the necessary training to prepare for your goal race, jogging 10 to 15 minutes followed by some short, fast accelerations before a race will not fatigue you in any way. You won’t burn significant glycogen (energy) and you won’t get tired. Warming up will increase your core body temperature, however, which speeds oxygen transport throughout the body, primes the muscles for hard running, and triggers the neural pathways between your brain and your muscles to improve muscle if contraction and power. By warming up before your races, you’ll toe the line ready for optimal performance, as opposed to needing the first few miles the race to get into a rhythm.
Myth 2: A rest day before the race will keep your legs fresh.
The day before a race is an important day and one that’s full of decisions that can affect your performance. You’ve got to fuel properly and prepare your body and mind for optimal performance the next day. It’s not surprising then that one of the most common mistakes runners make is resting the day before the race. Like the myth of not wanting to warm up for fear of getting tired, many runners think that running the day before a race will make their legs tired for the next day. This is false! Not only will running the day before not make you tired, but it can dramatically improve your performance.
Regardless if you’re racing a mile or a marathon, a 15 to 20-minute run the day before a race won’t hurt you. If your recovery runs during the hardest portion of your training cycle have enabled you to adequately recover between hard workouts, what would change the day before your race? The answer is nothing. A short run serves to prepare your body and mind to perform well the following day.
So what are the benefits? Like the warmup, a run the day before a race helps improve blood flow to the muscles, which allows them to loosen up and delivers the nutrients and oxygen they will need for the intense running the next day. When racing a half marathon or marathon, running the day before will help your muscles store extra glycogen.
A short pre-race run will also stimulate the central nervous system, which responds quickly to new stimuli because the growth and recovery cycle is very short. In fact, you can make small improvements to your neuromuscular coordination in less than a day. Conversely, degradation of the neuromuscular system can occur in a day or two, which means if you don’t run the day before the race, your neuromuscular system isn’t performing at an optimal level. This is why runners often feel lethargic and stiff when they don’t run for a day or two.
Myth 3: I’ve got the perfect race plan.
A race will almost always never go exactly as planned. It doesn’t matter how well-trained you are or how much time you’ve spent plotting the perfect strategy, something is likely to happen that you didn’t expect. Veteran runners have enough race experience that they’ve seen just about everything and are generally more prepared for any circumstance. Unfortunately, most beginners can be thrown off their target much easier and thus need more practice.
The best way to mentally prepare for something going wrong in a race is to use visualization techniques in the weeks and days before you step on the starting line. Visualize as many different scenarios you can think of and formulate a plan of attack in your mind. By conjuring up these emotions, sights and sounds, you can prepare yourself to remain calm and collected so you can execute in a chaotic environment. If any of your scenarios happen during the race, you’ll know exactly what to do and it won’t throw you off your game.