Run Your Best Race

>> Tuesday, April 6, 2010

My very first race was a 5K on a balmy evening in the June of 2003. I was nineteen, and I had been running for a little over a year. I remember preparing the entire week beforehand (as is my style with most things in life -- I'm always hyper-prepared, hyper-researched-minded, hyper-worried, etc.). It's all I could think about, so I searched online for all kinds of things like:

"How much water should I drink before a race?"
"How much should I taper?"
"How fast should I go after the gun goes off?"
"What is proper race etiquette?"
"What if I need to go to the bathroom?!"

The bathroom one, of course, makes me crack up hysterically now because I ran for 4 hours without a potty break during the marathon. But at the time, this possibility was foremost on my list of concerns. I remember also being super preoccupied with my finish time. I didn't want to come in last. I was so terribly worried I'd come in last. And that I'd walk. GASP!!! Wouldn't that be awful? (In races since, I've definitely had to walk. It's no biggie. In fact, I'm pretty sure I'll take at least a short walk break in the Laurel Fest 10K this summer. It's crazy hills, and it hurts to say the least.)

Anyway, I imagine some of you are planning to race for the first time this spring or summer. Or maybe you, too, have many of these questions plaguing your thoughts. What many of us seasoned runners forget is exactly how nervous we were for our first races. Hell, I still get nervous . . . but now I know some tips that help ease my nerves, at least a little bit.
  • Take it easy. In the week before the race, taper. Even if you're only racing a 5K. Many running plans incorporate a mild taper in the final week, but if you're not into planning. Just take an extra day off before the race. And run fewer miles in general. A good example can be found on Hal Higdon's 5K training plan.
  • Stay hydrated. If you don't already, sip more water. H20 is essential to proper body function, and upping your intake will certainly help you and your muscles (and rest of yourself) stay, well, fluid.
  • Prepare yourself. Lay out your running clothes. Your watch. Your race number and chip. A small snack and bottle of water. Sunscreen. Anything and everything you'll need -- lay it out the night before. Not only will your morning go faster -- you'll sleep easier knowing everything is in one place. That's right -- you caught a tip within a tip. SLEEP WELL the night before. And all week, really. You want to be well rested.
  • Arrive on time (or early!). I like to get to races at least an hour early. This gives you time to park. Find where you need to be. Warm up. Chat with other runners. And just prepare yourself for the event. If you arrive late, you rush around. You don't have time to pee. Your heart rate elevates. You end up wasting precious energy that could have been used for a sprint at the end of your race. And I know all of this from experience. It's not fun, people!
  • Eat something. You need some fuel before you can propel yourself. So eat a small granola bar. Half a bagel with peanut butter. A small serving of oatmeal. Something with carbs. Something easy on the stomach. If you're too nervous, even try eating some gummy bears. You'll thank yourself after you cross the finish line. The morning of a race, I try to drink a small glass of water and eat a small snack about an hour before the gun goes off.
  • Embrace your inner social butterfly. If you're new to racing, you might find the other runners in their spandex and brightly colored outfits (racing flats? what are THOSE?) intimidating. Don't be too terribly put off by this. Most runners are incredibly nice people. Generous with their words of wisdom. There is an occasional jerk . . . but if you encounter one of them, don't let that deter you from participating in events. During my first race, I found another woman who was stretching near me, I told her it was my first race, and she promptly started making me feel better about the whole event. Gave me tips and -- even more valuable -- words of encouragement.
  • Line up accordingly. Another part of the race that can be intimidating is: WHERE DO I LINE UP? Depending on what time you're hoping to finish in, you may want to start later in the pack. I tend to position myself in the middle because I usually come in around the middle. If you're totally new and have no idea, you might consider looking at previous year's race results. You may even just want to start near the end. Unless you're a speed demon, don't start in the front, or you'll likely get blown past (and -- well -- annoy those faster runners).
  • Start slow for more energy later. There's nothing worse than starting off with a sprint, only to find yourself feeling pathetic a mile later. I tend to go easy on myself at races. Stephen thinks I haven't reached my full speed potential . . . so on one particular race day, I decided to give myself at kick from the start. Big mistake. You should start off your race at a comfortable pace. With a 5K, you can increase your pace when you start to feel you're in a rhythm. I usually spend the first half mile cruising comfortably, then get into the game after that. I tend to increase pace in half mile intervals thereafter. Do what's right for you, but fight the urge to spend all your energy at the beginning.
  • Don't get caught up in race time. Racing, at least for me, is more about the fun and celebration of being fit than of my ability to PR. It's great to have a good day, or to shave off some seconds or minutes from your personal records. But as your race more, even if you've been training perfectly, stuff happens. I don't always PR at my races. In fact, especially with the 5K distance, I tend to stay stagnant there. Wavering around a certain time for no apparent reason. But I'm cool with it . . . because I'm still out there running. And I want to run for years to come. Make time during your race, even if only for a few seconds, to feel proud of yourself. Not of your time.

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