Secrets of Preparing for a Race

You’ve trained for your race. You’ve put in the miles. You’ve loaded up on carbs and are fueled to go the distance. There are only 48 hours separating you from the starting gun. It’s time to kick back, right?

Not exactly.

While most of the hard work is behind you, the decisions you make in the days leading up to your race can dictate how enjoyable your experience will be. As race morning approaches, you want to minimize time on your feet and take care of important things such as finding directions to the start and deciding what you’ll wear. Saving these tasks for the last minute can increase pre-race anxiety and potentially slow you down when the rubber hits the road.

Take Joe Puleo, the track and cross-country coach at Rutgers University-Camden, as exhibit A. Back in the 1980s when he was a hotshot competitor, Puleo found himself in the Porta-John when the gun went off. He bolted out and managed to finish second, but it was a hard lesson. “I would have won the race it if I’d taken my preparations a little more seriously,” he says.

Now, Puleo has his athletes develop a checklist before each race. “We leave nothing to chance,” he says. Neither should you. Let’s break down what you should do in the days leading up to the big day for a low-stress, enjoyable race.

I always want to see where I'm running. That way there are no surprises, like a big hill in the last mile.

Kathy Martin, a 60-year-old runner who holds master's records in races up to 50K.

What to Do Two Days Before the Race

  1. PICK YOUR CLOTHES. If you wait until race morning to select your outfit, you risk wasting time hunting for shorts that are in the laundry or forgetting something -- like your watch, which is why Puelo had no idea it was close to race time. Use a checklist and lay out your clothes from head to toe in a corner of your bedroom or hotel room.

  2. CHECK THE WEATHER. If cold temperatures are expected, consider wearing a long-sleeved shirt at the start to stay warm. Most races let you check a bag at the start that you retrieve at the finish, or you can toss the shirt near the starting line. Race officials usually donate these throw-aways to charity.

  3. GET SOME ZZZs. Pre-race nerves and excitement keep many runners from sleeping well the night before a race, so two nights out is the ideal time to go to bed early, shut off the alarm -- if you can -- and sleep in. A solid night’s rest two night's before the race will help ensure you’re ready when starting gun is fired.

What to Do One Day Before the Race

  1. GO EARLY. Most small races allow runners to pick up their bib numbers on race morning. But often you’ll need to get your race packet at the health and fitness expo -- where you can also browse vendor booths -- the day before. Kathy Martin, a 60-year-old Northport, New York, runner who holds master's records in distances from 800 meters to 50K, goes to the expo immediately when she gets to town and makes a beeline for package pick-up. You ease your mind by taking care of business first, she says.

  2. FINALIZE LOGISTICS. Read through the race instructions included in your race packet to confirm the start time, get directions to the starting line and parking area, ask about road closures, and review any other details you need (where bag check is, where you can meet your family), advises Katie McDonald Neitz, author of Runner’s World Guide to Road Racing. If you have any lingering questions, head to the help or info desk.

  3. MINIMIZE WALKING. With business complete, enjoy the expo’s vendors but avoid this rookie mistake: Spending hours on your feet the day before a race and arriving at the start with tired, depleted legs.

  4. DRIVE THROUGH THE COURSE. “I always want to see where I’m running,” Martin says. “That way there are no surprises…like a big hill in the last mile.” Touring the route also lets you scout the staging area and parking options, which makes it easier to navigate the next morning. If road closures prohibit driving the route, study the course map carefully. And see if the race offers bus tours of the course—many of the larger events do.

What to Do the Evening Before Your Race

  1. FINAL PREP. Back at home or your hotel, review your racing items. “I pin the number on the singlet I’m going to wear,” says Martin. Make sure you have what you’ll want for breakfast -- eat the same meal you’ve eaten before training runs -- and note where you put the car keys.

  2. CHILL OUT. Try to be off your feet and resting by mid to late afternoon. “I just try to make it a normal evening,” said Martin, who often makes business calls the night before the race and enjoys her usual pre-race dinner with her husband. Now is not the time to try new foods; eat the same meal you usually do before long runs. You might read a book, play a board game with the kids, put in a movie. “I recommend anything that will eliminate stress,” Puleo says. Anything, that is, except run a hard few miles on nervous energy. “I have a friend who does that,” Martin says. “And she wonders why her race times are never quite what she’d like.”

  3. SET TWO ALARMS. And if you’re at a hotel, ask for an early wake-up call so you won’t lose sleep wondering if the alarm will go off or if you’ll hear it.

What to Do on the Morning of Your Race

  1. ARRIVE EARLY. For large races, get there an hour or more before race time; that’s usually enough time to park, hit the Porta-John (remember what happened to Joe Puleo!), and head to the start.

  2. WARM UP. Do a 10-minute brisk walk or jog to the start to wake up the muscles, says Neitz. Time it so that you arrive at the starting line 15 minutes before the gun.

  3. SOAK IT IN. The energy you’ll feel in the moments leading up to the gun is exhilarating. Take a moment to appreciate it and congratulate yourself for making it to the start. If you feel nervous, take a few deep breaths, says Neitz, and think back on the training you’ve done. You’re ready. You’ve earned it. You know the road that lies ahead. Now go have the race of your life.

Your Racing Day Checklist:

  1. Shoes
  2. Socks
  3. Tights/Shorts
  4. Singlet/Top
  5. Running Bra
  6. Bib Number
  7. Chip (if not a part of bib, which many are these days)
  8. Jacket
  9. Hat 10 Keys
  10. Sunglasses
  11. Sunblock
  12. Watch (and/or GPS tracker)
  13. Fuel like gel or sports beans (if it’s a half or full marathon)
  14. Water (if you choose to carry some)
  15. Mobile phone or iPod (for music, if you choose)
  16. Headphones (if you want music)