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Way too many trail runners seem like they are on a mission to ruin their race-day experience. It’s as if they made a trip to Vegas, found a sports bookie, then proceeded to bet the house, the family jewels and the golden retriever on the “over.”
I am no exception. For years when I first started competing, I would “taper” caffeine in the week before the race, only to caffeinate on race day, all based on an article I read online. That strategy may work in theory, but in practice it just makes for a jittery heart and even more jittery large intestine.
Fortunately, after spending some time in the mountains (mostly running trails, not talking to storm clouds, but still), I come bearing these 10 key rules for a successful race-day experience. Just call me “Broses.”
1. Thou shalt not stress about sleep.
In 2014, before the Cal International Marathon, Addie Bracy slept a grand total of zero hours, then ran a blazing-fast 2:35 in her marathon debut. Last month, an athlete I coach named Adam Krzesinski slept only a few fitful hours before qualifying for Kona by crushing the Vineman Ironman. I DNF’d the Moab Trail Marathon in 2014 after sleeping 10 hours.
What can we learn from these stories? Sleep doesn’t really matter on the night before the race. Just give yourself the opportunity to rest and don’t worry about whether or not you have sleep so exquisite that it could land you a gig on a mattress commercial.
2. Thou shalt not experiment with caffeine.
Caffeine is a legal PED (performance enhancing drug), but it can also cause other types of PED if you aren’t careful (performance-eviscerating doodie, or possible early death). We all know caffeine can mess with the bowels, but there is also some evidence that overdoing caffeine can increase risk of cardiac arrest in athletes. To avoid the guesswork, just consume the same types and similar quantities of caffeine you do before your biggest and best training days.
3. Thou shalt eat in moderation on race morning.
Pre-race breakfast is just to top off your glycogen stores, not to provide most of your race-day fuel. Instead of gorging yourself like a famished ferret, focus on eating healthily in the days leading up to the race, then nibble like a satisfied squirrel on race morning. Your usual pre-run breakfast should work great.
4. Thou shalt start the race hydrated.
If you start in a hydration hole, that hole might as well be a grave for your race performance. Once you get behind on hydration, it is unlikely you’ll be able to dig yourself back out during an intense race.
Many of my athletes have had success drinking 8 to 16 ounces of fluid when they wake up, then another 16 in the hour before the race. There is no magic number though—find what works for you. And don’t overdo it and turn yourself into a soggy sloth either.
5. Thou shalt not start too hard.
You can’t win the race in the first miles, but you can lose it. If your body unnecessarily over-exerts itself early on, it can be difficult (or impossible) for the energy systems that power you through the race to recover to their full potential.
This commandment goes for long races, clearly, but also short races. At the 2015 U.S. Mountain Running Championships, a 12K race, I was considered a favorite to make the U.S. team after qualifying in 2014.
As if to prove the prognosticators right, I went out hard on the three-lap course, completing lap 1 in a blistering pace that had me just back of the leaders. We hit the next climb and my legs were gone. The quadriceps took the red-eye to Cancun and the calves hopped on a boat to Bermuda. With that, my shot at the team was lost.
6. Thou shalt stick to the hydration and fueling plan.
Go into the race with a methodical plan for fluid and fuel, then execute. It’s that simple. Don’t leave things to chance or the whims of thirst and hunger pangs. Find a formula and stick to it.
Many of my athletes have had success with the 24/30 rule: 20 to 24 ounces of on-course sports drink per hour and a gel every 30 minutes. That comes to 300-plus calories per hour (close to the maximum the body can process during activity) and ideal hydration, depending on conditions and physiology. In longer ultras, you can mix it up, but be sure there is a method behind the madness.
7. Thou shalt lean into uphills and use the downhills.
When going up, lean forward as if you are trying to mimic the gradient. So on a 10-percent grade, feel like you are leaning your body 10 percent forward. This form is more efficient for almost all runners and puts you in a better position to engage your glutes.
While uphills are a product of fitness, downhills are partially a choice. Since your heart rate will be lower going down, you can go faster without as much excess fatigue. One of my athletes calls this method “letting Jesus take the wheel.”
Don’t push but don’t hold back, either; just let go. Ian Sharman, one of the most dominant ultrarunners in the world, owes some of his stunning consistency to a focus on fast, efficient downhill running. Even on bad days, the downhill is under your control, since gravity does not have a bad day. (Note: Practice this constantly in training to avoid blowing out your quads.)
8. Thou shalt smile.
Positive thinking makes for the best race experiences. It reduces perceived exertion and improves mental endurance, and the aid station volunteers really appreciate it. Remember, you are doing this for fun.
Make a resolution to have fun no matter what. I have my athletes promise to smile literally once every mile, even if they are pushing at their limit or having a rough day. Happy cheeks make happy feet!
9. Thou shalt not make excuses.
Excuses are like private parts—everybody has them, but you shouldn’t go around showing them off.
There are two big reasons to commit to an excuse-free life. First, people who make excuses often have only great races or terrible races—nothing in between. Why? Well, as soon as the fudge starts hitting the fan, they begin to draft their excuses, and soon enough, they are on the side of the trail writing their excuse-filled race report.
Second, it’s pointless. Excuses put a running race up on a pedestal that it does not deserve—even for the pros, a race result is probably not what puts food on the table. You can strive to understand why you underperformed relative to your expectations and adjust without a melodramatic social-media post.
If you have a health issue or other reason that would help others to discuss, by all means do it. But don’t excuse every subpar race with self-indulgent rationalization.
Here’s a fun game: Replace every non-health-related excuse you see online with “My training, talent or execution was not adequate for my goals.” It’ll still work most of the time!
10. Thou shalt celebrate.
No matter what, be happy with your race. Even if you DNF, don’t indulge yourself with self-importance by basking in self-loathing. Instead, say “woohoo!” and give big hugs and laugh like you are a high hyena. You might find that you have a lot more to celebrate if you go into each race knowing you will be celebrating, no matter the result.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.