I think runners, business travelers, and rockstars are all united by a particular feeling of existential dread. It’s usually felt in strange hotel rooms, waking up in a fog, questioning what you’re even doing with your life. Another race? Another business meeting? Another concert? Really?
I had written that intro paragraph as I was reading the memoir of Anthony Kiedis, lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, called “Scar Tissue.” Sure enough, before I sent this article to be published, I came across him addressing the AM feeling head-on. Kiedis, who was a self-described egotistical maniac in his early 20s, says “Some of the most depressing sensations known to humankind come in that morning netherworld when you run out of coke and you’re in some seedy hotel and the sun is coming up and you’ve got to go somewhere.”
Then, whether you’re a runner or a rockstar, you get moving. You have some coffee (or something else if you’re Anthony Kiedis). The world comes into focus a bit, and the dread usually fades away.
Just as no one but your therapist wants to hear about your dreams, not too many people want to hear about your 5 AM doubt. Almost all of us go through it at some point, though.
But I don’t hear runners talk about that pre-race feeling too much. It makes sense. Just as no one but your therapist wants to hear about your dreams, not too many people want to hear about your 5 AM doubt. Almost all of us go through it at some point, though. So anticipate it, and possibly even look forward to it, as a byproduct of leaving your comfort zone.
Because that’s what racing is. It’s leaving your comfort zone and facing the unknown head-on. When faced with that uncertainty, I have seen people try to latch on to whatever they can control. That might mean overthinking sleep, food, hydration, or how your legs feel. And in looking for the race-morning secret, they sometimes undermine themselves through over-complication.
An anonymous list of things I have seen: taking sleeping pills for the first time the night before the race, taking Immodium for the first time on race morning, having extreme amounts of stress related to bathroom breaks, eating no food because of stomach worries, eating all the food from the continental breakfast because of bonking worries (including the weird powdered eggs that are actually 80% packing styrofoam mixed with 20% of the liquid that collects at the bottom of the trashcan). Just this weekend, for example, an athlete I coach drank a heavy protein shake 90 minutes before their high-altitude trail marathon. As you can imagine, that did not end well.
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I am guilty of it. The list of dumb crap I have done on race morning would look like one of those scrolls that starts Star Wars movies. Here’s one: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, an idiot worried about overheating put his legs in a frozen creek 30 minutes before the World Mountain Running Championships. It did not end well.
So let’s think a bit too much about what you shouldn’t overthink. As always, stick with what works for you if it varies from this advice. Here are 6 tips for race morning.
1. Sleep Before a Race
It’s normal to feel demotivated or nervous or sleep deprived when you wake up, don’t judge.
I would love an honest peek into people’s brains right after they wake up. Even your worst enemy probably wakes up insecure and unsure sometimes. I think there’s a vast reserve of empathy to be found in imagining people with different backgrounds and experiences all waking up and staring into their own pre-caffeine existential abyss.
Even if you don’t have a nihilistic abyss, there is probably a sliver of truth there no matter what your background. On race morning, give yourself grace to not feel perfect, maybe even a bit nihilistic. Find comfort in a routine, and give your brain time to recalibrate to the day.
The same goes for nerves. Being nervous means that you care and what you’re doing is worthwhile. Heck, being nervous should be one of your main goals of race day. Otherwise, you might as well just do a training run.
Perhaps most importantly, don’t worry about pre-race sleep. Studies show sleep the day before a race doesn’t really matter. I have seen athletes win national championships with literally zero sleep, and I have seen others have the worst races of their lives after sleeping a blissful 10 hours. Spend time relaxing if you can, but it’s all good whether that leads to glorious dreamland or staring at the ceiling of a Motel 6, wondering why it’s sticky.
2. Hydrate Before a Race
Hydrate no matter what, caffeinate if you’re into that.
Hydration is surprisingly one of those things that can incite a riot among some coaches and exercise physiologists, so I won’t venture into the weeds here. The basic principle is just to avoid starting your race dehydrated. How that works in practice varies a ton among athletes based on physiology and background, but the general guideline I use is to have a small glass of fluid after waking. Follow that up with another 8-16 ounces in the 75 minutes before the start, adjusting downward if waking and racing are close together, or if you drink coffee or tea, or if your bladder is the size of a teacup.
3. Eat Before a Race
Top off glycogen/glucose stores, ideally 2+ hours before race time (can be closer for lower intensity race).
Most of your energy stores are filled up before race morning, so pre-race breakfast is not about filling up the tank, but topping it off. Here’s another place where people vary a ton. I usually recommend something like an energy bar or instant oatmeal for a few hundred easy-to-digest, carb-heavy calories. But I have seen some people have success just having coffee and sports drink, and another that won an ultra after eating 6 packets of oatmeal and 3 bananas (seriously). This is one of those places where you should focus on doing what works for you.
For lower intensity races, you can usually eat a bit more and closer to the race, since digestion won’t be substantially impeded during activity for most athletes. For short races, try to make sure you have plenty of time to digest.
4. Arrive Early Before a Race
Arrive at the race site at least 45-60 minutes before if possible.
Life is complicated. There are a few dozen Democratic presidential candidates and at least half of them are made-up names (they’re not even trying with “John Hickenlooper”). Amazon can get you anything in the world in 2 hours, but doing your taxes requires a few weeks and 10 to 20 percent of your soul. Canada won the NBA championship. CANADA!
Don’t make race morning complicated too. Giving yourself more time to relax and getting ready will take away some of the confusion and stress of the day. Have you ever gone to use the porta-potty and the line doesn’t look like it’s outside the hottest club in New York? It’s a liberating joy. You can give yourself that joy by showing up a bit earlier.
5. Warm-Up Before a Race
Around 30 minutes before, do a short jog, or a more complex warm-up routine for more intense races.
Even longer races benefit from warm-ups due to their neuromuscular, metabolic, and psychological benefits. It can be as simple as a five-minute slow jog, followed by a few dynamic stretches. Giving your body plenty of time before the race to start the warm-up has the added benefit of allowing you to center yourself emotionally before the race start.
6. Stride Before a Race
Do a few strides and stay hydrated while waiting for the start.
After you finish the short warm-up run, you’ll have some more time to kill. To me, that time is a magical window into what life is about. You’re there, going for it. Why? What’s the point? It doesn’t matter. You’re present, actually there, not just physically there and mentally thinking about work or taxes or whatever a John Hickenlooper is (a type of sailing knot).
Get a song going in your head, talk to fellow racers, visualize the day. Do a few strides just to feel that coiled power of your legs, reflecting on all you did to get there. Sip some fluid, think about how amazing you are, and smile.
Racing isn’t a test. Racing is a celebration. And everybody loves a celebration.
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.