The 5-Day Countdown to Your Next Race
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
What workouts should you do in the week before a trail race?
The author at the Flagline 50K in Oregon. Let’s hope he’s stuck to his race-week plan. Photo by Richard Bolt
Your friends and family say that to you before a big race, as if they don’t understand the nervousness and uncertainty you’re facing by toeing the start line. It’s a trail race! There is a distinct chance that you will get intimate with rocks, roots and lactic acid, and “good luck” just makes it sound too easy. What you really want to hear is, “You’re ready.”
So how do you make sure you really are ready, physically and mentally, when the big day arrives? When (and how) should you work out, and when should you rest? Here’s a rundown of what to do in the lead-up to your next race.
Four days before: The “central governor” workout
Mantra: Shut up, brain!
The “central governor” is a theoretical concept positing that one of the biggest limiting factors of race performance is a voice coming from the deepest, darkest parts of your brainstem. And instead of whispering, “Carpe el diem,” it screams, “Fudgeballs on this diem! Let’s go find a couch and eat nachos.” Four days before your race, tell that voice to shut up with this simple workout that reminds your brain it is okay to push, and that you’ll survive the burn.
Warm up with easy running for 20 minutes, then find a hill that takes about two minutes to run up. Do four repetitions, each moderately hard, the last one finishing with an all-out, hands-on-knees effort. On race day, with that workout fresh in your mind, the primal part of your brain will say, “Nachos are kind of gross anyway. LET’S ROCK AND ROLL!”
With the “central governor” workout, you earn that race-week pizza. Photo by David Roche
Three days before: Easy day
Mantra: Keep it simple!
Many people assume that the perfect taper is a mysterious recipe, as complex as one of those avant-garde restaurant dishes that mixes the eggs of a rare marsupial with rainforest sap. But a taper is actually much simpler, more like a home-cooked dinner: what you always do, nothing special. If you run five days a week most weeks, don’t suddenly take three days off. If you love doing strides, do some strides, just a few less.
Three days before a race, I recommend 30 to 60 minutes of easy running, focusing on short, soft steps. It keeps the metabolism going, helps you recover from the previous day’s “central governor” workout and reminds you that this running thing isn’t all that complicated.
Two days before: Active Recovery
Mantra: Don’t judge!
Two days pre-race is the best time to rest and live life like a normal person, not the epic adventurer you are. Stay active—walk a couple miles with the dog or do your errands—but avoid aerobic stressors like running, cycling or even strenuous yard work.
The problem with recovery days like this is that sometimes they lead to lethargy. A day of sloth is important, but on the start line, you don’t want to feel like an actual sloth. Taking your down day two days before allows your body to store energy and recover from everything you’ve thrown at it, without feeling sluggish at the start line.
Your recovery day is also a great time to practice being a puppy bed. Photo courtesy of David Roche
Taking a day off from running also gives you a mental break. It lets you put things in perspective and remember the most important mantra of all—don’t judge. I learned this phrase from my wife Megan, a two-time national trail champion, who reminds me that in running, as in life, there are ups and downs. In a hard race, you will almost certainly experience your lowest lows, but your highest highs will usually be just around the next switchback. Similarly, during the taper, don’t judge yourself on your preparation, weight, talent or anything else. Stick to the plan and smile through the suffering, no matter what. You never know what the next switchback will bring.
Day before: Shake it out and stride it off
Mantra: It’s a celebration!
After the rest day, your muscles should be healed and your brain should be ready. Now is the time to shake off a bit of the post-rest lethargy. I tell the athletes I coach to do a full race-day warm-up, without the race. For instance, 20 minutes of easy running plus four 30-second uphill strides—just enough to remind you what hard running feels like without tiring yourself out. By doing moderately fast strides on an uphill, you limit pounding while keeping your heart rate up.
This is also a great time to visualize tomorrow’s race. Don’t focus on performing a certain way, but instead think of yourself loving every moment of the race, the ups as well as the downs. Racing should be a celebration—and when we go in with that mentality, we tend to do better on race day.
If you’re feeling extra nervous pre-race, instead of whine, try wine. Photo by David Roche.
Race day: Stick to the fueling plan
Mantra: Process, not results!
On race day, the number-one thing you can control is nutrition. For your pre-race meal, keep it simple. I like a Clif Bar and coffee with lots of honey, about two to three hours before the start (Full disclosure: Clif Bar is one of my sponsors). My Nike teammate Zach Miller does a few oatmeal packets. Make sure you have a some salt on race morning to stave off cramps. My go-to salt source is a big old dill pickle. It’s a bit gross, but I haven’t had a cramp in years after I struggled with them at the beginning of my career.
During the race, stick to a fueling formula. You can’t trust your oxygen-depleted brain to know what is best for you. I tell my athletes 40-30-30-20: take your first energy gel at 40 minutes, then another gel at 1:10 and 1:40, then one every 20 minutes starting at the two-hour mark. Most people severely underfuel during races, and it’s important to keep the calories coming even when you don’t feel like choking them down. Apply a similar approach to hydration—aim for 20 to 24 ounces of water per hour, adjusting upward if it’s really hot or you have been told you sweat like a broken fire hydrant.
Of course, the most essential advice of all is to be happy with your race—no matter what happens. If many of your Facebook friends run, you have probably seen plenty of race reports filled with excuses, from injuries to training to weather to astrological signs not aligning with their chakras. Those are all valid excuses (well, mostly), but the point is that results should not be your only focus if you want to find happiness through running.
With these tips, you should be ready. Good luck, and break a leg!
David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a member of Nike Trail Elite and Team Clif Bar. When not frolicking on single-track or working as a public-interest attorney for the Environmental Law Institute, he enjoys spending time with his wife and puppy, both of whom are substantially better at running than he is. He works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.