RB40: Race Day Strategies For Runners

RB40: Race Day Strategies For Runners


In this episode, I continue our 3 part series on race week preparation, race day strategies, and post-race recovery. Today, we continue with Part Two: Race Day Strategies.  We’ll look at what you should do on race day and during the race to get you set up for success.

Show Notes:

Hi guys and welcome to another edition of RunBuzz Radio.  In today’s episode, I am sharing my tips for things you should do on race day and during your race.

Just a couple of things before we jump in, if you have been following the activities over on the Facebook group, you might have read that this week I was cleared to begin ‘easing’ back into running and just yesterday I started my return to running program. I am so excited to begin my journey back and to be quite honest a little nervous as to how it will go, but I am being extra cautious and I am even lengthening my return to running schedule a bit to be a little extra conservative until I feel like I can get my confidence back in my foot’s ability to handle it, so thanks for all the well wishes and support, it has really helped me keep my head in the game over the last, well, what’s been 14 months and I certainly have a ways to go, but it is a start and hopefully I will be back at it for good, shortly.

So without further adieu, let’s jump right in.

Well, the first thing that I want to share is what to do on the morning of your race. Now this will differ a bit if it is a morning race vs. an evening race, or a big race or small race but we’ll assume its a morning race, and that your race day strategy really starts with getting up early on race morning.

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22 Race Day Tips for Runners

1.  Hydrate

One of the most important things you can do is drink about 8-12 ounces of water as soon as you get out of bed,  this tops off your hydration levels from sleeping and helps get that water distributed to your cells where it needs to go.

2. Eat Breakfast


Make sure you are up early enough to have a light snack/breakfast  (about 400 calories or so) that is primarily made up of carbohydrates. You should also have a  little fat, and a little protein, mixed in to help with turning the carbohydrates into fuel along with the stored carbohydrates you have in the form of muscle or liver glycogen as well as help convert that stored energy from fats during your run. (Not dietary fats, but stored fats, as those, are two separate things).

Remember NOTHING NEW that you haven’t tested before runs when it comes to food. You want to pick something that will work for you AND has been tested.  For me, I eat half a banana, and a bagel with either cream cheese or peanut butter with a glass of water, and sometimes a cup of coffee, and I eat this about 1-2 hours before my race. But find something that works for you.

I highly recommend that you limit foods high in Fiber, well for obvious reasons, but if you find it works for you, then those types of foods are fine. We are all different. The key thing is that you should eat something. It will give you more energy and make you feel stronger.

3. On Course Fueling for Half and Full Marathoners


If you are running a half or full marathon, you will want some sort of carbohydrate to have on the course. Often this is a gel, but natural foods are good too. I won’t get into the nuances of endurance fueling in this episode, but one thing I often hear when it comes to eating before a run or consuming gels is the fear of your stomach getting upset.  I strongly believe that most stomach issues on race day actually have nothing to do with gels, or eating and really are more tied to running too hard, not being properly trained, running on an empty stomach, even nerves.

Certainly, over-fueling can play a part, like taking gels with Gatorade and not water, but usually, stomach distress is more of a sign of undertraining and overexertion, or heat, than GUs or Gels.  I think that they get a bad rap sometimes because it is easy to blame them and often they can be gross. But if you find the right gels, they can be quite good.

In any case, follow the labels of any gels/nutrition products you use and look for ones in the 5-8% carbohydrate range. The higher the %, the more nutrition, but the more likely it could upset your stomach.

What ends up bothering you when it comes to gels or GUs is highly individual and people who automatically think that they can’t tolerate them are correct, they won’t. This is often mental, but in reality, it usually is not really the gels, but the other things I mentioned.

4. Get to Your Race Early


Another reason to get up early is to make sure you have the opportunity to use the restroom, but even more importantly, leave early so you can get to your race on time.  If you are running a popular race or race of any size, you can certainly expect that it will likely take you twice as long to get there than you think. You will also want to get there early because the porta-potty lines usually get really long and often the gear check stations get long lines as well.  If you are running a smaller race, then most likely this won’t apply to you and you will be fine leaving a bit later.

5. Wear Disposable Outerwear to Keep Warm When it is Cold

If the weather is cold, another tip is to wear old clothes over your running clothes, or even a trash bag.  This will allow you to dispose of your old clothes once you warm up. Bigger races, actually collect these and donate to the homeless so don’t feel bad chucking your old clothes off to the side as you head out.

6. Use a Race Belt and Carry Some Extra Cash

Now in the last episode, I talked about having your gear set out the night before, and having your bib pinned on your shirt ahead of time.  On race day, carry some money/cell phone, etc. in your race belt. You may be hungry after the race and will be glad you brought some along with you. A good race belt will have a place to hold your bib, and certainly pouches you can use to hold your phone, keys, GUs and gels.  Here are a few I recommend if you want a good one:

Last update on 2021-07-31 / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Last update on 2021-07-31 / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

7. Line Up in the Appropriate Corrals


When it comes to races that use a corral system, line up in the appropriate corral.  Unless it is a very small race with no chip timing, YOUR race does not start until you cross the starting line.  I see so many runners line up in the fast corrals because they want that extra head start so they can get to the finish area sooner, but if you line up with faster runners, you will just get in the way, AND you will be more likely to go out too fast because our sensory perception has us speeding up when runners around us are faster.

Steve’s rant about bandit runners:

I am going to break off the topic a bit, but it is something that is related to corrals.  Being a bandit runner. It is a pet peeve of mine. This past weekend several of my runners ran the marine corps marathon. One runner had a bib number assigned to her which had the official chip on it and she ran the race with no issues, although this year there were some logistic problems with security lines being long and the race being held up from starting as well as people not getting through the security lines.  That is something they will most likely fix in the future. But get this. As one of my runners went out to look at pictures, she found a few OTHER runners running with the same bib number, but using their OLD bib from a previous year. Now I can confirm that, but I assume that each runner has a unique bib number, but that is pathetic. These are people that did not pay to run the race, but I am sure it is taking a medal at the end, and probably food.

A similar thing happened at a local race, where runners were picking up medals for their kids by grabbing one and then getting more from other people passing them out. Then the slower runners at the end did not get a medal because they ran out.  This drives me nuts because the people who ran the race deserve to get the medal, not the idiot who thought it would be cute if their child got one, or because they wanted one to frame. Then we see the race directors get slammed because there weren’t enough.  In this case, the race director is ordering more, but I actually saw people with 5 medals. Now they ‘could’ have been holding them for other runners, but I doubt it and I wasn’t the only person who witnessed it. Now I know no one listening would do that because our community is awesome, but I think newer runners who may not know the race protocol may be the ones who do it, not realizing it, but who knows.

So minor little vent there, but thought I would share but let’s get back on topic…

8. Do Not Weave In and Out of Runners

Here is a good one… Once you start the race, don’t get overly anxious, weaving in and out of runners during the beginning of the race.  It is pointless. You really aren’t getting that far ahead and you actually end up using more energy that would be better off used during the race once the crowds cleared out. If an opening is clear, take it. If not, save that energy and wait for the opening. When combined with a good pacing strategy you will end up being faster when you need it, usually at the mid to late point of the race.

Trust me you will make up the time. In reality, you aren’t losing much. Just be patient and when you see your gap, take it but do not waste too much energy. Be a patient runner, it always pays off.

9. Run the Tangents

Here is a little tip, run the tangents (courses are marked from inside corner to inside corner).  A 13.1 race, may end up being 13.5 or 13.7 if you don’t and a full marathon could end up being almost 27 miles. It really adds up, but at the same time don’t get pinched in and trapped if it is a crowded race so pick your battles.

10. Don’t Blow Snot Rockets 😉


Here is a funny one, but one I was the victim of.  Don’t blow snot rockets with runners behind you. I had a guy in front of me a few yards, turn to his side and blow a snot rocket that landed on my leg. I almost puked, and it made me run to the side to look for a piece of trash that I could use to wipe it off. I wanted to punch him, but I wanted the booger off worse.  No snot rockets. PLEASE…

11. Avoid the Crowds at the First Water Station

As you approach a water stop if it is a crowded race don’t hit the first table or tables. That is what everyone else does… run past but also listen to the volunteers as to what they are handing out. They may have both Gatorade/Water but not all races are the same.

12. Be Aware of Your Fellow Runners when Approaching a Water Station

Be hyper-aware of the runner traffic around you. If a water stop is ahead of you, make your way over to that side before you get there. Don’t be the person who at the last minute cuts people off. If you are wearing headphones, be aware of your surroundings as you may not hear that runner right behind you.

I have seen several cases over the year, maybe a half dozen or more, of people getting cut off at water stops, and getting strains, a broken wrist from falling, and having to pull out of a race. Be cautious of your surroundings as you don’t want to be the person responsible for ruining someone else race, but also you do not want to be the victim.

13. Walk Through the Water Station

As you proceed through the water stop, move to the side, and slow down to a walk while you take a drink. Unless you are highly skilled at running while drinking and while not spilling your drink, leave it to the pros.  Otherwise, you will end up spilling part or most of it and not get what you need.

14. Adjust the Gatorade Concentration if You Need to

If using sports drinks at a hydration station, Gatorade is often mixed too weak or too strong.  If too strong go ahead and drink it or half of it, but also drink some water to weaken it in your stomach. This is an easy fix.  If the Gatorade is too weak, drink an extra one.

15. Have a Solid Pacing Strategy


When it comes to pacing strategies, Negative splits are best (in my opinion) for longer races. Negative splits are when you tend to speed up as the race goes on. It helps make sure you do not go out too fast, which will help prolong fatigue, but it also allows you to kick it in towards the end.  Even splits (where every mile or km split is an even pace) is also a good pacing strategy, but for me at least, it is harder to maintain in the longer races as I tend to have periods of high energy and periods of low energy.

Regardless of your pacing strategy, race smart. Dial back if needed if you are heading up a hill and pick up as needed when you feel strong. Don’t burn your legs out on a hill and then be too tired to recover for the rest of the race. Realize, especially in those longer races that you will have ebbs and flows to your energy levels. Sometimes you will feel like crap and start to get anxious, and then a mile later you feel great. This is not that uncommon and something I hear from many runners.

16. Keep Your Head in the Game. Don’t Get Down

Never get down in a race. The minute your mind falls apart, the second your body will too.  Remember that. Never panic. It reminds me of the famous General George Patton Speech.

“Now if you are going to win any battle you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up. It is always tired morning, noon, and night. But the body is never tired if the mind is not tired. When you were younger the mind could make you dance all night, and the body was never tired… You’ve always got to make the mind take over and keep going.” – General George Patton

I love this. It is also why I think many of us struggle to run later in the day. It goes back to the mind/stress/fatigue principle that also makes it harder for many of us to maintain a fitness program.  When things are new, they are exciting and therefore the mind is not tired. But when things aren’t new, or our minds are tired, we are tired.

17. It is OK to Walk

Walk in a race, if you have too. It’s OK. It is not perceived as a failure and in fact, can actually help you catch up on your energy so you can finish strong.  The Jeff Galloway Run/Walk method is based on this principle.

18. Keep Your Mind Occupied with Other Things

If you find a particular part of the race a struggle, try to keep your mind occupied. Put on a faster-paced song, or feed off the energy of the crowd when possible. Start giving High-Fives, thank volunteers, etc. Little kids love getting high fives.  Dance, or be silly. It really will take your mind off the race. I have been known to count the little yellow dashed lines on a street or count mailboxes or play other little mind games to try and keep negative thoughts out of my mind and not focus on running.

19. Keep Walking Once You Cross the Finish Line

When you cross the finish line, keep walking. If you stop immediately, your blood pressure can drop as blood pools in your legs and you could pass out. If you feel dizzy, seek out the medical staff, or if last resort, lie down and lift your feet up. Let someone know if you feel dizzy. Usually, this feeling goes away if you keep moving.

20. Slowly Rehydrate

Once you get to the finish area, slowly get some water in you. Don’t drink it all at once or it may make you sick.  Take small sips and as soon as you can, get some food in you (Again, small amounts at first). Later you can stuff your face, but right after a race, you need to cool down, and slowly hydrate.

21. Have Fun

This is the most important. Have fun. Enjoy the experience. Talk with other runners. Be proud of your accomplishment. Not every race will go the way you want it, but every race should still be worth it. It should be fun.  In fact, not every race should be a competition or to get a PR. That is actually a big mistake I see. People signing up for a lot of races and trying to treat each race as a PR opportunity. Sign up for races, but only go after a few races a year to be those big goal-driven races.  Remember, if you don’t take the opportunity to race for fun on occasion, where you could care less about what your watch says, it will eventually lead to burn out AND racing too much (for speed goals) will ultimately SLOW you down rather than speed you up, if you are not recovering properly.

22. Relax

Relax. The Race is your celebration, trust in your training at all times (before the race, and during the race and you will enjoy it way more, and ultimately get great results.

Do you have any race day strategy tips that I missed?  If so, head over to the private FB group and add your tip to the list.  You can get access to our private FB community by signing up for the runner’s toolkit.

Our community is growing, it’s your community if you want to participate, and let’s keep supporting each other, keep bringing other people into the sport, and keep smiling when we cross those finish lines because I can’t think of a better feeling that race day and watching people do things they never thought was possible.

It was exactly that feeling that several years ago hooked me on running and never in a million years, would I think I would be here today talking on a podcast or chatting about running with friends I made or friends I have never met yet, but that is what makes running so great. Our community, the running community in general, and especially the RunBuzz community. I am so glad you are a part of it.

In next week’s episode, we will wrap up this series with the post-race recovery process and what you should do so you can get back to running quickly after a race.

Happy Running everyone!

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About the Author Steve Carmichael

Steve is an RRCA / USA Track and Field certified running coach who has helped thousands of runners since 2010. He coaches runners online as well as provides speed, agility, endurance, and strength coaching through his company Run For Performance", in Columbus, Ohio. He is host of RunBuzz Running, a top-rated running podcast with 150+ episodes available for free on all major podcast apps. Steve resides in Lewis Center, Ohio with his wife, kids, and dog.

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