I have been running most of my life. Sometimes for weekly cardio and other times to unwind and detach for an hour or so. Although I don't consider myself an amazing runner by any means, I have been active my whole life. Nevertheless, besides a few runs over 13.1 miles, and a handful of 5K's, I have not participated in many structured runs.
There are a lot of things that I learned while preparing for, and racing in the half marathon. Some of them I did well, others I did not. Hopefully my experience will give you the information needed in order to make your next race a success!
Start Your Training Early
There are very few people that can complete any given task without training. Although I didn't train for longer than a week prior to competing, I seriously wish I had. For those who are pretty active, give yourself at least a month to train. For those who are a little less active, and/or haven't run further than 5K, give yourselves much longer (around 10-12 weeks, working up to at least a run per week at 4-5 miles)
Hydrate and Fuel Properly
Running has a funny way of telling you if your body has or doesn't have the right amount of fuel and water to function properly.
I’ve never consumed Gu before (The fructose based, carb-packed, single serving ‘goop’), but I'm so glad that I did. They recommend that you consume one 45 minutes, and one 5 minutes prior to your run, and then every 45 minutes following that. Just as O would feel my energy levels start to drain, it would be time to consume another Gu. The effects were felt almost immediately.
Most people have the assumption that drinking water right before your run is perfectly fine. However, the process of proper hydration should be taking place up to 48 hours before the race. I doubled my normal water consumption, to the point where it was irritating having to use the restroom all the time, but paid dividends during the run. I had better and more sustained energy, and my pace didn't suffer after the first couple miles.
Sodium plus other vitamins and minerals play an important factor in water retention during physical activity. With proper hydration, your muscles are able to absorb and retain water at a quicker and more efficient pace. This means less chance to get cramps or soreness from lactic acid buildup.
I have lots of athletic clothes, but not all of it is optimal for running. It's important to pick clothes that have a couple different aspects.
If you have ever jumped into a pool with all of your clothes on, thats what I would have looked like if hadn't I worn clothes that were moisture wicking. Not only does it keep your body cool by shedding that hot sweat, but it also keeps you light while running due to not retaining as much absorbed water (your sweat). Sticking with polyester or synthetic fabrics with NO COTTON is the best way to go about this.
I jokingly bought a pair of short running shorts with a 3” inseam, but it turns out that shorter shorts help prevent your inside legs from chafing. On the flip side, by wearing long shorts, they get weighed down over time, sticking to your legs as you’re running, and potentially limiting your leg movement. A win in my book with the short shorts!
I chose shorts that were lighter in color. Lighter colors reflect light and don't absorb as much heat, keeping you cooler during the run. If you haven't noticed a trend here, we want to stay as cool and comfortable as we can during a race.
The Day Before the Race
If you've ever heard about high school and college athletes having "pasta parties" the night before a race, it's because it works. Since your body's preferred source of energy is stored carbohydrates, you want to absorb as much as possible. During the run, your body will convert this stored glycogen to glucose to use as energy. This will give you the resources needed to perform on race day.
BEWARE: stay away from greasy and oily food. Pizza, Cheeseburgers, and anything else that will bog you down. When you take in processed and junk food, your body shuts down other functions of the body to devote its resources to digesting. This hurts runners because it can impair performance and make you feel sluggish. You want to stay as close to whole grain and unprocessed carbs as possible. Whole grain breads, pastas with light sauce, and quinoa are some great options to consider. Wash it all down with a couple large glasses of water and get plenty of rest
Race Day Morning
Wake up early and eat a LIGHT meal. My race day breakfast consisted of three scrambled eggs with two pieces of Ezekiel bread and water. Be less concerned about eating enough, and more concerned with eating TOO much the morning of the race. You want to accomplish 13.1 miles without losing that breakfast. Carb loading the night before gives you the luxury of eating a smaller meal, so you can be light on your toes
At the Race
I got there about an hour before the race started. Most would say that one hour before is when you should arrive so you can find parking, but I feel I could have gotten there with half the time to spare and done just fine. Do your due diligence to find out info about the race so you don't show up late. Generally, bigger races = more people = harder to find parking spots.
The bathroom line by the start gets dangerously long when you are t-minus 10 minutes from the start of the race. I know that there are unexpected circumstances that come up, but walking an extra two minutes to the port-o-potties down the street can save you 10 additional minutes of waiting (and suffering) right by the start.
At the Corral
For some of the longer and more well known races, they have what is called “pace groups”. These are runners that are sometimes offered by the race to allow you to finish at or before the time you strive to achieve. An example would be the “1:45” pacer. Their goal is finish at or faster than 1 hour and 45 minutes (they usually finish around 1-2 minute faster though). Therefore, you can pace along side this group if you don't want to be doing division in your head to try and figure out your pace every time you pass a mile. These pace groups are clearly marked, so it's another option you have.
During the Run
There are usually a lot of people that cheer you on during a race, and it's one of the best things about participating. Read every sign, high-five every kid who holds a hand out. Nothing is that important where you can't take a minute to appreciate all the supporters.
Utilize Every Water Stop
Even if you don't drink all the water in your cup, the last thing that you want is to dehydrate early. It can seriously crumble your run and motivation.
Trust Your Pace
I get it, races are exciting, adrenaline is pumping, and you are fueled properly. The biggest mistake that runners make during a big race is starting off WAYY to fast and burning themselves out after only a few miles. Like we say in Charge runs, start off a little slower until your body naturally speeds up, then mellow out. For the first three or four miles of my race, it felt like I was running painfully slow, but once I got to mile 10, I couldn’t have been happier that I paced myself out right and was able to maintain that pace to the finish.
Crossing the Line
As you are passing the finish line, make sure you try to take an appealing photo. I failed to do so (see left). My finish line picture was of me pressing pause on my Garmin watch, and could have looked way better than it did. So be sure to suck it up for just another few seconds and take a cool photo.
...Like I said, make sure you take a better photo than I did...
Take advantage of all the freebees that are handed out. Cold towels, gatorade, bananas, power chews. Your body is starving for calories, and providing it with these lost nutrients may help in recovery. Plus the cold towels and bottled water will help cool your body down (and they're free).
Post Workout Recovery
STRETCH! Your body may be tight in a bunch of places, and stretching will promote recovery and prevent injury during the days following a big race.
I like to do active recovery versus complete rest days of no moving. This allows your body to stay limber while the muscle recuperation runs its course. Foam rolling, stretching, and yoga are all great options to consider for loosening up tight muscles during the healing process.
There are tons of different racing events by various companies, some more elaborate than others. During my experience, I learned what worked well for my body and what didn't work well. Separate individuals will have different reactions to training and therefore will need different approaches. I highly recommend testing strategies during shorter races (such as a couple 5ks) to determine what will work best for you during longer runs.