Counting Down to Race Day
In roughly two weeks, I will stand on the starting line for my first marathon. The fourteen days leading up to a race, especially for a half marathon or marathon, are crucial for every runner. It is the time to rest, reflect on all of the work we’ve put in, and to visualize what it will be like for our minds and bodies to go after the goal we’ve been working towards for months, or even years for some.
For others like me who have been training for a fall marathon, our bodies have gone through a beating for several months. We’ve spent hours doing what we love -- running -- while pushing our limits during tough workouts and long runs and pushing away the mental discouragement that we are not strong or capable. Or, perhaps, our minds start to question why we’d choose this on top of our everyday stressors.
The closer it gets to my race; the harder training has felt. I am exhausted by the thought of waking up early for my run tomorrow or spending hours on my feet for my long runs. My mind has been put through the wringer as my confidence has peaked and valleyed with every hard workout I suffer through, every easy run I sing during, and every long run I complete as I cover longer and longer distances for the first time in my life.
But this is the time to focus, now more than ever.
It’s important to note that before I began training, I decided to work with a run coach. She has guided me through all of this mentally and physically; without her, I likely would have burnt out or gotten injured. While run coaches aren’t accessible to everyone, I highly recommend getting the advice from a certified run coach who can properly advise you during training or give some quick tips in the all-important days leading up to your race. The insight I’m sharing comes directly from run coaches whose content I’ve read and the knowledge I’ve gained from my run coach.
I’ve begun the process of preparing for my race in several ways. At the top of my priorities is tapering properly. A taper is the two to three weeks leading up to a marathon when you decrease your training volume and intensity incrementally to ensure your body can adapt to the training you’ve done. For half marathons, that may be one to two weeks. Reducing training volume and intensity can look like gradually decreasing weekly mileage, but maintaining, for instance. That can mean reducing mileage by 20% the first week and up to 60-70% the final week before the race while keeping in workouts that you’ve been doing all along, whether that’s interval workouts at faster paces or strides at the end of a run.
Strength training is a crucial partner to running and I have been committed to at least two days of strength training throughout my training cycle. The taper is a completely different story, though. This is a period for recovery and strength training isn’t conducive to that; the last thing a runner needs in preparation for a marathon is to create more micro-tears in muscle fibers that occur during strength training. So, against my own wishes, I’m drastically reducing the intensity of strength training and incorporating more mobility, stretching, and recovery while I primarily focus on my runs during this time.
The taper is infamously known as a time when runners freak out. They panic about reduced mileage and losing fitness, whether or not they’re going to be ready for their quickly approaching race, and the toll of training catching up to them. The wear and tear that may have not appeared before is appearing now. That can scare runners into believing they’re getting injured, even sick, right before their race. It’s not always the case.
Months of training puts immense strain on the body, which some experts believe can lead to a suppressed immune system. Tapering usually comes straight after your longest run or most intense workout, so sickness may follow because of that, although this hasn’t been extensively proven.
Run coach Laura Norris indicates various reasons for pains during the taper phase, from mental hyper-awareness to changes in blood flow with a reduced training load. As always, it’s important to remain in tune with your body and use your best judgment if you are truly sick or injured to reevaluate your race plan. Health should always come first.
On the mental side of things, the taper is the time when your body is adapting to the changes it has undergone during training and the months of progress, which is why rest is so crucial to allow those adaptations to happen. But that can freak runners out. They’ve been training at such high volume and intensity for months by the time the taper comes around, that the decrease in training load can feel wrong or counterintuitive. If you think about how hard you’ve been working, however, it makes sense that you should let your body rest. Runners should know that the best way to ensure they remain strong and healthy is to nourish the body and sleep.
With a reduced training load, some runners can also fall into the trap of fueling less, believing that they should eat less if they’re training less and burning fewer calories. For starters: food is never earned, it is fuel for life in and outside of running. Especially carbohydrates, which are our bodies’ primary source of fuel, not just for running but for our brains. The last thing we want to engage in during the taper phase—when vital muscle and cardiovascular adaptations and recovery are occurring—is to restrict our food intake. Registered dietitian Laura Moretti provides further insight into nutrition during the taper, emphasizing the importance of listening to your body and keeping yourself fueled and hydrated to ensure you’re healthy on the starting line of race day.
Visualization and Mindset
Any runner knows how much of a mental sport running is. Self-talk can completely shift how a race or run goes. While we can trust that we have put in enough physical work to conquer the marathon distance, the final few weeks before the race is a perfect time to put in the mental work that will help you cross the finish line.
One thing I’m working on is crafting several mantras to repeat to myself during the race, especially at the toughest moments. A tip I heard was to talk to yourself in the second person, for example telling yourself, You can do hard things. That’s been one of my most-repeated phrases. Some other mantras that help me and may be helpful to other runners:
Trust your training.
Run the mile you’re in.
Each step moves you forward.
You are strong, you are capable.
It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be. (credit: RunToTheFinish, more mantras found here too)
Another tactic that many runners and athletes of any sport use is visualization. You can practice this while sitting with your eyes closed or even during a run, when you can place your body in the situation of a race. The benefits of a reduced training load during a taper is having the time to visualize, and I encourage runners to schedule a time in a day leading up to their race to prioritize their racing mindset.
Arguably one of the most important parts of visualization is identifying your purpose, the “why” of your training and going after an ambitious goal. For me, my why stems from an ongoing desire to push my body to new limits, but also to show love for myself. Training for a marathon in and of itself is an accomplishment, showing that dedication and commitment to something so intimidating, but so special for thousands who have completed it around the world. By making the choice to train and race a marathon, I’m telling myself that I believe in myself. I’m showing love for my mind and body by doing something that isn’t simply good for my overall health but pushes me to new limits while I redefine and strengthen my relationship with my body, my mind, and how I care for both.
Next is visualizing the race. Not just the finish line, not even the starting line and the finish, but the whole race. Every moment. That means the highs and the lows: the exhilaration of being among a sea of runners who all have their own purposes and love for running, the support of strangers and loved ones who will keep you going when the race gets tough, and how you yourself will battle those tough moments and yet again prove to yourself how strong and capable you are. Think: when the race gets tough, when I question if I can keep going, how will I respond?
That’s when running mantras come in handy as you tap into your own willpower that got you to the starting line in the first place. It’s also when you can think of your loved ones and everyone who supported you to accomplish everything you already have. I took to sending my family a map of the course, specifically telling my dad, “This part of the race will probably be when I’m suffering the most, so if you could be there that would be great.”
I know that in the most seemingly insurmountable parts of my marathon, I can rely on myself—but seeing my partner, my parents, and my brother cheering me on and the pride in their eyes will keep me going more than anything. I’ve found even the cheers of race volunteers can make me smile when I’m truly in pain, as I think about the beauty of how this sport brings people together.
You must remember hard moments pass, and you’ve gotten through plenty already. But stubbornness can be a detriment to some runners. While we never want to envision having to drop out of a race, it is a possibility, and the point of race visualization is to explore every possible scenario and how you will respond. Accepting that as a possible outcome is important—especially if dropping out of the race means preventing further injury or more dangerous situations. Put your health first. There will always be other races, and you want to make sure you can be there for them. One of my biggest running goals is to make sure I can run for as many years as possible, so while dropping out of a race may damage my ego temporarily, I know that initial sting will go away as I ensure I have many years of running ahead of me.
Of course, stay optimistic and believe you will achieve your goals, no matter how ambitious they seem. Believe you are the runner you want to be on race day. Don’t forget to visualize the most fun part of it all: crossing the finish line. My favorite thing to think about is the sight of the people I love most cheering for me as I step across the finish line and conquer a distance I never imagined I would come close to running (nor that I thought I’d ever want to run). I can’t begin to describe the joy and excitement that overwhelms me with that image, and that’s what I’ll be holding onto every second of my race.
Create a Race Day Plan
The last thing you want to do is to go into your race and completely wing it. You’ve already invested so much time and energy into extensive training. It’s time to dedicate some of that intimidating extra time during the taper to sitting down and creating a race day plan. A part of that plan will come from all of the mental visualization work, writing down your mantras and how you will approach challenges during the race.
A race day plan can entirely depend on the type of person you are, but any plan is better than no plan. Long-distance endurance races are already intimidating enough, and amid the race day anxiety you don’t want to panic about not knowing if you have everything you need or have done all of the necessary preparation. For me, I’m an extensive planner, so my race day plan will feature the following components:
My plan is not suitable for everyone. Some people might get more anxiety from planning so much, but I know it helps keep my mind calm knowing exactly what I need to do to prepare.
Above All, Listen to Your Body and Trust Your Training
It sounds simple, but it is so important to practice these two things leading up to your race. Nothing is guaranteed on race day; you can plan everything down to the tiniest detail, but as I once heard from a running podcast: The marathon owes you nothing.
Despite that, the most crucial preparation you can do is believe in yourself. We are our own harshest critics, but on race day, we must be our biggest cheerleader. Listen to your body when the effort feels too hard and pull back so you can stay in control and enjoy your race. Listen to your body when it tells you that you’re feeling good and you’re able to push the pace. Most of all, trust your training. Trust that you’ve put in the work and you’re ready to take on your race. You are in control of your race, your body, and your mind.
Good luck to everyone running a fall race!