“Wait. I have to run the race?” You GET to run the race, finally! This is the most exciting and nerve racking part of running. For months, you have been running in the hopes of getting to the starting line and now it’s almost here. Race week and the couple of weeks before can be the trickiest of the whole training process. It can also be the sweetest and most enjoyable. Let’s dive in a look at how to approach the lead up to your race and answer some of the burning internal questions you will have swirling inside your head.
Even if this isn’t your first attempt at whatever race and distance you’re running, the question I hear the most is “am I actually ready?” Yes. You are. If you have a good training plan and stick to it well, you are ready. You also are not alone in feeling this way, but you have to trust your training. Remember back to those hard hill or tempo runs you crushed. Or to the numerous long runs that you sacrificed your weekend sleep to complete. Or just look back at the training log/plan to see the work you did. You did it. Trusting the process is a huge part of the next point of race lead up.
Tapering is the process of gradually reducing your miles in the 2-3 weeks right before the race. If you do not trust your training, you will try to cram in extra miles or another really hard tempo run right before the race. What you are actually going to do is sabotage your race day. Tapering does not mean you stop running. It means you are giving your body time to recover, recharge, and actively rest before race day. After training for months and months, your body is tired. Sure, you can probably finish your race if you don’t taper or if you “just back off the week before”, but you need to let your muscles heal, your body replenish its carbohydrate stores (for the longer runs), and get more sleep instead of waking up for those extra miles. You can still do some speed work 3 and 2 weeks out but they will look different. Speed work won’t be as long or as taxing. There is a good deal of variability out there on “how” to taper properly. The general ideas are the same and you will need to figure out exactly what works best for you, but your longest run should be 3 weeks before race day. From there, the next week should be 10-20% fewer miles than the week before (which should have been one of your highest mileage weeks). Week 2 of the 3 week taper should be another 10-20% off of the top mileage. Most plans will top out around 50-60 miles, so taper week 1 should be about 40-45 miles and taper week 2 will be about 30-35 miles. From there, some plans will still tell you to drop more, some will have you adjust the intensity down further. Taper week 3 is race week, so do what you feel comfortable with. I personally drop another 5% on race week.
The theme of race week is “Don’t try anything new”. We make small changes, but nothing drastic. This is the worst week ever to totally change your diet, wear all new running shoes (don’t do that on race day either), or go from only running trails to only running on the concrete. Small adjustments, not giant shifts.
With the decreased running of tapering, you should get more sleep on race week. It may not seem like a lot of extra sleep, but adding 15-30 minutes each night of that week will amount to 2-3 extra hours of sleep. That is prime body recovery time. Sleep is the best thing for our bodies to heal and recover. I love race week because a lot of times I almost feel like a superhero. Your runs are shorter and easier and you are getting more sleep so you feel better. All that training has moved your body into a more fit state, but you are saving it for the race. It’s a fun feeling. Now, when I say “get more sleep” what I mean is keep the exact same habits you normally do. Just get to bed a little earlier, or wake up a little later. Do not drastically switch your sleep patterns. That can be worse because we sleep in rhythms. Your body likes consistency in its sleep and optimizes your sleep based on what you normally give it. (Side note here, if you do not get consistent sleep- you should). If you consistently are an evening runner, you may want to use the 3 weeks before the race to do more morning runs. Most runs start between 7 and 9am and you want your body used to running at that time.
Even non-runners have heard of “carb loading”. Most of the time I hear someone using it for justification to go wild at Olive Garden, but there is science that it can be beneficial. But again, no drastic changes. Don’t try a new alfredo recipe the night before your race, or don’t try to see how many pieces of pizza you can eat at the pizza buffet. You will end up being the one who uses all the toilet paper in the port-a-potties. DO look to include more carbs in your diet that week in small increments spread over a few meals. There is more science to “small increments” but we aren’t going to get into those weeds right now. I meticulously plan my meals starting 48 hours out from the race. These are foods that I know my stomach handles well, are nutrient dense, and are available wherever I may be traveling if the race is out of town. For me, my two biggest “must haves” are my spaghetti on Friday night and my grilled chicken, dry mashed potatoes, and green beans on Saturday night. Find what you like, just don’t go crazy.
Like we said, nothing new on race day and try to limit new things on race week as well. You put in a lot of time and effort into training for this race. Let that show! You do not need a last minute potion to try and carry you through the race. The potion is your training. You’ve got this.