Just hours after completing a recent marathon, I raised a bittersweet toast to a race I was already eager to forget. Training for it had cost me countless pancake breakfasts with my kids, and attending it nearly emptied my bank account. But instead of basking in the PR I'd promised my running buddies, I flashed back to futile porta-potty stops, wardrobe malfunctions and a scary mid-race bonk. How did I go so wrong?
You don't have to be new to racing to mess up. I've run seven marathons and 12 half marathons, and I've heard many more experienced runners say even they have stepped into the same common pitfalls that ruined races for me. But I've had enough. After consulting with good coaches, I now have a game plan to avoid these blunders next time out. Read on and be the beneficiary of my mistakes.
1. I Trained Wrong
As a native Coloradan, I have long assumed my mountain-girl lungs would have me feeling downright bionic at sea level. But it turns out running trails at altitude in subfreezing temps is not the best way to train for humid, low-elevation road races that can get surprisingly warm in the middle of the course. "That's one of the biggest mistakes I see people make," says Henry Guzman, a Boulder, Colorado coach who has run 101 marathons. "If you don't train for the conditions you're going to be racing in, your body won't know how to adapt to the course or to the terrain."
Lesson Learned: Tailor your training to your event.
If you're traveling to an event, there's not a lot you can do to control elevation and climate changes. But you can study the surface, average weather and elevation of your event, and plan your training accordingly, says David Manthey, a coach with Runner's Edge of the Rockies, "training specificity is key."
For instance, runners targeting a road race should do at least 65 percent of training (most long runs and some speed sessions) on asphalt. This gets your body used to the pounding and repetitive motion of running on the roads. Hitting trails and park paths for easy runs, recovery runs, and some hill workouts helps you avoid overuse injuries, says Manthey.
If your race is in warmer climes, do a few long training runs in the hotter part of the day, wearing extra layers. When Chris Clark of Anchorage was training for the 2000 Women's Olympic Marathon Trials—which would take place in Columbia, South Carolina—she did long runs of up to 20 miles on a treadmill, with the heat cranked up and the fan off. (It worked, she won the Trials.)
Elevation changes prove more logistically challenging. Ideally, those who live above 6,000 feet should try to drive to lower elevations for a few marathon-paced long runs. Flatlanders preparing for a higher-altitude race should get up high for a few training runs. High-intensity hill workouts can also help you get used to being oxygen-deprived. And be realistic: Lower your goal time by 10 to 30 seconds per mile for a flat course above 5,000 feet—and even more for a hilly route.
2. I Got Psyched Out
Because I am a resident of Estes Park, Colorado, you might assume I have a home-field advantage in our local marathon. Indeed, many experts say training on the actual course is ideal physical and mental preparation for what you'll face come race day. But I felt like I knew too much. Miles before the dreaded climb around mile 17, my body and psyche were already revolting in anticipation. I surged on an early downhill, and then slowed way down on a relatively flat stretch before the big climb, two voices in my head arguing over whether I should bank time or save energy. By the time I faced that hill, my quads were trashed and my momentum was sapped by nerves. It ended up being one of my slowest finish times ever.
Lesson learned: Prep body and mind.
Study the course's profile and plan workouts to match the terrain you'll encounter. If you're training for a hilly race, spend one day a week training on uphills and downhills. "You need to learn how to run smoothly and efficiently going downhill so you can absorb shock with your quads better," says Sean Coster, a Portland, Oregon-based coach and exercise physiologist, "and also learn how to transition into running uphill when you're eccentrically fatigued from running downhill." Incorporate strength-training exercises like lunges and squats into your routine, and do a few hill repeats at the end of a run when you're already tired.
To counter dread, use visualization and mantras. A couple of weeks before race day, picture yourself running up your hill with strength and power, "picking your knees up, pumping your arms, and breathing deeply," says sports psychologist Kay Porter, Ph.D., author of The Mental Athlete. Establish a mantra like "strong" or "powerful." Plan to draw on those images and words. Once the gun goes off, take your race one mile at a time. "People get ahead of themselves and freak out," says Porter. "Try to stay in the moment."