Strategies to improve your race-day performance

Preparation for race day is more than just training. Proper planning will ensure you're at your best when the gun goes off.
I've seen it often: great runners who fail to deliver on race day. They train hard, but after the gun goes off, something goes wrong, and they run a sub-par race. Don't let that happen to you. Here's how to get the finishing times you've worked for.

Know your race

Don't be surprised by the course on race day. Check the race Web site for course descriptions and an elevation profile. Find the hills and note how big they are. If you're running a marathon, look it up on to review comments posted by other runners for helpful tips.

Preview the course, if possible. If it's a local event, you can cover it in your training runs. If you're racing out of town, try to follow as much of the course as possible by car the day before. Look for key sights that will signal upcoming hills or flat stretches.

Plan your race

In the final weeks leading up to your race, you should prepare a race-day strategy. Begin by honestly assessing your training. Have you done enough speed work? Have you put in your long miles? Have you been injury-free?

Use your answers to set an attainable target finishing time. Break that time down into mile increments to calculate your projected pace. Remember to adjust the actual split times for each mile to account for big hills, flat stretches or downhills. This is your roadmap to your goal. Memorize it, or write it on a wristband or on your arm.


Sweating the details in the last few days and hours before your race is crucial for putting you in a position to run your best. Try to get more sleep during the week before, especially on the night two days before the race. It's not unusual to have pre-race jitters ruin your sleep the night before the event, but if you've banked enough rest earlier, it won't be a problem. Drink more and eat well, but sensibly.

You should also nail down your transportation to the start and review your gear. Make sure you have everything you need laid out the night before your race, so you don't have to look for anything in the morning. The idea is to remove as many distractions and as much anxiety as possible before the race.

Run your race

On race morning, make a last-minute assessment of the conditions. Is it hot? Raining? Freezing? Weather conditions could make or break your race, and there's not much you can do about it other than respond as best you can, and consider adjusting your goals and expected pace. Use a garbage bag for a pre-race poncho, or wear throwaway clothes in cold weather. If the temperature climbs above 70, forget your race goal and just run for fun.

Once the gun goes off, don't be fazed by the people around you. Stick to your race plan, even if grandma is passing on your right while your legs feel like caged tigers. You've already crunched the numbers; any last-minute changes are likely to end up costing you later in the race. And if you run smart, you'll likely pass most of these people later.

By the time you reach the middle of the race, you'll likely have a pretty good idea of how you feel and how realistic your goal is. If you're feeling terrible, consider slowing down or dropping out, so you can save your legs to race again when you might do better. But if you feel great, you can increase your pace slightly over the last few miles and finish strong.

Get inspired

You'll probably feel fatigued in the last few miles, but that's fine: it just shows that your plan was reasonably ambitious. Here are a few tips for hanging tough.

Remember all your hard work. Think about the hard training and sacrifices you made to get to get this close to your goal. Start an internal conversation about the countdown, such as, "We only need 15 more minutes of hard running. Just 15 minutes. I know we can do that."

Run the race within the race. Pick out a runner ahead of you and decide you can beat him or her. Nothing else matters except catching that runner. When you pass that person, pick out another one, and continue to do that to the finish. Use these imaginary competitions to get through the tough parts.

For example, decide that you're going to drop the runner next to you on the hill. Most runners slow for a moment's recovery when they crest a hill. A sudden burst of speed at the crest will usually surprise the runners around you and leave them in your dust. Playing this game is more fun than just suffering alone.

Finish strong

Once the end is within sight, it's time to empty the tank. No need to pace anymore; you'll be done in a minute or two, so you might as well go for broke. Race the big clock in front of you, or race those around you, but turn on the afterburners and fly.

Follow these tips, and you'll have plenty to smile about after you cross the finish line.

Reprinted, courtesy of Windy City Sports Magazine. For more articles and information for Windy City Sports, please visit

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