I am not an expert — about running, or about much of anything, really. What I am, though, is stubborn, and general bull-headedness will, over time, give you a certain type of wisdom. So. That’s me. I’m stubborn and I like to run. I’ve been running — sometimes a lot, sometimes not so much — for 20 years. I’ll run when it’s great outside and I’ll run when it doesn’t make sense. I’ll run on bad roads, in bad weather, with a bad knee. In the process of all this running, somewhere along the way, I’ve learned a few things. I don’t pretend to be a role model, but I hope that reading about my mistakes might make your race day just a little better.
1. Don’t wait for the perfect day to head out the door.
Because, quite honestly, if you wait, you will look out the window forever. The weather is almost never going to cooperate. Wind, rain, heat, snow, mud are all an intimate part of the running experience, so it’s best to get acquainted. And sometimes, that spring day that looks so sunny and breezy and perfect turns your run into a pollen-choked death march. I suggest finding a time of day that you prefer to run (I’m partial to early morning — partly because there are fewer people around to see me blow my nose on my shirt) and committing to it. Then, run your butt off. Run when it’s cold, run when it’s hot, run when it’s wet…human beings aren’t completely weatherproof, but we do have some built in weather resistance (If you’ve ever taken a 45-minute shower, you know what I mean). Running under different conditions keeps things interesting and helps develop resilience and durability. Race day is unlikely to be perfect, so by running wherever and whenever, you’ll be ready for anything and much less likely to bail on the race if the weather isn’t sublime. And sometimes, race day will dawn clear, cool, and flawless. Much better to be pleasantly surprised by decent weather, than bitterly disappointed by horrible weather.
2. Don’t wear new stuff.
Everyone tells you this. Wear your oldest, most beat-up running clothes on race day. Wear the stuff you always run in. But, you cry, who wants to look like crap in front of a thousand people? Merchandise is on sale before a lot of races. Why not buy something cute and look great and color-coordinated striding over the finish line?
Let me tell you a story.
There was once a runner who fell in love with a running bra at a race expo. She bought the pretty running bra and wore it for the race. Mile one — all is well. Mile two — still good. Mile three — uh oh. And it just got worse from there. The running bra seemed to contract the wetter it got. Finally, when she started having a hard time drawing a deep breath, the now-panicked runner approached a young Marine in uniform manning a water station and asked, gasping, for him to cut her bra off. He snapped a salute and responded “Yes, Ma’am!”
Thank you, sir, for your service.
So, you see, knowing your clothes can be important. There are enough variables on race day that are completely out of your control; your clothing should not be one of them. New clothes can be unpredictable, so wear your old friends. Unless your running shorts are so threadbare that they might disintegrate mid-race (which has happened to me, so beware of that, too), resist putting on something shiny and new moments before the gun goes off.
3. Don’t eat something weird.
The night before the race, and even the week before the race, isn’t the time to be adventurous with cuisine. Eat nutritiously, certainly, and even consider loosening the reins just a bit to allow yourself a treat before the real work starts. But eat what you know. Eat what your body will process efficiently and will pull energy from. Don’t try something new, or trendy, or even all that interesting. Right before race day, boring food is good food. Nutritional plans may not be exciting, but they are reliable; deviating from them can have disastrous results, ranging from a slightly upset stomach to full-blown gastrointestinal rebellion. I will spare you the gross story — but just to let you know, it involved a burrito, a broken portable toilet, and a very lost car key. Avoid standing in that long line at the Port-O-Johns and looking for that perfect bush to hide behind along the race course. Eat ordinary, not weird.
4. Don’t run the race before running the race.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the routine of training, and forget about the necessity of resting. The rational part of the brain quietly asserts that rest helps to build muscle and repair injuries. Rest is necessary. Rest is allowed. Rest is good. The big, loud, irrational part of the brain bellows “Run more! More is better! More is more!” Running long and hard all the time seems like the right thing to do, but the body isn’t capable of responding to physical stress without also being offered an adequate opportunity to recover. The days before the race aren’t intended for one last workout and then one more; they should be used for a deliberate and restorative recovery, so you arrive at the starting line feeling refreshed and eager to run.
5. Don’t freak out about not sleeping.
A week before a race, any race, I stop sleeping. I run the race over and over in my head. It like I can’t turn my brain off. I get even more anxious watching those minutes when I should be asleep slide by. Acknowledging my fear (of not starting, of not finishing, of getting lost, of losing my shorts) and then distracting my crazy brain, though, are two things that calm my nerves. Music helps, but Books on Tape (Books on iPod?) actually work better. A gentle voice, reading me a story, is soothing and stops me from fretting about all the sleep I’m not getting. I’ve listened to the same book, the same voice, for years now. I have no idea what the story is, but it’s one of my favorites. Don’t worry too much about feeling keyed up and nervous, but find a way to rest not just your legs, but your brain, as well.
6. Don’t let little aches become big injuries.
My calves are demanding divas. If they could wear tiaras, they would. If I don’t treat them like the precious princesses they are, they will jerk to a stop right in the middle of a run, when I am farthest away from where I left my car. Regular massage, both before and after workouts, was ultimately the only thing my calf cramps responded to. I had to first acknowledge that I had a problem, though, before I could do anything about it. Powering though a run only made my calves cry harder and cramp longer. Understanding how your body is moving and feeling before, during, and after a workout is an important first step. Be present while you’re running. Identifying a small irregularity gives you a chance to intervene. Massage is so much more than self-indulgent pampering; it is a tool for staying healthy while you are training. Using regular massage as a way to stimulate blood flow, lengthen tissues, and work out little tight places can help address those nagging aches before they become more lasting, and painful, injuries. And…massage just feels amazing!
By Mary Chervenak, PhD