8 Ways to Maximize Your Race Performance

Following a smart pre-race routine will help you run your best

After months of tough training, race weekend has finally arrived. You’ve purposefully built a strong level of aerobic strength, you’ve fine-tuned your fitness, you’ve improved your speed and you have taken proper steps to taper. Still, if you’re like most runners, the final 24 to 48 hours leading up to a race can seem like a never-ending wait to get to the start line.

But have patience! After months of hard work, the last thing you want to do is sabotage your race effort in the final days. Follow these simple tips to take advantage of the end of your taper, and you’ll be able to maximize your performance when it counts.

1. Pre-race fueling

Even if you lean toward a low-carb diet, race week is the time to make your diet more carbohydrate-focused. About 2-3 days out from your race, begin to increase your carb intake so that high-quality carbohydrates, including whole grains, vegetables and fruits, make up about 70-80 percent of your total calories.

The day before your race, you’ll want to avoid any sources of carbohydrate that pack a lot of dietary fiber. Less whole grains and fiber mean less work for your digestive tract, and will be less likely to cause any stomach upset.

And don’t feel the need to stuff yourself at dinner before your race—stick with a normal size meal. Overeating the night before is counter-productive and will leave you feeling sluggish on race morning.

2. Shakeout run

While some runners want to rest as much as possible in the final days before a race, too much rest can be counter-productive. While you should follow a training plan that allows you to taper appropriately, running the day before your race is beneficial for most runners.

Running a short shakeout the day before your race will help keep you loose and calm your nerves. As long as you stick with a distance that is suitable for your level of experience, it won’t make you tired on race day. For most runners, a 20- to 30-minute shakeout run is appropriate. How fast you run is up to you and how you feel. Many runners will start with a slow jog to warm-up for 10 minutes or so, then run at a moderate pace or even execute a few short fast surges that mimic the next day’s race pace before using the final 10 minutes to cool down, do a few striders and perhaps some easy stretching.

3. Navigating the expo

You may have heard it before but it bears repeating—don’t overdo it at the race expo! Aside from your shakeout run, stay off your feet as much as possible the day before your race. (If you can plan on getting your bib from the race expo two days before your race, that’s even better.) No matter when you’re get to the expo, be quick and efficient: get in, get your number and get out. Don’t spend time looking at all of the new gear, clothing and gadgets at every booth. The last thing you want is to stand on your feet for hours the day before an important race. After training for months, don’t ruin your race for a day of shopping or sightseeing.

4. Clothing and gear

Whether you’re traveling to a race in advance or driving from home, it never hurts to be prepared for all possible race conditions. This is especially important for inclement weather such as rain, cold or excessive heat. The larger the race, the more time you will likely spend standing around and waiting for the start. So be prepared with extra clothes to stay warm and dry while you wait. That might mean packing an older long-sleeve shirt that you can toss before the race. Some runners will even fashion a garbage bag into a throw-away shell by cutting holes for their arms and head.

Either the day before your race or earlier in the week, lay out every item you’ll need on race morning. Early start times on race day may cause you to be tired or distracted, so don’t leave anything to chance. It’s also easy for an exhausted runner to get chilled once the race is over, so pack something to put on after the race as well. Think of the little things too, including safety pins to affix your bib to your race shirt the night before the race and perhaps stashing a small tube of anti-chafing gel in a pocket for late-race comfort.

5. Mental preparation

While most runners spend an enormous amount of time on physical preparation for races, they do very little mental training. But it’s never too late! The 24 hours prior to your race is a perfect time to add some mental preparation to your routine.

If you have never done any sort of mental preparation, try to visualize the race from start to finish. Picture it in as much detail as possible, all in a positive light and a best-case-scenario outlook. Think about how you’ll feel throughout each mile, and envision yourself successfully crossing the finish line.

You can also visualize how you’ll respond positively to any challenges you face, whether it’s external factors like weather or simply fatigue in the later miles. Know in advance how you’ll need to meet challenges, whether they’re obvious or unexpected.

6. Sleep

When race week arrives, try to get as much extra sleep as you can. That might mean changing your daily routine a bit, eating meals earlier, skipping your favorite TV show or putting off daily household chores. Many runners and coaches consider the night before the night before (two nights before the race) as the most important night of sleep. If you can get a good night of sleep on that night, you’ll be well rested no matter what kind of sleep you get the night before your race.

With pre-race nerves, it’s not unusual for most runners to sleep poorly the night before the race. If you can’t sleep, don’t panic. Try to rest quietly, and even try a positive visualization if sleep continues to elude you.

7. Race-day breakfast and hydration

On race day, do your best to stick with the same pre-run fueling you have used in training. If you’re at home this is simple, but if you’re traveling you’ll need to be aware of your breakfast options before you arrive. Travel with your own food if necessary or confirm that your hotel has something similar.

For a longer race, try to eat a full meal about 3 hours prior to the race. Continue to hydrate until an hour before start time, sipping water or an electrolyte drink (especially if you’ll be racing in hot or humid weather). This time schedule will allow you enough time to digest without too many trips to the port-o-potty. (But make sure you know what your pre-race bathroom plan will be so you don’t get stuck in a long line!) Some runners also prefer to top off their glycogen stores with a gel or small amount of easily digestible fuel about 15 minutes before the gun goes off.

8. Warm-up routine

The final, essential piece of your pre-race schedule is your warm-up routine. Generally, the longer the race, the shorter your warm-up needs to be. For a marathon, a few minutes of easy jogging and simple dynamic warm-up is all that’s needed.

Shorter races will require a warm-up of 1-3 miles that includes a slow jog and some short bouts of uptempo running to help prepare your body for harder, faster running. Finish with 4-6 strides and you’ll be ready to start the race.

Finally, the wait is over. With this pre-race routine you’re perfectly primed to head out on the course and push for a new PR!

Jason Fitzgerald
Jason Fitzgerald is a 2:39 marathoner and the USATF-certified coach behind Strength Running, an award-winning blog and podcast that helps runners set personal bests. His work has appeared in Runner's World, The Washington Post, Health Magazine and many other major media publications. Follow his work on Twitter at @JasonFitz1 and at StrengthRunning.com.