By Sheila Monaghan for Men's Journal
With weeks, or even months, of training behind you, and mere hours until you toe the line, the day before a big race can be even more stressful than the act of racing itself. It's a single day, of course, but what you choose to do that day can either put the finishing touches on a perfect training calendar or derail your chances at a dream race. To keep you on the right track, we asked experts to share their tips for an ideal final countdown.
Check Your Luggage
Why tempt the baggage gods? If you're flying to a venue, carry your race gear onto the flight, says Jonathan Cane, an exercise physiologist, former Cat 3 cyclist and co-founder of City Coach Multisport in New York City. "Your race is a big deal to you, but probably not high on the airline's list of concerns, and a missing bag with your shoes, helmet, and gear will effectively end your race before it starts. I tell my athletes, yes, it's super cautious, but it's better to go with a belt and suspenders than have your pants fall to your ankles."
Take A Long Flight
Whatever mode of travel you take to a destination race, be sure to take regular breaks to stretch out and stay loose. "Extended sitting on the plane can cause problems," says Cane. "Get yourself an aisle seat so you can stretch out a little, and walk around every one to two hours to get some blood flowing."
Explore The Race Expo
Do what you can to resist to the siren song of a race expo. Yes, shopping gear sales or scoping out food samples would normally be considered an athlete's good clean fun, but the day before a race, they're temptations that can affect your performance. "Aside from collecting your bib, there is nothing at the expo that is imperative for your race," says Francis Laros, a USATF-certified coach with City Coach Multisport. "By all means check out the displays, but don't buy anything new to wear or eat on race day. Those shoes won't add inches to every stride, they'll probably chafe your feet, and that new gel is as risky on your digestion as gas station sushi."
Take On New Advice
Yet another reason to limit time spent at expos, athlete briefings, official pre-race pasta parties or any place where athletes might congregate: You'll have plenty of together time on the big day, but on the eve of your race, your comrades could actually psyche you out. "Everyone has an opinion on what the right training is, what shoes to wear, what to drink, all of that," says Cane. "Even if it's good advice, it's too late to take it, so hearing all of it will only breed anxiety and insecurity." For that same reason, Cane advises against staying at the race's official hotel in favor of a quieter location with fewer nervous athletes.
Become A Couch Potato
While too much time on your feet can be detrimental, a short workout is better than none at all the day before a race, says sports nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald, author of 80/20 Running. "A sensible format is 20 minutes at low intensity followed by four to six hard efforts lasting 15 seconds apiece. This will relieve mental and physical tension and keep the body primed for performance." Whether it's a shakeout run, a quick spin to loosen the legs, or a warm-up lap of the lake, a mini session the day before will keep you sharp for the race day's efforts.
"If you're traveling to a race it can be a great way to see a new city," says Cane. "But do your sightseeing after the event. Spending a lot of time on your feet is a surefire way to undermine your race." Your day-before agenda should be limited to the necessary activities and a super-short shakeout workout but fairly little else. Fitzgerald learned from experience, after suffering a horrible first marathon the day after spending hours on his feet at an expo. He took a creative approach the next time around. "When I ran my second marathon in San Diego, my family told me they wanted to visit the zoo," he says. "Remembering my previous experience, I told them I would take them only if they pushed me around in a wheelchair. They did exactly that, and the next morning I had a great race!"
Most pre-race athletes can be found double-fisting water bottles. But there's no need to compulsively chug fluids - it won't let you skip aid stations during the race. "You are not a camel," says Fitzgerald. "You cannot store vast quantities of water with which to forestall dehydration during tomorrow's race." Drink normal amounts of water the day before. When you're hoping for as many uninterrupted hours of sleep as possible, overdoing it will only add extra nighttime bathroom trips.
Eat A Big, Late Meal
"If you are running a hometown race there is no need to go out with friends for a pre-race dinner," says Laros. "Simply stay home, prepare your food, eat, lay out your race day clothes, gear, and nutrition, set multiple alarms and go to bed." Whatever you can do to keep things as close to your training routine as possible will pay off on race day - meaning, during your training season, you should treat your weekend long workout as a practice run for race day. The night before your race should thus be a carbon copy of that pre-established ritual. If you are racing away from home, Laros recommends making an early reservation at a restaurant close to your hotel. "Remember that the celebration is post-race, so don't linger," he says.
A 5K is not carte blanche to go nuts on the pasta. But if your race will take 90 minutes or longer to complete, Fitzgerald says, you can and should carbo-load. "There are two ways to do it: Get 70 percent of your total calories from carbs for the last three days before the event or eat 4.5 grams of carbs for every pound you weigh on the last day before the race," he advises. It's a specific approach, but science supports it: In a study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, runners who met these requirements before running the London Marathon finished the event 13.4 percent faster than did their peers.
Gloss Over The Pain
Mindless entertainment is great to keep nerves at bay, but definitely devote some time to mentally tuning into the task ahead of you. "When you lie down in bed on the eve of a race, take some time to mentally rehearse the event," says Fitzgerald. "Imagine the effort, fatigue, and discomfort you will feel as you push toward the finish line. Research has shown that athletes who expect a race to be hard are able to tolerate a higher level of discomfort within the race and get to the finish line faster. If you don't brace yourself to suffer, you may be unpleasantly surprised in a way that compromises your performance."