Pre-Race Day Tips: Preparing for a Half Marathon

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Alexis S. Tingan, MD, CAQSM"Never change a winning game plan." That's my general advice when counseling patients on their treatment plans. And they are also wise words to follow when considering your pre-race preparations. If you're training for a race — or are about to run your first long distance race, soon — consider these tips to be on your A-game. Penn Medicine is the official medical team for the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon on September 15th and 16th. Get ready for the race with these race day tips!

The Day Before Your Race

The day before a race may be a stressful time for some runners — especially those participating in their first long distance event. The pre-race advice that runners should follow: Don't dramatically change your regular routine the day before the race. Runners should maintain their daily routine the day immediately before the race, considering only a few modifications.

Exercise Is Optional

It is key to remember one thing the day before your race: "All your training is complete."

There is no one-size-fits all philosophy on running 24-hours before a distance race. However, it is advisable to never wear yourself out with a run on this day. For many recreational runners, not running at all the day before the race is the best strategy prior to the race to let the body rest.

Some runners may have pre-race jitters. If this is your case, try light jogging and dynamic stretching exercises to slightly increase your heart rate and warm up your body. Also try to stay off your feet the night before, so that your legs are well-rested for the run.

Eat Clean

A proper diet is vital throughout the entire training process, not just the day before the race. Assuming your diet has been healthy and balanced, the day before your event, you should follow the normal rhythm and style of your daily diet.

You should carefully consider the contents of your last meal based on the time of day you will be running. Most long distances races take place in the morning. If this is the case for you, your last meal the day before will impact your race the most. That evening, be sure to watch your fiber intake, and to avoid fatty, greasy food and alcohol.

Don't Carb Load

Orzo pasta Although eating complex carbohydrates is an important component of the pre-race day diet, carbohydrate loading ("carb loading") could harm your performance. Despite popular belief, you should avoid carb loading the day before your long distance race.

Some runners try carb loading the night before as a last-minute way to have their bodies store additional glycogen (the fuel source that carbs convert to during digestion) in an attempt to avoid hitting the proverbial "wall" (which happens when the body runs out of glycogen). Some runners do this in hopes that this will boost their performance when in actuality, short-term carb loading may just be a set up to feel sluggish and bloated in the morning — especially if you are running for less than 90 minutes.

Hydrate

Pre-race day, make sure you maintain good hydration — as you would any other day. There is little evidence to suggest that "pre-loading" with water or sports drinks offers any benefit to your performance. If you did not regularly drink sports drinks during your training, do not feel tempted to drink them on race day (even if you are offered it on the course).

Prepare Your Gear

The day before the race is a good time to review race day logistics.

sneakers and a notebook on the floor Re-check the weather so you can dress comfortably and know what to expect, especially if your race is in the morning. Plan to dress for weather about 15 degrees warmer than the race start time temperature, as the body heats up during the race (as does the ambient temperature, mid-day)

As tempting as it may be, avoid wearing new gear for your race — including any brand new gear from the race expo. New gear you haven't tested before may not fit as expected, making your run uncomfortable and potentially painful.

Have a Plan

Prep all other necessities, like your race number (and belt or safety pins), and any registration materials to decrease any unnecessary stress on race day morning.

Review your travel arrangements and course route. It's good to have some familiarity with the area you'll be running prior to the race.

Get a Good Night's Sleep

woman reaching for her alarm clock It is essential that your body and mind be well rested for your race. Many runners experience "pre-race night jitters" and find it hard to sleep the night before. Fortunately, there is evidence that it is possible to "bank" sleep from previous nights. If you tend to struggle falling asleep the night before an event, plan ahead to make sure that you are well rested for the week leading up to race day: It will help compensate for any potential sleep disturbances the night before the race.

Maintain the normal healthy habits you use to fall asleep. (If you do not already have them, training for a race might be a good time to start!) There are several advised practices on how to get the best sleep:

  • Try dimming the lights and limiting exposure to "blue light" — the light emitted from TVs, cell phones and tablets — which alters the circadian rhythm.
  • Avoid eating a heavy meal late in the evening.
  • Many people have found that meditation or listening to soothing music can put the mind at ease, helping prepare the body for sleep.

All of these are best practices but if you are already getting adequate regular sleep with healthy habits, you should not dramatically change your routine the night before the race.

Preparing on Race Day

Race day, of course, begins with waking up. It is advisable to never wake up and go straight to the race, as your body will not be ready to perform at its optimal level. Waking up about three hours before the race's start is a well-accepted practice.

Consider having a light carbohydrate meal. Granola bars and bananas are great pre-race foods. Avoid foods rich in fiber (including fruits with skins, such as apples and pears) to avoid bowel movements right before (and during) your run. Be sure to maintain your hydration in the morning with a combination of water and sports drinks. And, as with everything, your hydration should be with moderation and you should not overhydrate to the point where your stomach fells sloshy.

Ideally, you should already have your travel to the race planned out the night before. Arrive at the event one-to-two hours prior to the start (depending on the size of the race). You want to give yourself enough time to register (if necessary), warm up and to find your starting position or corral.

Your warm up should follow a similar routine that you used during your training runs. The one addition you should make to your routine is doing about five 50-100 yard strides at your "race pace" so that your mind and body are ready to run that pace at the sound of the starting horn. Your warm ups will vary depending on both the weather and total distance of the course. In general, races that are shorter require more warm up than longer races. (For example, a half or full marathon on a relatively hot day will likely require less of a warm up than a 5k on a cool day.)

By far, the most important advice on race day is to relax and have fun. You've done all the hard work, now it is time to reap all the benefits!

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