Imagine this for a second: After working and training for months, race day has finally arrived. You’ve trained, you slept well last night and now everything has come together in a performance you were dreaming of.
Sounds ideal doesn’t it? Unfortunately, this isn’t always the reality. Preparing and performing on race day is part of a process that can take years to develop and even then things don’t always go to plan. For myself, race performance has been an ever-growing progression that evolves with each race I complete in. I learn something new about myself with every race, but ultimately, my race day process is a series of tested strategies that work for me.
For me, sticking to a routine creates consistency, which is exactly what I am looking for on race day.
These are some of the foundational strategies I use on race day to ensure I am racing at my best on the big day. As I mentioned in my previous blog, what works for me may not work for you, so take what you need and adapt or leave the rest.
1. Race day wake-up: As an athlete, I tend to be a creature of routine, so whether it is race day or another day of training my routine is very similar. I start, as everyone should, with breakfast. It's the same every day leading up to the race and on race day, to avoid any chance of a meal that will disagree with and may derail me. My go-to breakfast in training and on race day is a banana smothered in peanut butter and a bowl of yogurt and granola. I find this breakfast is easy to digest and it gives me the right amount of nutrients (carbohydrate, protein, and fat) needed to perform at my best. I follow that with 15 mins of activation exercises that include thoracic rotations and modified yoga poses. I like to keep things quiet during my activation routine as I find it is a good time to mentally focus on the task ahead. For me, sticking to a routine creates consistency, which is exactly what I am looking for on race day.
2. Nutrition and hydration: Both of these components can vary depending on both the individual and on the race event and conditions. Climate, race distance and even the location can dictate how much your body needs for fuel and water, so there is no one answer. The important thing to remember is that timing, intake amount and composition of your nutrition and hydration can have a big impact on your race performance, so race day is not the time to shake things up. You should have a nutrition and hydration plan before you start training and stick to it for race day.
There is plenty of good research available on this topic and I know for myself it has been a well-educated trial and error process. If you have the means and access, a sports nutritionist can be of great value as well.
Photo Credit: Bob Holtsman Photography
3. Warm up: Another essential strategy to employ on race morning to ensure that you are both mentally and physically ready. My warm-up process takes about an hour so I like to give myself plenty of time. I slowly ease my body into it with activation exercises such as the ones I do in my morning routine, followed by some easy jogging with added running drills, and short efforts at race pace. If time and logistics permit I will often follow a modified version of this routine that include swimming, running and biking.
Every race is going to get hard at some point so mentally rehearsing how you manage that can be a game changer.
4. Getting/staying focused: It’s during the physical component warm-up that I start to use imagery to picture myself managing and pushing through the hard times to come during the race. Every race is going to get hard at some point so mentally rehearsing how you manage that can be a game changer. Often times the challenge in racing is also being able to focus on yourself while staying acutely aware of what’s going on around you (other competitors, terrain, etc.) Including some imagery that focuses on reacting to multiple possible situations during the race can help make those moments feel less foreign and practiced.
5. Pacing for performance and endurance: Similar to nutrition, pacing is unique to the individual in that there are many options available to determine, track, and assist with pacing during a race. Heart rate, watts, pace per Km, pace per mile and speed are just a few of the metrics that can be tracked by electronic devices to determine pacing. I myself use many of these metrics in training and have tried to use them in racing but ultimately I always fall back to pacing the old fashioned way – by feel. Whether I am swimming, biking or running I use RPE (rate of perceived exertion) to determine my pace and effort regardless of the distance or event. I find I get the most out of myself when pacing this way. Does that mean RPE is the best way to pace yourself in a race? Definitely not, as there are many athletes who are much faster than I that use tracked metrics to determine pacing and do it very successfully. It’s a trial and error process to find out what you're most comfortable with and what works best for you. Fortunately you can practice it in training!
Reading about the habits and strategies of other athletes is a great place to start when you're working to improve your race performance, but it will inevitably come down to trial and error. The key takeaways here are: don’t follow any hard set of rules for the sake of it, and don’t adopt a new technique on race day. My best advice is to take the time to learn about what works for you and build a race day strategy from your own training and experience.