General racing tips

The cross country championships at Parliament Hill - photo by David Knight

The cross country championships at Parliament Hill

“The race is the tournament.  It is the trial.  The race for me is what the mountain is to the climber, what white water is to the canoeist.  The race, where I can be a hero, is a contest where I give my word of honour to go out and do battle with myself”.

George Sheehan, Personal Best

George Sheehan, the runner, writer and philosopher, said that the difference between a jogger and a runner is a race entry form.

Not everyone enjoys racing; but every runner should try it a few times.  You don’t need to be especially fast, or competitive.

Almost none of the runners in a race has any expectation of finishing first.  Races are where we test ourselves, celebrate what we have achieved and face up to our own limitations.  We engage in a personal struggle with ourselves, supported by the runners around us.

Choosing your first race

Your first task is to pick a suitable race.  Get a copy of one of the running magazines (for example, Runner’s World) which list races; or you can ask members of your local running club.  Pick a race in your local area. Generally it is a good idea to start with a shorter distance such as 5km.  Avoid hilly courses for your first race.   You will need to pick one that is sufficiently far in the future to give you plenty of time to train – aim for three to four months.

General racing tips

Running your first race can be pretty nerve-wracking if you don’t know what to expect.  Here is the low-down.

Enter in advance. Most races of half marathon or shorter can be entered on the day, but this can be a hassle.  It is better to send off your entry form at least a week before the race, so that you get your race number through the post. Get the address of the organiser from Runner’s World, or use a Universal Entry Form (which you will find in magazines or on the internet).

Plan what to bring. The night before the race, pin your number on your vest, and lay out your clothes on a chair.

Packing list

  • clean dry clothes, including t‑shirt, underwear, socks
  • change of shoes
  • toilet roll
  • Vaseline
  • money
  • bananas
  • recovery drink
  • safety pins
  • race number
  • bin-liner to wear at start

Pin your number on the front of your shirt.  Cyclists pin their number on their back; runners on the front.  This enables the organisers to record your finishing time.

“I once ran a ten mile race in a new pair of shoes.  After 3 miles I got blisters.  I spent the rest of the week hobbling around and couldn’t run for a fortnight.  So don’t wear new shoes in races.”

Sally Hodge

Arrive early.  You don’t want to feel rushed.  Give yourself at least half an hour – preferably more – to change, go to the toilet, and hand in your bag.

Start slowly. By far the most common mistake in races is to go shooting off with faster runners.  Take it easy at first, and you can speed up towards the end if you still have the energy.  According to Hal Higdon, one of the most prolific writers about marathons, every 10 seconds a mile you run too fast at the start of a marathon will cost you a minute a mile at the end.[i] When the starter’s gun goes off, you will have to fight the temptation to be swept along in a rush of adrenaline.  Maintain a comfortable pace, and chat with the runners around you.  In the last mile or two, if you feel strong enough, you can really pick up your speed, and pass runners who have gone off too fast.  If you find that the race is congested near the start, don’t try to dodge through the runners.  Wait for the field to spread out a bit, and then close down the gap later.  Trying to overtake other runners at the start uses up energy, and encourages you to start too fast.

Finish looking good. There will often be a photographer at the finish, and you want to look good in the photos of your first race.  Look up as you cross the finish line, and if you are switching off your stopwatch, don’t obscure your running number.

Enjoy it. Your first race is very special, and you will remember it for years to come.

Warming up and warming down

The purpose of warming up is to get your body prepared for running.  The shorter the race, the more important it is to warm up.

Your metabolism takes some time to adjust to the higher level of energy output you need while you are racing.  Your heart rate needs to increase, your blood distribution needs to be redirected to your muscles, and your temperature regulation system needs to adjust.  If all this is happening in the early stages of the race, you will be performing below your full potential.  If you start a race without warming up, your body will try to produce a lot of energy quickly and will have to use anaerobic metabolic pathways which produce lactic acid, which will cause you to fatigue quickly during the race.

Ideally, you should start to warm up about 30-40 minutes before the race.  Run a couple of miles, beginning very slowly and gradually increasing the speed to just below your threshold pace (see Chapter 10).  This will get your energy systems working.  Then stretch quietly for 5-10 minutes, particularly the hamstrings, quads and calf muscles. Finally run up to a mile, at an easy pace but including some strides at your race pace.  You should finish your warm-up about 5 minutes before the race is due to start.  If the start is delayed, try to keep yourself moving, by running on the spot if necessary.

The exception to all this is races longer than the half marathon, for which you should do a much lighter warm-up. Because the limiting factor in these races is your energy stores, you don’t want to start to deplete your glycogen before the race even starts. You may want to jog for half a mile, working up to your race pace, to get your metabolism going, but you should not do any high-intensity running before the race, as this uses mainly glycogen which you will need later on.

The purpose of “warming down” is to help your body return to normal after the race, and in particular to keep the blood flowing so that you clear the waste products from your system more quickly.  After a short race, you should jog gently for 10-15 minutes at a very easy pace.  If you are too tired to do this, you should try to walk briskly instead.

Again, the marathon is an exception. At the finish line of a marathon, few of us feel able to move at all, let along jog.  But as we shall see in the next chapter, you should at least try to keep moving after the finish, so that your muscles don’t tighten up too much.

[i] Hal Higdon, Marathon: the Ultimate Training Guide, Rodale Press, 1999

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