I got asked this the other day when talking about my upcoming half marathon (less than four weeks now!). Before I started long distance running - well, even when I trained for my first ever half marathon three years ago - I didn't really grasp or embrace the concept of a race plan. Back then, my idea of fuelling during the race was keeping liquorice sticks in my sports bra. I'm sure you can imagine what a mess that ended up making ;) And even though I visited the site of my first half marathon race a few days beforehand, I hadn't really thought about the course itself, and what I might do if I ran into any problems along the way. This thinking had to change radically when I started training for the marathon. Investing so much of myself into preparing for that race, and reading everything I could on the subject, planning how I would actually run the race of my life became just as important as the right shoes, the right fuel and making sure I had my timing chip on tight enough.
So, what is a race plan? Basically it's a detailed plan of how you are going to run the race. It could also cover what you will focus on during it, how you will fuel yourself and how you will manage your strengths, weaknesses and anything else that might happen on the day.
Speaking from experience, having a race plan really helps. When you've invested so much time, energy and effort into training for a big race you want it to go well and you want the whole experience to be as stress free as it possibly can be! So here's my tips for a good race plan:
1. Break the distance down into less scary chunks.
Like a weight loss journey, if you have 30kg to lose and constantly focus on the big number, it can be a bit overwhelming! Last year when I was training for the Big M, I had to build up my distances pretty quickly. I found out I was in the race at the end of January, and my first half marathon was the first weekend of March! I had no idea how I was going to run it, save for just slogging it out and walking when I had to like I had the first time. Instead, Coach Julia broke it down for me into this very manageable, far less scary run:
4 x 5km run with 300m walking breaks in between
A half marathon doesn't sound that bad when broken down that way, does it? :)
It really made sense to schedule in walk breaks for this distance - it kept me going when I was feeling tired, knowing that I could stop at X point. You can do this with any distance you might be running. If you were running a 10k for the first time, for example, you could break it down into 3k chunks, with a 300m walking break in between. It's totally a mind game, but it really does quell the whole I'll never be able to run that far! panic that sometimes sets in. It still does for me, even now. I have done a few 10k training sessions these past few days and it has really hit me just how far a half a marathon is (!) but thinking about it in this way has really helped.
2. Study the course.
Most big events will have a course map available online or as part of your race packet you get beforehand. You might get lucky and get an elevation graph as well which will show you where the hills are! Have a look at the map and think about what parts of it might be challenging for you. How will you deal with these? Think about your strengths and weaknesses as a runner. Do you find the first 3 miles the hardest, and then do you tend to hit your stride after that? Do you tend to hit a wall around mile 8? How will you manage these things you know about yourself as a runner, with the course in mind?
Also, try and check out some of the course if you can. Feeling prepared and knowing where you're going on the day really helps calm those post race nerves!
3. Crowd control.
If it's a huge event, you might find yourself utterly swamped at the start and for the first couple of miles. If you're used to being a lone ranger on your runs along virtually deserted country roads, this might be a bit of a shock! Think about how you might deal with this. The best advice ever given to me was by Ray, the guy from the Loch Ness marathon, who advised me not to panic or waste energy weaving in and out of the crowd. Start slow, be patient and it will eventually thin out and you can make up time then.
|what my fridge looks like at the moment! ;)|
This is so important, especially for a big distance. Have a good breakfast on the morning of the race, with all the things you know help you run well (for me it's bananas, Lucozade bars, liquorice, bagel with jam) but also think about fuelling during the race. Will there be water or sports drink pit stops on the course? This is where checking a map of the course will come in handy, as they will usually put refreshment stops on the map too. It was recommended to me to drink a sports drink over water on the course if possible because not only do you get hydration but also electrolytes, salt and carb replacement and other nutrition from the sports drink, so that's what I do now and it really does make a difference. I can see on the map of my course that sports drink is only available at every second stop. That is handy to know :)
Will you have other fuel on you, in your spi belt, zip pocket or arm wallet? Are you a beans or a gel person, or maybe you prefer carrying dates or jelly babies or some other easy to digest fuel? At what points in the race will you fuel? For a half marathon, I plan to have something at mile 6 and then again at mile 10 if I need it. Whatever you decide to have on you, make sure you've trained with it! You don't want any nasty tummy surprises on the day!
Remember there's always a possibility that the water stations or sports drink station might have run out at the moment you're passing through so if this will be a big problem for you maybe try to have a back up if you can. Ask your support crew (see next point) to carry a spare bottle of sports drink or packet of sports beans that you can grab off them if you need to.
|Tom and I at my first half marathon in 2009! |
He was my boyfriend then ;)
5. Bring the family!
If you have support at the race, that's fantastic - it really makes such a difference seeing friendly faces in the crowd. One of my favourite things about my first ever half marathon was that it was 6 laps of a park, so I got to see Tom with his "Go Phil Go" t-shirt on every 2 miles :D If you've been able to look at the course and identified some possible challenge points, maybe ask your support crew to be at those places if possible to spur you on? If you know your mates are going to be at Mile 9, it helps getting through Miles 1-8 a bit easier!
6. Think about your ideal pace and time.
Do you have a timing goal for the race? Do you want to beat your PB? Or do you just want to have a good run and cross the finish line? What sort of finish do you want to have? If you're a slow and steady runner like me, you may have to sacrifice speed earlier on so you don't burn out towards the end. For example, at the London Marathon I really wanted to run the last 3 miles without stopping because that was where the biggest crowds were, and where Tom and his friend were going to be cheering me on! I really wanted to finish strong and not have to stop and walk. With that goal in mind, it meant I had to stop and walk earlier in the race than I hoped I would (around 15 miles) but it was important for me to think of the big picture and weigh up what was more important - being able to say I made it to 16 miles without stopping, or having the finish I wanted?
Be prepared for your goals to change on race day too (see last point)
7. The power of the mind.
This is the trickiest thing of all! Running is very much a mind game and the body just comes along for the ride, I've found. Think about how you will motivate yourself during the race. What things do you like to think about during training that make the miles fly by? If you hit a wall, what will you focus on to help get yourself going again? Is there a particular motivational saying that really speaks to you? Write it on your hand :) Is there a particular landmark on the course that will signal that you're nearly there? For me, that was Big Ben when I ran the London Marathon. I had held that image in my training from the start and when I finally saw it on race day, a mile from the finish, it was such a profound and exciting moment!
8. Flexibility is the name of the game.
Being prepared and thinking about how you will handle anything that might not go according to plan does wonders to keep you relaxed and confident as the race day draws near. Chances are if anything does go wrong you'll be better placed to handle it because you've thought about it and come up with a plan. But race day may throw you a few curveballs and it's important to keep your goals and plans flexible in that event. Sometimes your goals change halfway through the race - mine often do. I remember my Nike+ iPod thingy failing during two of my half marathons last year and so I had no idea whether I was keeping up with the pace Julia had told me to aim for during the race - I freaked out at first but then realised I just had to keep going and do my best. Despite the most meticulous preparations, not every run will be a great one and often the only way you find out it won't be a great run is when you start :P
But if the worst does happen, you know what? You're still out there doing it. You've still trained hard for this and you'll get through it, no matter what happens. The important thing is to stay focused and mentally strong, and think about the bigger picture. That always helps me. As my mate Martin Yelling said, "you can't be brilliant every day and every day can't be brilliant." Just do your best and try to have a great run!
If you're a runner, do you think about a race plan in the lead up to your event? Any tips to share? :)