Prepare to Run Your Best Race

Published August 12, 2022

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Woman in a headlamp and running gear runs a trail race at night.

Remember: Safety is your responsibility. No internet article or video can replace proper instruction and experience — this article is intended solely as supplemental information. You should consult a medical practitioner before significantly altering your exercise or nutrition routine.

Signing up for a race — whether it’s a 5K or an ultramarathon — can be exhilarating and nerve-wracking at the same time. You might imagine yourself striding across the finish line, your hands raised in triumph. You might also begin to envision the hard work you’ll have to invest in your training, like lacing up for long runs or sweating through track workouts. The hard work and unpredictable elements are what make running a race both exciting and daunting.  

Ask any athlete or coach, and they’ll share the training strategies they swear by. But what methods work for runners whose backgrounds and levels of experience vary? The truth is there are plenty of things you can do to set yourself up for a great race, regardless of the objective you’re training for. Practices like healthy fueling, positive thinking and getting ample rest can help you feel your best when it’s time to toe the start line.  

Read on to discover our evidence-based tips for how to run your best race, or jump ahead using the links below:  

 

  • Nutrition: How healthy eating can help your body perform and recover.  

  • Mindset: How mental training can support your physical conditioning.  

  • Rest: How recovering properly helps you get stronger.  

 

Nutrition

Many runners have been there: Three-quarters of the way through a tough workout or race, your head starts to spin, and you wonder if there are rocks in your shoes. You might feel shaky, or as though you’ve run out of steam. You might also feel close to passing out. For many runners, the feeling shows up near the end of a race. Some call it ‘bonking’ or tapping out. Others call it just plain overdoing it. Whatever the label, those feelings are a clear signal that your body needs fuel. Experts agree that eating enough food during the day and throughout your training block is a key step to helping your body perform its best on race day. Read on to learn strategies you can try to help you accomplish this, like training your gut and intuitive eating.  

 

Have a Variety of Foods and Eat Enough of Them  

It’s a good rule of thumb to eat three meals a day and two snacks when you’re training for an event. Focus on eating a minimum of three food groups with every meal. So, for lunch, you might eat a turkey sandwich, an apple and a cup of yogurt. Fueling this way helps ensure you get ample macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats). Colorful foods (think dark-green vegetables and vibrant fruits) tend to be rich in vitamins and minerals, which help offset muscle damage. For snacks, aim to include at least two food groups. A banana (carbohydrates) with nut butter (fat and protein) or a smoothie with yogurt (protein) and berries (carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins and minerals) could do the trick. Energy bars and gels work in a pinch, too. The most important thing is to eat enough calories to fuel your daily activities. What that amount is will vary according to your training volume and body composition. Dieting, or eating in a calorie deficit (eating fewer calories than you expend), is not recommended when training for races, as it can lead to RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport), a condition which can have serious negative health implications for athletes. Consult a registered dietician if you’re unsure about how much food is enough.  

Read more: What Runners Eat Before They Run 

“I don’t leave the house without snacks,” said Coree Woltering, a 32-year-old mountain ultra-trail runner who has competed in multiple distances and events and set a fastest-known time on Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail in 2020. That light-hearted advice is part of a serious fueling strategy that prioritizes eating enough food around the time when Woltering is most active. Nutritionists call this within-day energy balance. The concept is simple: You enhance your performance by eating enough food before and after your workouts.  

Learn more: Nutrition for Runners 

 

Train Your Gut to Eat (and Drink) at the Right Time 

You can time your meals to make sure you’ve digested and absorbed the energy from your food into your bloodstream, where it can help your body perform. If you’re planning to eat a big meal with plenty of fat in it, time it three to four hours ahead of a run, so you allow plenty of time to digest (fats take a longer time for your body to convert to fuel compared with carbohydrates). For a moderate meal, plan to eat about two to three hours before your workout. Aim to snack 30–90 minutes ahead of a run. With any meal or snack, it’s a good idea to incorporate all the macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, fats), but carbohydrates are particularly important to prioritize ahead of a workout because they are your body’s main source of fuel during exercise, and they’re easy to digest. 

But say you’re an early riser and you like to make running your first activity of the day. You might think, “There’s no way I can eat breakfast before a run; my stomach will be in knots!” But you can train your gut, just like any other muscle in your body. To give yourself the energy you need to perform during your workout, set your alarm earlier and plan to have a meal at least one hour ahead of your run. Start with carbs; they’re your body’s main energy source for high-intensity activities, like sprinting and running fast. Cereal and toast are foods your body can easily convert to fuel. You can work on adding in more complex carbohydrates (think whole grains) from there. 

A woman and man choose select groceries from a market.

If you can’t wake up earlier, you can still fuel before you head out the door or even at the start of your run. Try simple carbohydrates that will hit your system quickly: a small glass of fruit juice, a spoonful of jam, a handful of crackers made with white flour or a performance gel. 

After a run, you need to put calories back in before returning to your daily activities — including work or school — because your brain runs on the same energy that your muscles run on. Focus on eating three food groups in a post-workout meal or snack to cover the macronutrient bases. Prioritize protein, which helps your body repair damaged muscle fibers. The timing of your meal and the amount you’ll need to eat depends on your race goals and body composition. Woltering, who typically runs every day and sometimes twice a day, eats something directly following each workout. But non-elite runners can aim to eat something an hour or two after a workout or run. A snack (like energy bites) or a meal with some protein (for example, chicken kebabs) allow your muscles to begin to repair. If you didn’t eat a full breakfast before your morning run, plan to have it after. 

The same is true for hydration: You may think you can’t drink water before heading out on a run or sip from a hydration vest when you’re out on the trail. But you can train your gut to accept water the same way you can train it to tolerate food. Again, start small. Maybe try a sports or energy drink — they have the desirable bonus of replenishing electrolytes, which is crucial when you sweat a lot. Make sure you hydrate consistently. A good rule of thumb is to drink at least half your body weight in ounces per day. When your urine is light-yellow, it’s a tell-tale sign that you’re appropriately hydrated.  

Read more: Hydration for Runners  

 

Mindset

Mindset training is a new area of study within athletics, but the practice itself has been around for a while. Among experts, “mindset” can imply different things, but most agree that it has to do with cultivating a certain mental attitude to help get you through challenging moments.  

Once upon a time, the belief was that mental stamina was a byproduct of training hard. Aka, repeatedly sprint up a steep hill during training, and you’re bound to feel confident tackling a race with lots of vert. But research is beginning to reveal that mindset, and not just repetition, influences physical performance. Take this small study, which showed that mental fatigue affected athletes’ endurance or this analysis, which revealed that practicing a psychological intervention called cognitive behavioral therapy can improve pain tolerance, which may, in turn, help athletes perform better.  

You can train for a race without paying much attention to your mental state and potentially do just fine. But if you’re interested in mindset training, there are a couple of techniques to try.  

 

Mindfulness  

The crunch of leaves beneath your sneakers. A cool breeze on your cheeks. The smell of the trail after it rains. If you’ve tuned into these sensations on a run, you’ve cultivated a taste for mindfulness. Observing what’s happening in the present moment, without judgment, is how many experts define the practice. Studies show mindfulness may benefit our brains, especially the regions responsible for memory and learning, emotion regulation and perspective taking. And research reveals that mindfulness benefits athletes, including by helping them stay present and find flow,  a state popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihayi in which you become totally immersed in an activity.  

You can focus on putting one foot in front of the other when you’re fully present. And when you aren’t dwelling on a past mistake (like missing a workout or two) or a goal (like making negative splits) you’re more likely to make sound decisions for yourself and your body. Mindfulness can also allow you to more deeply enjoy your activity — which is probably the reason you signed up to run a race in the first place.  

30-year-old ultrarunner Clare Gallagher attests to this. She won Western States in 2019 and holds fastest-known times on the Trans-Zion Traverse and Joshua Tree Traverse. But the grandness of those accomplishments isn’t front of mind during her training. For her, mindfulness means slowing down and appreciating the little things — like being able to sit, breathe, drink her coffee and eat her breakfast in the morning. She brings that mindfulness to her running. The point isn’t to boost performance, though Gallagher’s noticed that tuning into the present moment does allow her to run better. “When it’s working, I notice how excited I am to run,” she said. Even on rough days, where she’s struggling with motivation, she said, “I just get out slower, and I enjoy every step.” 

Read More: Can Mindfulness Make You a Faster Runner?  

A woman in black running clothes stands on a pier with her hands on her hips, looking out to the water.

Try a Mindfulness Practice  

To slow down and be mindful, try a simple grounding exercise. Find a comfortable seat, and with your eyes softly open, identify the following:  

  • 5 things you see 

  • 4 things you can touch 

  • 3 things you can hear 

  • 2 things you can smell 

  • 1 thing you can taste 

Then, pause and observe. How do you feel? Breathing can also help you slow down. For this exercise, you can be sitting, lying down or even walking. Begin by taking a deep breath and exhaling it out. Then, breathe in for four counts, hold your breath for seven counts and breathe out for eight counts. Repeat for three rounds. Then, resume your normal breath.  

 

Positive Self-Talk 

A side benefit of practicing mindfulness is that you’ll likely be better able to observe how you coach yourself through challenging moments — a concept experts call positive self-talk. Try to notice your inner voice during tough periods on the road or trail. Do you berate yourself when you aren’t running fast? Do you coach yourself through difficult training sessions? Try to notice your patterns without judgment before attempting to make a change.  

Once you’ve taken time to observe your thoughts, choose a negative thought to reframe. One way is to acknowledge the effort you’re putting into your running. Say you run for five minutes one morning. You may find yourself thinking, “I can’t believe I only ran for five minutes!” But see if you can reframe that thought. You might practice saying something like, “I’m proud of myself for working toward my goals, even though I ran for less time this morning than I have in the past.” 

Positive self-talk takes time. Tackle just one thought at a time, and don’t expect change to happen overnight. Remember that it’s possible to honor your discouragement while simultaneously being kind to yourself. What advice might your best running buddy have to offer during a tough moment? Take that positive stance as much as possible and be kind to yourself.  

“I like to say that you can do anything for 10 seconds at a time,” the mountain ultra-trail runner Woltering said. “There are some days where you feel like you’re saying that all day. But you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, until you decide to stop.”  

A note about distraction: Tuning into yourself and your running has its benefits. But what about letting your mind wander? Many runners fantasize about the post-workout meal they plan to eat after a big effort, for example. A recent study found that runners’ performance improved while watching videos during a workout, rather than focusing on how they were feeling. At the end of the day, experts agree: Do what works for you. Mindset training is more about how you work through challenging moments than expecting yourself to be fully present or positive all the time.  

 

Rest

It’s natural to focus on running when you’re training for an event. Each week, you might try to run a certain number of miles, distributed among different types of workouts (to find training plans and tips for runners, visit the Expert Advice library). But rest is a critical component of the training equation. For some runners, rest might be a day of the week when they do absolutely nothing — no running, cycling, swimming or other cross-training. But rest can also be active recovery — think taking a yoga or Pilates class or doing banded mobility work.  

With all the demands on our attention, it can be overwhelming to think about where to fit rest in. But it doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Here are some evidence-based strategies to try. 

 

Prioritize Sleep  

Experts agree: All runners need sleep. In his book, Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker, a professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at UC Berkeley, explains that getting less than six hours of sleep at night can have implications for athletes including a reduction in aerobic output, blood oxygen saturation and a dip in the body’s ability to cool itself through sweating, among other things. 

Maybe you squeeze in your running workouts early, before work. Or perhaps you run late, once you’ve met your daily responsibilities. Whatever you do, aim for about eight hours of shuteye per night during your training block. Research shows that extended sleep — adding an hour or two of sleep to your nightly routine — is the best way to boost performance and recovery. And don’t sacrifice the last couple of hours of sleep to a workout, if you can help it.  

 

Try Active Recovery  

Your body repairs damaged tissues and replenishes its energy stores on a rest day. Active recovery — a low-key form of exercise that doesn’t raise your heart rate the way cardio does — sends blood and oxygen to your muscles, further aiding the healing process. Most active recovery workouts feature strength work to develop your stabilizing muscles (think your hips and core) and stretching, to help you stay flexible.  

How to Practice Active Recovery 

If you’re new to active recovery, start slow. Yoga and Pilates are ideal forms of active recovery, in that they typically challenge us to move in multiple planes of motion, which research shows helps athletes avoid injury. Or, if you have access to a foam roller, you could pair a walk or easy hike with this foam-rolling routine

Read more: Yoga Poses for Runners 

Swimming, an easy bike ride or a mellow hike can also be considered active recovery, especially if it means that you’re dialing back the level of intensity and challenging your body to move in new ways.  

A woman in black yoga clothing rolls her IT band on an orange foam roller while lying on a yoga mat.

Plan to Taper  

In the craft of garment making, to “taper” means to tailor back. It’s the same when it comes to race prep: For runners, tapering means reducing the volume and frequency of your workouts in the weeks leading up to your event. But tapering doesn’t mean “Do nothing.” You can even go for a (low-key) run the day before your competition. Here’s how it works.  

When you reduce the number of miles you run during the weeks leading up to race day, you allow your musculoskeletal system to repair itself. You also boost your aerobic enzymes, blood plasma and your body’s glycogen storage, all of which allow you to perform more efficiently on race day. Tapering also helps reduce the risk of overuse injury.  

So how do you taper? Most experts agree that you should tailor back your mileage by about 30 to 50 percent. To calculate this, consider the total number of miles you’re running each week, and reduce accordingly. You’ll want to make a similar adjustment to the distance of your long run, if that’s part of your training. And, if you’re strength-training with low reps and heavy weights, it’s a good idea to pull back on those activities, as well.  

The length of your taper depends a lot on your race distance and running history. In general, most runners taper anywhere from one to three weeks before the race. It’s also important to listen to your body — especially toward the end of your training block. How tired are you? You’ll want to reduce your activities so that you’ve got pep in your step when you arrive at the start line.  

A final note about rest: All runners go through periods when they feel less excited to run. But when you consistently lack the motivation to lace up your shoes, or you’re in pain, it’s time to rest. Take a couple of days off from activity completely. And, if symptoms persist, consult a medical provider.