Friday, six in the evening. Your boss has said goodbye, stepped into the lift, and headed off to do whatever bosses do for weekends - clean the whips, practise sarcastic put-downs, perhaps. You close the time-wasting website you've been browsing since lunchtime, switch off your computer, begin your commute home and start looking forward to Sunday. Because, of course, Sunday is race day. And to help you achieve your Sunday best, Runner's World has put together a step-by-step guide to the perfect race weekend.
Friday 18:00 - Home Time
The words "relaxing commute" are rarely uttered, particularly if you work in the middle of a large city. Relaxation is the key to the perfect race, so you might as well start now. If you usually run or cycle home, then take the evening off. Any exercise you do now won't improve your race performance, but it could prove detrimental - at best it'll tire you out, at worst you might pull something on the trot home. Commute by train or car? Then try to bag a seat by catching an earlier, less-crowded train or leave the office early to avoid the busy traffic. You could even treat yourself to a taxi ride and let someone else swear at the other drivers for you.
19:00 - Make a plan
Once you arrive home, you might be tempted to slump in front of the television and put your feet up before tucking into your evening meal. Save the television until later, though, and think about your race. Victor Thompson, a sports psychologist, feels that the Friday before a Sunday race is the perfect time to plan. "Sitting down and planning for both the lead-up to the race and the race itself is a great idea," he says. "It will help increase your confidence and the likelihood that you'll hit your race goals. It will also improve your focus: many races have been blown by what the runner's done in day before their race." Write down a plan of action. Thompson suggests that you leave nothing to chance and double check and note down your travel plans. If you're cadging a lift with a running partner, give them a quick call to confirm pick-up details. If you're travelling further afield ensure you have your train tickets, or flight details and passport ready. You can even use this time to pack your non-race bag. Write a list of all the things you'll pack into your race-day bag.
19:30 - Make another plan
Now is the time to finalise your race plan and goal. "Whether your goal is to set a PB, have fun or simply finish it's well worth reminding yourself of it and ensuring that it's still realistic," says Thompson. "Thinking about your goal now will boost your motivation, give your race purpose, shape your race strategy and, eventually, help you evaluate your race performance." If you're aiming for a specific race time, work out your target mile or kilometre splits. Choose even splits or a slightly faster second half. Write the splits upside down onto your number or keep the plan safe and copy it onto your forearm when you arrive at the race.
For many of us, Friday night is curry/pizza/beer/more beer night. You might think that indulging on the Friday before a Sunday race will give you adequate time to flush out the toxins. Sure, some people can neck eight pints and a plate of vindaloo and still run on Sunday. Few of them will set PBs or finish with a smile, though. If you really must have a tipple then just have a couple and follow each alcoholic beverage with a non-alcoholic drink. Then, before you go to bed, drink at least half a litre of water. As for food, if you know a mild curry won't ruin your insides, then go ahead, but even 36 hours before the gun goes it's best to stick to a tried-and-tested high-carb, stomach-friendly meal.
21:00 - Relax
Go on, you deserve it. Chill out in front of the television - maybe watch an inspirational running film. Not too inspirational, though, you really don't want too much adrenaline pumping around you body as you need to sleep tight.
22:00 - Sleepy head
A good's night sleep will be vital tonight. A study in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that it's the sleep you get two nights before a race that matters. The study found that athletes' VO2 max (an indicator of aerobic fitness) wasn't adversely affected after one sleepless night; it was lowest two days after sleep deprivation. Don't stay up late either: "Have as much sleep as you can before midnight and aim to be in bed by 10:30," says Dr Roger Henderson, a GP and marathon runner. "Even if you're nervous or excited you are still resting and any sleep you manage before midnight will be crucial to your recovery time." Henderson suggests you try to perfect your sleep routine in the fortnight before your race so that you stand a better chance of feeling rested before the race.
Saturday 08:00 - Wakey, wakey
Ideally, the day before your race should be a day of relaxation. Don't set your alarm, try to wake up naturally. Don't jump straight out of bed either, give yourself 30 minutes to ease into the day. Relax with the paper and a glass or two of water or juice - this will allow you to wake up fully and help keep you hydrated.
08:30 - eat breakfast, but hold the Joe
Don't skip breakfast - although you'll be relaxing today, you still need energy so have a good first meal. If you're still feeling a little sleepy you might be tempted to brew a strong coffee. Henderson says that you should try stay away from the bean, though. "Try to avoid too much caffeine," he advises. "This can be tough if you are a coffee addict, but it may give you more natural energy and prevent post-caffeine slumps."
09:30 - Hair of the dog
We realise that some of you may have ignored our Friday night booze embargo - maybe it was actually your boss's leaving drinks. If you feel a little heavy-headed then rehydrate with sports drinks and water. Again forget the coffee, the traditional favourite for beating booze-induced headaches will only dehydrate you further. Whether your head throbs or not, fill a water bottle, carry it around with you wherever you go and drink regularly.
11:00 - Stop! Don't shop
The cupboards may be bare, or there might be a fantastic offer on underwear at Marks & Spencers, but today is not the day for traipsing around the supermarket or shopping centre. "Put your feet up as much as you can and do as little as possible," says Henderson. "Save your energy for the race." If the race is really important then you might even have to be selfish and refuse to help your other half weed the garden, take that heavy wardrobe to the dump or keep your mother-in-law entertained.
12:00 - Snack attack
You want to keep your energy levels topped up today. "You should spend the day grazing on light carbohydrate-rich snacks," suggests Nick Anderson, a coach. It's the perfect time for a toasted bagel with peanut butter or jam. And another swig from your water bottle.
12:15 - Urine luck
Whenever you visit the toilet, check the colour of your urine to ensure that you're well hydrated. If you're drinking enough then it'll be almost completely clear. If it's the colour of Irn Bru, you might need to drink a little more.
13:00 - Check it out
If you've entered a local race, or you've travelled to the venue early, then run the rule over the course. "Grab a course map and if it's possible take a drive over the route," says Thompson. "Familiarise yourself with the hills, check for the locations of the drinks stations and take note of any areas of rough ground." Once you've taken the lie of the land, Thompson suggests that you return to your race goals and make sure that they're still do-able. "If you've gained some new insights into the race then modify your goals accordingly," he says.
15:00 - Damn, more relaxation
Just as the morning was all about taking it easy, so should the afternoon. It's the perfect time to finish the novel you've been struggling through, or catch the latest Will Ferrell comedy. Basically, find something to do that won't stretch you physically or mentally.
18:00 - Eat up
Now you need a tried-and-tested pre-run supper. "The best pre-race meal should contain plenty of carbohydrate and some protein," says Henderson. Whether your race is a 5K or a marathon, pasta topped with meat sauce is always an excellent pre-race choice. If the meat is turkey, even better - turkey contains trytophan, an amino acid that aids sleep. For a real power meal, enjoy your pasta with a high-protein salad - mix the greens with vegetables, chickpeas, cheese, chopped ham or tofu for a salad that'll keep you fuelled overnight and ensure that you don't wake up starving in the morning. If you find yourself feeling hungry later on, have another, small carbohydrate snack.
19:00 - Get a head start
"Run the race in your mind," says Henderson. "Performance visualisation is a powerful tool and one which can make the difference between a personal best and an average performance. Visualise where you may have trouble in the race and project yourself coming though these sections and feeling stronger again. Think of how you feel when you are running well and imagine how good you'll feel finishing the race."
20:00 - Final checks, and relax some more
Grab the notes you made last night and pack your race-day bag. Tick off your checklist and then, as you did last night, relax. And definitely don't be tempted to have a little drink to help you unwind.
22:00 - Just do it
It's time for bed again and we know that sometimes the excitement before a race can manifest itself in unusual ways - don't worry though, if you had a good snooze last night you can indulge. "The old adage that avoiding sex before a race helps you run faster is misleading," says Henderson. "There is evidence that many athletes actually perform better the day after having sex. This may be because they feel less tense and still have the endorphin-like chemicals released at climax flowing around." Just make sure you're asleep by midnight.
Sunday - 06:30ish Up and at 'em
Ideally, try to get up two hours before you need to leave for the race. Start with a shower, some gentle stretching and drink 500-750ml of water to replace any fluids you lost overnight
07:00 - You're a tiger
You spent some time visualising success last night, and you should do the same this morning. Again, go through your perfect race scenario, put on your favourite up-tempo music and, basically, make yourself into a happy runner.
07:10 - Breakfast of champions
It's vital every day, but breakfast is absolutely essential on race day. You will have burnt 400-600kcal overnight. Try to eat at least two hours before start time and your meal should be high in carbohydrate, modest in protein, and low in fat. If you're racing over 5-10K, then aim to eat 400-500kcal. Try one energy bar and 250-500ml of sports drink or one whole-wheat bagel spread with jam, half a banana, and water. If you are racing further than 10 miles and running anywhere from 75 minutes to more than two hours, you'll eat into your glycogen stores, so beef up your pre-race eating. Aim for 400 to 800kcal from high-carbohydrate sources. Try two or three pancakes spread with jam, some sports drink, and half an energy bar. Eat your breakfast while checking the travel news
08:00 - Hit the road.
Give yourself plenty of time to reach your race and aim to arrive 60-90 minutes before the gun goes. This will give you time to park the car, visit the loo, pick up your number if required, visit the loo, drop off your kit bag, visit the loo, warm up, visit the loo…
08:30 - Down in one
Now is the perfect time to drink 250-450ml of energy drink.
09:35 - Warm Up
To prepare your body for the effort you're about to ask of it, make sure you warm up. Keep an outer layer of clothing on for as long as you can - packing an old T-shirt you don't mind dumping is a great idea. The shorter the race, the more important the warm up. Jog easily for 10 minutes, then spend 5-10 minutes gently stretching and finish with some strides.
9:50 - Nervous ticks
It's normal to suffer from nerves. "An increased heart rate and butterflies in the stomach are completely normal," says the sports psychologist Dr Jill Owen. "Remind yourself that they're not a sign of weakness but just indications that your body is preparing for action. Owen suggests a simple routine to shake off the jitters. "Take 10 breaths to instantly induce a feeling of calm. Briefly tense and relax each muscle to release any tension."
09:55 - The final countdown
As you jog to the start line, think only positive thoughts. "Tell yourself that you're feeling good, ready to race, confident and excited," says Thompson. "Try to remember some of your previous great races and draw on those."
10:00 - Line up
Unless you're planning to finish with the leaders, don't stand too close to the front. If the race has pens for target times, be honest and stand close to your goal - it'll be better for you and you won't get in the way of faster runners. Wherever you stand, though, don't worry about the people around you. "Keep focused on your own goals," says Owen, "and don't let yourself become distracted and worried about how fit, fast and psyched up the other runners look."
10:01 - Remember your plan...
…and stick to it. Unless you're running 100m or your cunning plan was to run as fast as you could for the first mile and then hang on, don't go off to fast. This is the best way to ruin a race. If you've worked out your mile splits, then stick to them. If you've planned to eat an energy gel after 30 minutes, then do it. Remember what John "Hannibal" Smith used to say in The A Team: "I love it when a plan comes together."
10:17 - Oops
Okay, plans don't always come together. If you have gone off too quickly, then all is not lost. Ease down for half a mile or so and try to relax and return to your planned pace. If you have to, take a walk break but just make sure that you limit yourself to, say, just a minute of walking.
Walking through a drinks station will ensure that you take on board enough fluid. If the drinks station attendant is handing out an energy drink you've never tried then this isn't the time to experiment. Many a race has been ended by a torrent of fluorescent, sugary vomit.
10:23 - This is fun, right!
"Keep focused on your goal," says Thompson, "and remember to enjoy yourself." He has a very good point - most of us run because we enjoy it. Even if you're having a bad day, try to have fun. A bad race isn't the end of the world, there'll be plenty more. So slow down, relax and try to see the funny side of your stitch.
10:27 to 15:00 - Hurry up
If you've run to plan, then as the end of your race approaches you will be able to turn up the gas a little. Maybe even a lot. If you're racing over 5K wait until the last mile before increasing your pace. 10K? Ramp it up in the final two. Miles 10.1 onwards are the ones in which to up your game during a half and you can turn the screw anywhere from mile 20 in a marathon.
10:35 to 16:00 - Finish up
You've done it, so give yourself a big pat on the back. "No matter how the race went, congratulate yourself for giving it your best shot," says Thompson. "If it didn't go well, don't beat yourself up about it."
10:36 to 16:01 - Keep moving
Stop suddenly and the blood that's been pumping around your body during the race can pool in your lower limbs, and cause feelings of giddiness and even a dramatic faint.
10:37 to 16:02 - Get your kit on
Jog, alright walk, over to the baggage pick up and pull on some warm, fresh clothes as soon as possible.
10:40 to 16:05 - Refuel's gold
Over the next 30 minutes, aim to drink 500ml of water or isotonic drink. Keep on drinking until your urine becomes clear again.
You should also eat a high carbohydrate snack - aim for something that provides around 1g of carbohydrate for every kilogram of bodyweight. A carb/protein recovery drink is a good option - it'll rehydrate you, replenish your glycogen stores and help to repair any muscle damage you sustained during the race - especially important if it was a marathon. Keep snacking on high-carb/low-fat food and sipping non-alcoholic drinks until your evening meal.
19:00 - Get stuffed
Feel free to enjoy a carbohydrate-heavy blow out on the evening after your race. If you want your meal to help you recover try some seafood - clams, mussels, prawns - with whole-wheat pasta. The zinc in the seafood can help boost your immune system, which will have been weakened by your race effort, and help repair muscle damage.
20:00 - Be boring
Don't arrange to meet your fans in the pub afterwards. "You may want to celebrate, or even drown your sorrows, after your race," says Henderson, "The sensible option is to have a warm bath, do some stretching exercises and have an early night. If you are dehydrated, alcohol can make this worse so celebrate properly a day or two later when you can enjoy it more."
When imagining your perfect race, try to use all of your senses and give your images plenty of detail. Close your eyes and imagine what you will see; hear; smell; be conscious of externally – the wind, rain, heat; experience emotionally – excitement, nerves, happiness, and feel physically – your feet hitting the ground, your breathing. It’s easy to visualise everything perfectly, but it’s important to visualise several scenarios.
The first is, indeed, your perfect race. See yourself running well: fast, confident and relaxed. Imagine yourself following your race plan to the letter and experiencing the joy that comes with a job very well done. Sadly, of course, this rarely happens so make sure that you take time to think dark thoughts: picture yourself starting too quickly, or too slowly. Visualise another runner clipping your heel or that niggling injury coming back at halfway.
Run through a frenzied wasp attack that ends with you falling into a pond and losing your shorts. Think of the worst case scenarios and picture the ideal way to deal with them. Doing this will ensure that if they happen on race day, you’ll have a plan to draw on instantly – allowing you to bounce back more quickly and carry on regardless. —Victor Thompson