On Your Mark! Tips for Running a Road Race

2012 Be The Change Fitness 5K in Conyers, GA.

Have any of you run a race before?  Even if you don’t consider yourself a “runner,” a race is a totally attainable goal that will help you feel proud, accomplished, and motivated to tackle an even bigger goal in the future.  The thing I love about races is that you see so many different types of people.  There are the individuals who have lost hundreds of pounds and are running to celebrate their accomplishment, there are runners who have just finished battling cancer and are happy to be strong enough to run again, there are individuals running to remember fallen Service Members, there are runners who simply want to finish because they never thought they’d ever run a race, there are runners who are trying to get a new PR (personal record), and the list of reasons to run goes on and on.  Everyone has their reason to run, and each reason is just as valid and important as the next.  It’s almost the New Year’s Day, so why not set running a race as one of your New Year’s Resolutions!?

Finished the 2012 Edinburgh, Scotland Marathon.  (I saw my mom in the crowd and was yelling to her about a linkup plan.)

Before the 2013 Army 10 Miler with Tom.

I’ve run races to remember my late husband who was killed in Afghanistan (all the races in my “Team Del” shirt), I’ve run to challenge myself to cover a new distance (Honolulu Marathon 2011), I’ve run simply for the incredible experience of running in another country (Edinburgh Marathon 2012…and yes, racing in a difference country is a very different and fun experience!), I’ve run for the scenery (X Terra trail 21K at Kualoa Ranch in Hawaii), and I’ve run to get dirty and tackle obstacles (Warrior Dash in Hawaii in 2012).  Whatever your reason is, just get out there and do it!  If you’re intimidated, just start small at first.  Sign up for that 5K and do the Couch to 5K program to get ready for it.  Dress up in a costume if it’ll motivate you to run faster.  I promise, you will never regret running a race, even if you are sore the next day.

XTerra Trail 21K at Kualoa Ranch with my brother in 2011.

So now that I’ve convinced you to sign up for a race…here are a few little tips for preparing the night before the race, the day of the race, and even while your running!

Muddy 10K trail race in Hawaii in 2012.  We ran to remember Dimitri.

1.  Drink Water.  This seems to be a no brainer, but sometimes you’ll get caught up in the excitement of packet pickup or preparing for a race that you’ll completely forget to drink water.  Hydrate well the few days leading up to the race and you’ll have no hydration issues during the race.

2.  Wear Your Race Number on the FRONT of your Shirt.  Every time I run a race I cringe when I see someone with their number on their back.  The number is what ensures you’ll be able to find yourself in race photos, so make sure people can see it!  Pin it on the lower part of the front of your shirt (with the bottom of the bib above your waist), and you’ll have no issues.  Don’t try to wear it on your leg either, because that can cause chafing and it looks weird.  Also, use all 4 safety pins, because there is nothing worse than a bib that keeps flipping up if it’s a windy day.

3.  Bring Toilet Paper.  You never know the bathroom situation at a race, and most of the time you’ll find yourself in a stinky, overflowing porta-potty.  Stuff some toilet paper in your bra or pocket before the race, and you’ll be fine even if they run out of TP.  If you don’t need it, you can always share with another racer who didn’t have such foresight.

4.  Eat Breakfast and Drink Coffee.  I am a firm believer in drinking coffee before a race.  It helps me feel more alert and ready to tackle the challenge ahead.  That being said, don’t drink coffee for the first time on the day of the race, because you don’t know how your stomach will react!  Similarly, make sure you eat something for breakfast that you know works for your stomach before a run.  Don’t wait till the day of to try out a new recipe for a granola and yogurt parfait.  If you’ve been eating a bagel with peanut butter before your morning runs, then just stick with the bagel and peanut butter!  Your stomach will thank you.

5.  Stick With What Works.  Don’t go trying out a new fuel belt, new shoes, new shorts, new type of gel, etc. on the day of a race.  You never know if things will rub or bother your stomach until you try them, so make sure you test new items out before the big day!

6.  Wear a Trash Bag if it’s Cold.  This sounds sort of weird, so let me explain.  When you run a race that starts in the morning, the temperature will likely be much colder before you start than when you finish.  I’m all for running in long sleeves and pants, but sometimes once you get warmed up you regret having on all those layers.  Before chilly races I like to wear a trash bag over my body (poke a hole in the top for your head).  It keeps all your body heat in, and then you can toss it right before you start running. Or if you’re running a big race, you may be able to donate the clothes you decide to shed.  Lots of races will scoop up all the discarded clothing and take it to homeless shelters, so if you decide to go this route make sure you wear something you’re ok with getting rid of.

7.  Protect Yourself from the Sun.  I like running in a hat for many reasons.  I like that it helps keep the sweat out of my face, it keeps me from squinting if I’m running towards the sun, and I joke around and say this but it’s sort of true: it’s like my version of blinders on a horse.  It keeps me focused forward and not as distracted by unimportant things.  I also stick a pair or running sunglasses on top of my head and put them on if it gets really sunny.  If your running a long race, make sure to wear waterproof sunscreen.  It’s always the smart thing to do!    

8.  Enjoy the Experience and Smile for the Camera!  Every time I run by a photographer taking pictures for a race I immediately straighten up, smile for the camera, and sometimes even wave (even if I’m exhausted at mile 22 of a marathon).  Doing so makes me cringe a little less when I see the pictures later, and subconsciously I think it makes me correct my form if I’ve gotten a little sloppy as I’ve slogged through the miles.

9.  Thank The Volunteers.  When you go through water points make sure to thank the volunteers.  They probably woke up way earlier than you did, so thank them for making your race a little more enjoyable!

10.  The Unspoken Rule of the Fuel Belt.  Don’t wear a fuel belt if you’re running anything under a marathon.  It really just isn’t necessary (unless you’re running a secluded and unsupported race).  There will be plenty of points for you to get water or Gatorade, so you’re only weighing yourself down by wearing a belt.  Even for marathons I’ve never worn a fuel belt.  I make sure I wear shorts or a sports bra with lots of pockets so I can store gels, money and my phone on me without having to deal with an uncomfortable belt that will just jostle around for 26.2 miles.  (Note: I’m more of a minimalist runner and like as little weighing me down as possible.  If you truly feel better with a fuel belt on, then go ahead and wear it!)

After the 2012 North Shore Oahu Marathon.  Exhausted!!!

If you have any questions about races or running in general please let me know!  I love running and talking about running, and would love to help however I can!

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Katie Vail
Katie Vail

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Leave a comment

  1. December 29, 2014 / 7:28 pm

    It's funny you posted this today, as I have my first (and only) marathon attempt at Disney on January 11th, and I'm anxious like crazy, reading everything I can online about it! I'm planning to do a run/walk combo, and my half marathon times have been consistent PRs over the past few months (I've done 3). That said, for a variety of reasons, I never got beyond 13.1 miles during training (though faster than marathon pace), so I'm a bit of wreck!

    Any tips on the marathon distance for a first-timer who only wants to cross the finish line? I plan to do quite a bit of walking where I need to, I just need to get my head right to persevere. My coworker who is an experienced marathoner told me she truly believes I will be able to finish based on my half times and my consistent general running, but I'm mentally struggling since I had such issues going any further on long runs by myself, out of boredom and loneliness mostly.

    P.S. LOL on the fuel belt, as I love mine for my half marathons! I keep my phone w/headphones there for music (I don't like armbands), and it has a special pocket for my inhaler… so I guess that makes it more necessary? You're right about water points though.

  2. December 29, 2014 / 7:29 pm

    You're very welcome Rachel! So glad you found the tips useful. Good luck on your race, I'm sure you'll do great!

  3. December 29, 2014 / 7:37 pm

    I'm sure you'll do great Aubrey! I hear Disney is amazing and it'll be the perfect race to distract you from the pain (because let's be honest…even if you train thoroughly it's still painful towards the end). I'd just say walk when you need to, don't rush the water points, fuel up consistently but listen to your body if your stomach starts to revolt, and enjoy the scenery. I'd like to run Disney at some point in the future, and even though I get so competitive and like running fast, I know I'll want to take pictures with the characters and just enjoy the happy environment. Plus I'm sure you'll end up surprising yourself when the adrenaline kicks in! Good luck!!

  4. December 30, 2014 / 3:20 am

    These are such great tips! I'm running my first half (and first ever road race) in April and I'm all about getting whatever advice possible! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Michele
    December 30, 2014 / 3:51 am

    Great post and very timely…I'm planning to travel from the States to Europe for a race in August and just starting my research. I'm curious what tips you might have from your marathon in Scotland for avoiding jetlag and any adjustments you made in preparation. Thanks Katie!

  6. December 30, 2014 / 2:44 pm

    Thanks Katie! I picked Disney because it's flat, has mild temperatures, and lots of entertainment… ideal for a first-timer. Their Disney Princess Half Marathon was my first half, and I highly recommend it as a really fun girls' getaway weekend. The distance isn't so long you're in pain, so you really get to enjoy running through the Magic Kingdom (through the castle!) and even getting silly with outfits. I ran the whole thing with a USMA classmate side-by-side so it was really an awesome experience.

  7. Anonymous
    December 30, 2014 / 7:12 pm

    I'm not crazy about running. I find I get bored too easily – maybe it's the scenery thing? But if you have any killer playlists to share, please do!

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