Running a race in a city different than the one you live in definitely has its benefits: it provides you with a mini-vacation, you get to see a new place, try new restaurants, visit family and friends, and maybe even escape any unpleasant weather for nicer weather. One of the difficult things, however, is specifically preparing for the course itself.
For example, I’m running the Go! St. Louis Half Marathon in less than two weeks. While the course is flatter and faster this year than in previous years, it has a few hills and lots of downhill portions. Since I live in a flat portion of Northwest Indiana, I’m not used to running uphills or downhills greater than like a 3% or -3% grade. Needless to say, I’m a bit nervous the downhills are going to burn up my quads!
Even if you’re not traveling far for a race, you still want to prepare specifically for you next race. In fitness and particularly in running, the rule of specificity is one of the most important laws of training. If you want to run a race, you train primarily by running. You do workouts specific to the demands of your distance; 5K runners will spend a lot of more time doing short and fast repeats, while marathoners will fill their schedule up with tempo runs and long runs. By extension, then, if you want to do well in your race, you need to prepare specifically not just for the distance, but also for the course.
So if you’re running a hilly race like the Boston Marathon or Nike Women’s San Francisco, you want to train on hills routes or frequently use the incline button on your treadmill. If you’re running the pancake-flat Chicago Marathon, you want to strengthen your muscles so that they can withstand hours of pounding with very little variation in terrain. Granted, training for a very hilly or a very flat race can be challenging if you live in an area with the opposite terrain.
There’s more to a race than just the elevation; there’s fueling, hydration, and pacing as well. If you can, you don’t want to leave any of these to try for the first time on race day. Instead, you want to prepare specifically for the elevation of your race while practicing your fueling, hydration, and pacing just as you will race day.
This doesn’t mean that you should race a workout. In fact, pushing your pace too much will leave your best in your workout and leave you feeling fatigued and running slower on race day. You should aim to run about 60-90 seconds per mile slower than than your goal race pace. If you’re training for a 5K, 10K, and half marathon, you can go as far as or even farther than the distance of the race for your dress rehearsal run; for the marathon, you do not want to go any farther than 20 miles.
A rehearsal run not only helps you prepare specifically for the physical demands of your next race, it also helps you prepare mentally for race day. If you have practiced a routine during training, that routine will provide familiarity and comfort on race day.
So how to you do a dress rehearsal run for your race? Here are my tips for how to best prepare specifically for your next race:
Mimic the Elevation of the Course
Most races provide elevation charts for you to view online. Even if there’s no elevation chart, or it’s not clearly marked and hard to read, you can view the course map and enter it into Map My Run or a similar mapping system to figure out the elevation. Once you know the elevation, you can train specifically: find a hilly loop to run if your course has rolling hills, find a big hill for if your course begins or ends with a significant uphill or downhill, or pick a flat area with little elevation change. If you want to really practice the course elevation, use a treadmill to mimic the race course hill for hill. This will give you as close to an experience of running on the race course without actually running on the race course.
Practice Race Day Hydration
Most races hand out water and Gatorade or another sports drink about every 2 miles. Since you’re pushing hard during a race and losing a lot of fluids through sweat, it’s important to stay hydrated during the race. On your dress rehearsal run, take in fluids just as you would during the race. Set your water bottle on a two mile loop, have someone bike alongside you with water, or keep a bottle by you on the treadmill. Additionally, practice drinking while running if you plan on running through the water stops. Make sure that before the run you practice how much you plan on drinking on race day so that you’re going into the race similarly hydrated.
Fine-tune Your Fueling Plan
GI distress is one of the top causes of a race gone bad, whether you hit a wall from not having enough carbs or you suffer from stomach cramps. The best way to know how your stomach is going to react to fuel on race day is to practice fueling before race day. On your rehearsal run, consume the exact gels at the exact times you would on race day. If you plan on taking two salted caramel Gus at miles 5 and 10 of your half marathon, then do exactly that during your rehearsal run. Practice your pre-race fueling in the same way, so that your pre-race bagel doesn’t cause any stomach troubles when you have the added stress of race day nerves and running fast.
Learn to Finish Fast
Even if you’re running slower than you will on race day, you can still practice your pacing strategy during your rehearsal run. Coaches and experts agree that the best race day strategy is to run even or negative splits. By starting at a pace slightly slower than goal pace, you conserve energy and lower your risk of burning out later in the race. This strategy will also allow you to whip out a fast finish during the last portion of the race. You can practice fast finish (also known as progressive) long runs throughout all of training, but practicing this pacing strategy when you’re also practicing the hills, hydration, and fueling will help you mentally and physically prepare for the race.
Wear Your Race Day Outfit
After GI distress, chafing and blisters are some of the most painful things you can experience during a race. While these won’t leave you limping over the finish as would an injury, they will cause physical discomfort mess with you mentally when you need to be focused. Don’t wear brand new shoes on race day, especially if you’ve never worn that model before. Make sure your sports bra, shorts, and any other items of clothing don’t rub you in the wrong places. Wear your planned race day outfit during your rehearsal run to make sure it doesn’t cause any problems. If you’re set on wearing a charity t-shirt before the race, try to wear it on at least one run before the race.