I get asked a lot about the best ways to get the body in its ideal state just before a race. Chris has given lots of fantastic tips on what you can do nutritionally, but what about what you can do physically?
We train hard, put in the hours and the miles and the sweat, but some days things just don’t go to plan. Some days you show up feeling like you’ve earned the right to run the race of your life, only to take off from the start line with a feeling of – “something just doesn’t feel right”.
If you are a runner that typically factors somewhere near the front of the pack, there is no doubt that you have your body fairly finely tuned and that your training has been at a high level. If this is the case, then there is even a greater need to take particular and very specific care in the days and hours leading into a race. The same goes for middle and back of the pack runners, though the difference with the faster runners is that there is often greater stresses on the body and therefore greater chance of a comparatively poor performance.
Depending on how you or your coach has structured your training program, the Monday two weeks before your race, will be a day or so after one of your longest or hardest runs. At this point you would have a sense of your fitness and what you are capable of. This fortnight leading up to the big day is perhaps the most important in terms of creating an internal environment in your body that is going to set it up for top performance.
There is every chance that you are going to have niggles or aches and pains from the heavy training load. Now is your chance to tackle those niggles while you still have time to sort them out. Somewhere between Monday and Thursday in this week is perfect to get a massage. Massage is one of the best ways to reduce unnecessary muscle tension, remove built up waste products in your body that may be producing pain or fatigue and also to improve circulation and therefore delivery of nutrients to your hard working tissues.
I recommend massage (deep tissue) and Cupping therapy in the early part of this week as it may leave you feeling a bit heavy and even sore, but by getting it done at this time, you will have a day or two to get over it before your final weekend training session.
Regular use of a foam roller for everything from your mid back down, is also recommended as a self-management protocol and one that can make a massive difference if used regularly. Studies have recently demonstrated that use of a foam roller on the legs of athletes not only reduces muscle soreness and tension, it can also produce an increase in power output and improved performance.
Sleep is critical now, as during sleep we switch our nervous system into repair mode and do the most healing. The right amount of sleep for you is difficult to determine, but trying to get an extra half to an hour of sleep per night in the lead up to your race is recommended.
As I mentioned earlier, Chris has written at length about pre-race eating, so please refer to his work for the best guide to this.
If the massage you received in first week of the pre-race fortnight was from someone who knows running and what is required of a runner’s body, then they will no doubt have picked up any potential issues in this session. It is then best to follow that up with another treatment ideally no later than the Wednesday before a Saturday race (or Thursday for a Sunday race). The reason for that time gap is to once again give the body its best chance to flush out the metabolites that have been mobilised during the massage and get over any post treatment soreness or muscle fatigue.
I’m an advocate of stretching as a maintenance tool for all runners. Particularly when you are aware of specific muscles that are or tend to be carrying too much tension, stretching can help to return them to the desired state. Whatever your thoughts on the benefits of stretching for runners, it is hard to argue that you don’t feel better in your body after a good stretch session. Spending just 15 minutes after your training sessions in the weeks prior to your race, stretching your key muscle groups, is yet another way to get your body in the ideal state for better muscle recovery, reducing wasted energy through unwanted muscle tension and lessening the effect of DOMS or post exercise soreness.
As for your taper, this depends largely on how you have been training and the race you are preparing for, but in the 5-6 days prior to race day, your training should drop right down to very little, so as to allow your body to maximise the benefits of your previous hard work. For the runners that I coach, I rarely prescribe any running at all in the 2-3 days before a race. I say ‘rarely’ because some individuals are like caged Tigers if they don’t get to do something physical every day. Stored energy and anticipation can be useful if it can be contained and controlled, but anxiety and nervous tension can lead to hormonal imbalance, nervous system fatigue and a less than ideal psychological state. It is best to go into race day with the confidence that you have done the work required, the body feeling rested and primed and a mind that is relaxed yet focussed.
It is not for everyone, but breathing exercises, meditation and visualisations can all be excellent tools for getting your “head in the game” in the 24-48hrs before a race.
I hoped this has served to give you an overview of some of the things you can do to tune your engine for its best performance. There are countless ways you can tweak your training schedule/program to have you peaking at race time, but that is too complex to go into here. For more information about coaching or training programs, I can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like help sharpening your nutrition plan or simply adjusting your diet for better health, you can email Chris at email@example.com