Make Sure You Are Two Oceans Race-Day Ready!
Race-day preparation occurs over several months. During that time, you meticulously plan and diligently train so that you’re in peak condition for the race. To do your best, however, you also need to have a plan for the race itself. How much should you warm up and what should that warm-up consist of? How should you fuel? How should you handle the first few kilometres, the first half of the race, the long stretch in the middle for those doing the 56K, and the final 10 kilometres?
Let’s take a look at race-day strategies that help you get everything out of your months of preparation, so that you cross the finish line exhausted but satisfied.
The Day Before
The day before a big race, most runners find it useful to do a short run to loosen up their muscles and help calm their nerves. They choose to rest two days before the race, and then do a short run the day before the race. For most runners, a 4-6 kilometre gentle run, with a few minutes pickup within it, at close to race pace, provides just enough reminder that they’re fit and ready to race.
You should eat a relatively high carbohydrate diet and stay well-hydrated during the day. If your race starts early the next morning, avoid having your main meal late in the evening. For example, for a 6 a.m. marathon start, you should eat your main meal by about 7 p.m., so there’s plenty of time to digest your meal and have a good night’s sleep. Hydration shouldn’t be a problem, because you won’t be training much the last few days before the race, but it’s sometimes easy to forget to drink when travelling and staying in a hotel.
Make sure you get up early enough to eat and digest a small meal. The amount of time required varies between runners, so it’s helpful to try your pre-race meal timing in tune-up races prior to the marathon. For most runners, eating three hours in advance is enough time to get the benefits of a small meal without experiencing digestive distress out on the course.
You also need a plan for the time when you’ll be hanging around near the start. Of primary importance is staying warm during this time. If you get cold and start shivering, you’ll start to use up your glycogen stores and your muscles will start to tighten up. Wearing old running clothes that you’re happy to never see again, and if it’s raining, fashioning a big plastic garbage bag into a rain jacket, can keep you reasonably comfortable. The important thing is to stay reasonably calm, even if conditions are not ideal while you wait for the start.
Warming up for any race is important. The purpose of a warm-up is to prepare your body to run at race pace. This involves increasing your metabolic rate, your body temperature, and the circulation of blood (and thus oxygen) to your muscles. The warm-up activates your aerobic system to work optimally from the start of the race.
There’s a downside, however, to warming up for the ultra-marathon. One of the challenges in the 56K is to reach the finish line before becoming glycogen depleted. This is why it’s important to eat well before the race and to take in carbohydrates during the race to help ensure that you don’t run out of carbohydrates before the finish. But during a warm-up, you burn a mixture of carbohydrates and fat, thereby slightly reducing your glycogen stores. The key, then, is to find the minimum amount of warm-up necessary to prepare your body to handle race pace as soon as the starter’s gun is fired, so you save as much of your precious carbohydrate reserves as possible for the distance ahead.
The importance of the warm-up varies depending on how fast you plan to start (and hopefully finish) the race. If you’ll run the first kilometre in under 6 minutes, then a warm-up is important to prime your cardiovascular system, to reduce your body’s reliance on carbohydrates and to prepare your muscles for battle. If you plan to run the first kilometre slower than 8 minutes, then a 5-to 10-minute walk and stretch may be a better bet to conserve energy for the race. For those of you in between, how much to warm up depends largely on your personal experience and preference.
The optimal warm-up for a race depends on the level of the athlete. For beginners, whose main goal is to finish, no warm-up is necessary. They can warm up during the first couple of kilometres of the race. For more serious marathoners, who will attempt to run the distance significantly faster than their normal training pace, the optimal warm-up consists of two runs of about 5 minutes each, with some gentle stretching in between.
You should start warming up about 30 to 40 minutes before the start of the race. Start your first warm-up run slowly, and gradually increase your pace so that you finish at about 1 minute per kilometre slower than race pace. Next, stretch gently for about 10 minutes, including loosening up your shoulders and neck. Follow that with another 5 minutes of running, this time gradually picking up the pace until you reach race pace for the final 30 seconds or so. Then stretch a bit more, and take some sips of a sports drink to top off your carbohydrate stores, but not so much that fluid is sloshing in your stomach at the start.
That’s it. Try to time your warm-up so you finish no more than 10 minutes before the race starts. If you warm up too long before the race, you’ll lose some of the benefits, yet will have still used up some of your carbohydrate stores. The ability to time your warm-up like this is an advantage of running a smaller race, but at big events like Two Oceans you’re more likely to be herded to your starting position long before the race begins, so just do what you can.
Your Pacing Strategy
Assuming that you have a time goal for your race, how should you go about trying to achieve that time? Some runners go out hard and then try to hang on, as well as possible in the second half. Others try to run an even pace throughout. A few take it easy early on and then run the second half faster. Let’s consider the physiology of the marathon and the implications for your optimal pacing strategy.
Generally the best strategy for the is relatively even pacing. If you run much faster than your overall race pace for part of the race, then you’ll use more glycogen than necessary and will likely start to accumulate lactate. If you run much slower than your overall race pace for part of the race, then you’ll need to make up for this lapse by running faster than the most efficient pace for another portion of the race. The optimal pacing strategy, then, is to run nearly even splits, taking into account the idiosyncrasies of the course you’ll be running.
Most runners shouldn’t try to run dead-even splits, however, because during the race you’ll gradually fatigue your slow-twitch muscle fibres and will start to recruit more of your fast-twitch A fibres to maintain your pace. Unfortunately, these fast-twitch fibres tend to be less economical than your slow-twitch fibres in their use of oxygen. Therefore, your running economy will tend to decrease slightly during the race, meaning that your lactate threshold pace will decrease slightly as well. The result is that your optimal pace will be slightly reduced during the latter stages of the race.
An efficient pacing strategy would be to go through halfway slighter quicker, because doing so would allow you to slow by 2 to 3 percent during the second half and still achieve your goal finishing time. If you ran negative splits for the marathon (i.e., the second half faster than the first half), chances are that you ran more slowly than optimal during the first half of the race and could have had a faster finishing time.
For world-class marathoners, whose genetics and training put them on a higher plane, the optimal pacing strategy is likely a bit different. These select few are so highly trained that they have a lower tendency to recruit less-economical muscle fibres as the race progresses. In addition, they can pick up the pace over the last several kilometres and gradually accumulate lactate to the finish. For the best marathoners in the world, therefore, the most effective pacing strategy is to run the second half of the marathon at the same pace as, or even slightly faster than, the first half.
Even world-class marathoners (sub-2:10 for men, sub-2:25 for women) often run the second half from 30 to 90 seconds slower than the first half. My experience is that most marathoners in the 2:40 to 4:30 range will run optimally by gradually increasing their effort over the second half of the race in the attempt to run close to even splits, which often results in a second half from 2 to 3 percent slower than the first half.
The First Half
You’re finally at the starting line, warmed up and ready for the task ahead. It’s all too easy to get carried away and run the first kilometre too fast. A better approach is to run the first kilometre at, or a bit slower than, your goal pace. Because you won’t have done much of a warm-up before the start, your body won’t be prepared to go faster than race pace. Also, if you run too fast at the beginning of the race, your body will burn off extra glycogen and start to accumulate lactate that could negatively affect the rest of your race.
Once the first kilometre is out of the way, the best strategy during the next few kilometres is to settle into a good rhythm. Try to run fast but relaxed. Establishing a relaxed running style early in the race will go a long way toward helping you avoid tightening up, so you can maintain your goal pace to the finish. Go through a mental checklist periodically to make sure your shoulders are relaxed, your body is upright, your breathing is steady, you are maintaining your stride rate and any other personal cues you use to help maintain good running style throughout the race.
Take a carbohydrate drink at the first aid station, or, if you’re carrying your own, within the first kilometre or two. It’s useful to take in carbs right from the start rather than waiting until you think you need them. If you wait until you feel tired and light-headed to take in carbohydrates, it will be too little too late. The longer you can postpone carbohydrate depletion, the longer you will be able to maintain your goal pace. It’s also useful to drink a few millilitres of fluid at each 5K aid station, especially during the ultra-marathon to minimise dehydration, using thirst as your guide on how much, and how frequently, to drink. A few seconds lost at each aid station can translate into several minutes gained toward the end of the race.
Mentally, the first half of the race is the time to cruise. Try to save your mental and emotional energy for the second half of the race. All other factors being equal, if there’s a group of runners in the lead pack at halfway, the winner will be the one who has cruised along at the back of the pack, saving his or her energy for the demands of the second half of the race. Regardless of your ultimate finishing place in the race, you should realise that the second half is much harder than the first half; just try to get the first half out of the way at the correct pace without using any more mental energy than necessary.
To Group or Not to Group
Although in most cases you should stay with your pacing plan, the weather or the tactics of other runners may merit slightly altering your strategy. If you’re running into a headwind, there’s a substantial advantage to running in a group of runners and letting others block the wind. Though you may need to do your share in leading the group, you’ll still save considerable energy compared to running by yourself into the wind. On a windy day, therefore, you may need to run faster or slower than planned to stay with a group.
Even on a calm day, the best strategy is to deviate slightly from your goal pace, rather than running most of the way by yourself. At almost any pace, you’ll be among a number of runners, and you can work with them to reach your goal time. Although drafting behind other runners will give you a small energy advantage, most of the benefit of staying with a group is psychological. You don’t have to set the pace, and you can relax and go along with the group.
Most runners find it quite difficult mentally to run by themselves for long stretches of the marathon. So what’s the trade-off between having company and having to compromise your strategy? A rule of thumb is to deviate from your goal pace by no more than 8 to 10 seconds per kilometre, if you would otherwise be running by yourself during the first 32 kilometres of the race. Running 8 to 10 seconds per kilometre faster than planned may not sound like much over 1 kilometre, but this difference in effort can put you over the edge after a couple of kilometres.
The best way to judge whether to pick it up to latch on to a group is by how you feel at the time. If you feel as though you can handle it – you aren’t accumulating fatigue, or working noticeably harder and less efficiently than at the slower pace – then go for it. If your breathing is uncomfortable and you can sense that you’re working at a higher intensity than you can maintain until the finish, then relax and let the others go. The group won’t carry you the whole way beyond your level of conditioning. You may find that the group will soon break up and that you’ll once again have others to run with.
During the final 10 kilometres of the 56K, you can afford to be more independent. If no one else is running at the correct pace for you after you’ve passed the 45 kilometre mark, you need to muster the courage to go it alone. Chances are that forging on will work well psychologically, because if you’ve prepared well and run a fairly even pace, you’ll be passing other runners throughout the final kilometres. Nothing lifts the spirits quite like passing another runner late in the marathon.
30 To 45 Kilometres
From 30k to about 45K is the no man’s land of the 56K. You’re already fairly tired and still have a long way to go. This is where the mental discipline of training will help you maintain a strong effort and a positive attitude. It’s easy to let your pace slip during this stretch – 5 seconds per km, then 10 seconds per km, or more. By using all the available feedback on your pace – whether in the form of kilometre splits or a pace watch – you’ll know exactly how you’re progressing, and you should be able to concentrate and maintain your goal pace during these kilometres.
Slowing during this portion of the ultra is often more a matter of not concentrating, than of not being able to physically maintain the pace. Focusing on your splits gives you an immediate goal to concentrate on. The ability to do a bit of adding in your head while running is a helpful skill and gives you a mental task to keep your mind sharp. If you’re 5 seconds too slow when you calculate your split, don’t try to make up the lost 5 seconds during the next kilometre; aim to run your goal km pace again as your target to get yourself back on track. By focusing on these incremental goals along the way, you’ll prevent a large drift in your pace and should be able to stay very close to your goal.
It’s not unusual to have a few kilometres when you just don’t feel good. These bad patches are a test of mental resolve. Often these stretches will last a while and then mysteriously go away. For example, you might feel tight and uncomfortable from 24-27 kilometres, but then get back in the groove again and feel good to the finish. The key is to have the confidence that you’ll eventually overcome this bad patch.
Taking in carbohydrates every 5K during the second half of the race can help you maintain your mental focus. The only fuel for your brain is glucose (carbohydrate), and when you become carbohydrate-depleted, the amount of glucose reaching the brain starts to decrease. If you’ve carbo-loaded, this shouldn’t start to affect you until well past the 32 kilometre mark. Taking in carbohydrates during the race, and particularly at this stage, will help ensure that you stay alert and think clearly throughout the race.
The Final 10 Kilometres
This is the part that you’ve prepared for during your long months of training. This is when your long runs, during which you worked hard over the last stages, will really pay off. Until now, everything required the patience to hold back. Now, you’re free to see what you’ve got. During this final 10K, you get to dig deep and use up any energy that you have left. This is the stretch that poorly prepared athletes fear and well-prepared athletes relish.
The key is to push as hard as you can without having disaster strike in the form of a cramp or muscles so tight you lose your stride effectiveness. You will have prepared yourself for this during your long runs, your race-pace runs, and, to a lesser extent, your tempo runs. You need to use your body’s feedback to determine just how hard you can push. Chances are, by now your calf muscles, hamstrings, quads or some combination of these are on edge and will limit how fast you can go. You need to test the waters a bit and push to what you perceive to be the limit that your muscles will tolerate. Try to pick it up a bit and see how your muscles react. There’s a risk that in trying to increase your pace you’ll end up with a cramp, so the safe option is to just try to maintain to the finish. The more marathons you run, the more you’ll know your body’s reaction to these stresses and how hard you can push your muscles. You can take progressively greater risks as the finish line nears.
Although figuring out “how many km’s to go” can be daunting early on in the race, in this final stage it can be comforting and help keep you focused. As the finish approaches, telling yourself, “Less than 3 kilometres to go,” or “Just 15 minutes more,” can be motivating. If you’re struggling a bit toward the end, picture yourself finishing a run on your favourite training loop so the remaining distance seems more manageable.
If you’ve been drinking according to your thirst and taking in carbohydrates throughout the race, your muscles should be able to maintain the pace to the finish line. Continue drinking until the last few kilometres. Keeping up your blood sugar level will help you stay alert so you can concentrate well to the end. When you see the finish line approaching, give a little more effort so that you run strongly over the line – but not so much that you cramp and have to stop within sight of the line and limp across. Show yourself that you have mastered the race and are able to kick it in a bit to the finish. Then enjoy the fruits of your labour.