When I started out as an endurance athlete many years ago, I used to overthink every little thing on race week. Food? FUEL. Sleep? RECOVERY. Dancing? A NON-SPECIFIC TRAINING STIMULUS. I must have been insufferable to be around.
I will never forget my first bike race, not long after I had quit college football. The night before, I ate carefully measured amounts of brown rice and sweet potatoes—a pre-race recipe I found in some magazine, attributed to some pro. I got in bed at 8:00pm to get the eight hours of sleep recommended in some other magazine. I planned everything, from laying out my clothes to visualizing success (tips I had read in yet another magazine).
But I seemed to have forgotten a rather important detail… I still wasn’t very good at cycling. I was struggling halfway through the race when I crashed out. Apparently my perfectly-portioned brown rice meal didn’t help me become a better bike handler.
A big thing that growing as an athlete and coach has taught me is that overthinking things is almost always counter-productive. The overthinking problem is especially evident before races. Because we can’t control our fitness at that point, many of us look to things we can control, like nutrition and sleep and other daily tasks. In the process, what we think is self-help may actually be self-sabotage.
You can learn from my mistakes. Here are five big tips for the days before a race.
Eat enough, but don’t worry too much about what you eat
Watching a pro trail runner eat before a big race is a sight to behold. It’s similar to watching one of those nature documentaries where David Attenborough whispers something like, “The hyena will now eat its bodyweight from the fallen gazelle to prepare for the lean times ahead.”’
Almost always, they eat at some restaurant near the race site, gorging on the local cuisine. Often, it’s pizza. Sometimes, it’s burgers and fries, or a healthy salad, or really anything else (except maybe a bowl of prunes with a side of baked beans, plus a dessert of high-fiber cereal). They generally just abide by a simple maxim of athlete nutrition: eat enough, always; eat too much, sometimes; eat too little, never.
You may have heard the term “carb-loading.” Strict, old-fashioned carb-loading can be a complicated procedure that requires near-clinical levels of precision, including depletion and re-loading periods, as outlined in this 2008 article in “Current Sports Medicine Reports” (well, I guess Decade-Old Sports Medicine Reports would be more accurate in this case). Do it right, and there’s a chance of a slight performance boost, though that is debated. Do it wrong, and you could sabotage your race before it starts.
Instead, just think about eating enough food in the couple days before a race to top off your glycogen stores, which usually refill in about a day with adequate carbohydrates (a full breakdown of glycogen and pre-exercise nutrition is in this 2014 article in the journal, “Nutrients”). If you have dietary restrictions, it’s all a bit more complicated, but the same principle holds. Restrict food groups that you know bother you, but don’t restrict anything else just for the heck of it. Thinking of food as fun—rather than solely as fuel—is a big part of enjoying the whole experience leading up to a race.
Sleep isn’t particularly important unless you have a severe, long-term sleep deficit
In 2014, pro runner Addie Bracy was preparing for her big race, the California International Marathon. She was ready, and this was a big opportunity. Only something bad happened—she couldn’t sleep. As she wrote in her blog: “A combination of nervousness, anxiousness and excitement caused me to wake up every few hours with the race on my mind, sometimes even going so far as to get out of bed and do some rope stretching on the floor in the middle of the night.”
The entire week of the race, she barely slept, and it peaked on race night. She didn’t sleep at all. I send her blog post to athletes all the time because of how the story ended. “When I crossed the finish line in 2 hours and 35 minutes, I had officially been awake for 26 hours straight to match the 26 miles I had just run.”
She ran one of the fastest times in the U.S. that year with barely any sleep the week before the race (since then, Addie has gone on to become a trail-running superstar). I have seen a number of top professional runners struggle with sleep in a similar way, both before races and more generally. It’s not fun, but it isn’t automatically going to lead to poor performance.
The basic rule is that sleep the night before a race doesn’t matter. A 2003 study from the “European Journal of Applied Physiology” found no performance detriment for anaerobic exercise after 24 hours of sleep deprivation, though a 2009 study in the same journal found very slight performance reduction in runners at low-level aerobic intensities. A 2014 article in “Sports Medicine” breaks it down more, generally finding that sleep deprivation has long-term effects, but the short-term effects are not extreme in most cases. Even at its worst, bad sleep before a race won’t make or break the day.
If you can’t sleep, give your body time to relax in bed, meditating with your eyes closed, rather than watching Game of Thrones Season 7 and wishing you had your own dragon. The rest of the week, try to practice good sleep hygiene and give your body time in bed. If you can’t sleep, that’s ok. Insomnia is a major health issue that may require more attention, but periodic sleeplessness is normal and is unlikely to have a large effect on performance.
While tapering, you can still lead an active life
During your taper, you never want to go full-sloth. Sloths aren’t made to trail run. Instead, you want to be like a resting trail dog, relaxing plenty but not forcing yourself to do nothing.
The general principle in the few days before a race is to avoid muscle damage, but not shy away from muscle activation. There are different principles that work for different athletes, though a few things generally apply across programs.
First, most athletes will do one moderate workout early in race week. For lots of trail runners, it can just be a moderate run over trails, letting your body flow rather than holding back and shuffling. More advanced athletes may even want to do a harder workout with intervals.
Second, don’t rest for more than a couple days before the race. There are multiple theories for why staying active matters, all of which would require a separate article to explain fully. The basic idea is that there is a certain amount of good muscle tension that is necessary for top performance (top coach Steve Magness breaks it down here). Do nothing for a few days and that could go away, along with a reduction in blood volume. Many of the athletes I coach will even do 4 x 15- to 30-second hills at the end of an easy run the day before a race to feel sharp and strong.
Third, keep living your life, rather than shutting down all motor functions like a malfunctioning host in Westworld. Do you do afternoon walks? Then walk. Do you sometimes rock climb mid-week? It’s okay to keep doing that. Just avoid needless muscle damage by doing something new or doing too much intensity.
Don’t change your patterns with caffeine a ton unless you practice it in training
Caffeine tapers (where an athlete abstains for caffeine before a race) have complex physiological underpinnings, as outlined in this article from the great Alex Hutchinson. Moreover, different genetic variants cause athletes to respond to caffeine differently (see this 2015 review from “Molecular Psychiatry”). Given the variable and often non-linear responses to caffeine, don’t try anything new unless you know it works for you.
In addition, don’t consume more caffeine than you normally would before a race unless you do that before workouts too. Before the 2014 World Mountain Running Championships, I had my first double-shot espresso the day of the race (after not consuming much caffeine in the preceding months). The only thing I was good at that day was talking really, really fast about how worried I was my heart was going to explode.
Pre-race nerves and self-doubt are normal, try to laugh at it
What do you think some of the best runners in the world think before their big races? A lot of the time, it’s probably a lot like what you think.
“I haven’t trained enough; I’m not sure I can do this.”
“I wish I was a better runner!”
“Why am I even doing this? I don’t want to be here.”
Those are variants of text messages I have seen from top athletes. The coolest part of all—each went on to crush those races, getting some amazing memories that they cherish now.
So give yourself grace with whatever is going through your head. Practice mindfulness, acknowledging your thoughts and never beating yourself up for thinking things that may seem irrational. Instead, let the thoughts slip away.
Caring enough about something to get nervous is a sign that you are living a full life. Embrace the nerves as a symbol of how awesome, courageous and strong you are.
Yeah, there is a possibility that things go hilariously wrong. But take it from someone who has failed too many times to count—those missteps make some of the best stories.