There are certain things I always do before a race. I hydrate well, I fuel up and I always call my dad. But I’ve learned from experience that my routine is useless if I don’t know what I’m getting myself into. Familiarizing yourself with a race course is a crucial part of pre-race preparation, but it’s one that many runners skip. Oblivious, spontaneous racing can come at the expense of desirable results. So before your next race, consider these factors:
If I told you that your next 5K was straight uphill for the last mile, would you run it differently than if it were flat? Hopefully you would. That is why studying the course before the race is so important. First, locate any hills. Memorize where they are and where you are going to recover after your uphill efforts. Knowing about that smooth post-hill descent will make it that much easier to climb.
Similarly, look for any sharp turns or straightaways. If the course twists and turns at the beginning, you’ll want to start fast to avoid the backup of runners. If there are long straightaways, find landmarks or mantras to keep yourself engaged.
“But I’m slow,” you say. “Why do I need to know what my competition will be like?” Well, are you back-of-the-pack-slow or Olympic-finals-slow? There’s a big difference. A 20-minute 5K runner can be first in one race and not even place in another. Before your race, figure out how many people are racing and what the top finishing times are. Knowing these details will help you pace yourself within the pack. Darting to the front of a 10,000-person race is not the best idea unless you’re truly of that caliber—or wanting to get your face on television. Instead, get a rough understanding of where you should be in the field of runners and work your way forward. It’s always better to pass runners than to be the one being passed.
If you opt into a roasting-hot August marathon, your chance of running a personal best is pretty slim. But if it’s 50 degrees and partly cloudy at race time, that’s an entirely different experience. I don’t advise paying too much attention to uncontrollable variables, but don’t neglect to check the weather. Wind, rain, heat and snow can all impact the pacing and atmosphere of a race. Be prepared and adapt accordingly.
This is not an exhaustive list, nor is it iron-clad. Race courses are as diverse as the runners who traverse them. Your training or strategy might call for different tactics. That being said, if you consider these variables before your next race, you’ll be more confident and prepared, and your results should reflect that.