Q: I’m running my first half marathon next month. I’m excited but scared that my race will go horribly wrong, especially after I’ve put all this work into training. What are some of the racing mistakes first timers make and how can I avoid them? ~Colleen
Colleen you’re feeling the exact emotions you should be at this point in your training. If we lined up one hundred first time half marathoners and asked who was nervous all of them would raise their hands (if they were honest). It’s part of the journey towards achieving outside of your comfort zone.
It can be helpful to ground yourself in reviewing your log and thinking about the strong runs that you’ve gotten in this season. All the training has been dress rehearsals for race day and you’re ready to go. Think of race day as graduation rather than a test as once the gun goes off, all the worries will drift away and you’ll soon be running in your race day zone.
That said, here are some common mistakes first timers should avoid when racing.
Setting your hopes and dreams on a finish time. Think of it, when you set a specific goal time, anything slower than that will seem like failure, when finishing your first half marathon is all about success. Avoid setting a specific time because racing just doesn’t work this way. It can be hot or cold, or windy and all these factors and more effect your race day performance. It’s wise to set your goals on finishing strong and celebrating every mile along the way because you only get to run your first half marathon once – enjoy it!
Trying something new race week. The number one rule in racing is to go with what you know. In other words, don’t try anything new race week. There is a phase of training called taper madness that develops about ten days out from race day. It can cause you to second guess everything from what to wear on race day to what to eat. It can hit you really hard in the Expo when there are new treats to try and socks to wear. Your mind is in a temporary state of nervousness and is looking for something to sooth the endless thoughts of fear that run like a broken record in your head. Be aware of taper madness, embrace the madness by going with what you know and avoiding anything new race week. Eat familiar foods, wear your go-to running apparel and shoes, and stick to the long run fuel menu you’ve used in training. Mark my words, there will come a moment when you’re on the edge of thinking about trying something new and when this happens, think of this column and go with what you know. It will save you from chafing mishaps, gastro-intestinal distress and other mishaps.
Getting in that last long run one week before the race. Another mistake that is made thanks to taper madness is running too much the week of the race when you should be resting. When you race a long distance event like a half marathon, it is important to invest in just enough movement to keep your legs fresh. For the average first timer, this is usually running 3-4 times for 30-45 minutes. My plans start with a 40-minute run early in the week and then taper to 30 minute runs and a 20-minute run the day or two before the race. Running any more than that risks leaving too much on the training path and toeing the line fatigued rather than refreshed. I broke this habit with one of my coaching clients and it allowed her to run ten minutes faster. She had a nervous habit of running a 12 miler the week before the race to make sure she was ready, but all it did was appease her mind. She ended up finishing all her races much slower than her potential and crashed and burned at 10 miles. Once she invested in a taper, she ran a 6-miler the week before, then shorter easier effort runs and ended up running stronger and cutting ten minutes off her time. In order for your body and mind to perform optimally, it needs to be well prepared and well rested. If one is off balance it will dramatically effect your performance. This also goes for spending too much time at the Expo standing on your feet, working lots of hours race week and burning the candle at both ends. Taper all of your life activities race week and it will pay off on race day.
Running like the hare rather than the tortoise. This is the number one mistake all runners make on race day. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and run too hard too soon. Try this to avoid the crash and burn that happens from running like the hare…Run by color instead of by pace. Instead of trying to pace yourself with your watch (which is like guessing the winning lottery numbers), run by your body and by effort.
Yellow Zone – Miles 0-7: Run the first seven miles at an easy, conversational effort (a.k.a. the Yellow Zone). If you can’t talk to your friend in full sentences you’re going too fast! Slow down. Running in this zone will allow you to run like Wonder Woman in the end if you invest in it.
Orange Zone – Miles 8 -12: Increase your effort to one level above the Yellow Zone and a pace where you hear your breathing but you’re not out of breath. At this effort, you can speak only in one word answers. This is also the point in the race where you can go fishing. Because you’ve conserved your energy early on, you will be able to cast out your invisible fishing line and hook a runner ahead of you and pass them (nicely). There is nothing more motivating than to be able to run strong in the final miles of a race and pass people. It keeps your mind focused and allows you to run stronger than you could ever imagine (promise). But, you’ve got to invest in it early on – and run by your body/effort rather than your watch.
Red Zone – The final 1.1 Miles: The final 1.1 miles is when you make the magic happen. You know the end is close and you’ve saved just enough energy to dial it up one more notch into the red zone. This isn’t an all out sprint, but a hard, but controlled effort that requires your full attention. You’re not able to speak in this zone, but no worries it doesn’t last that long. Soon you’ll be wearing a medal and will be talking non-stop about your experience.
Running Mindlessly. One of the challenges of running 13.1 miles is that you’re running 13.1 miles! My family used to tell me, “that’s a long way to drive let alone run!” They’re right! It is, but there’s nothing worse than thinking about running that far at the start line. It will overwhelm you in seconds. A better strategy is to toe the line with a simple mental strategy – to eat the elephant one bite at a time. That is, break the distance up into smaller, more digestible pieces and focus on one small bite at a time. A great way to do this is to review the course map, and break it up by interesting locations along the way. Another way is to break the distance up one mile at a time. When you reach one mile, perform a form check (see below) and then reset your focus to the next mile.
Perform a Form Check Every Mile
- Head = balanced over your shoulders, eyes focused forward
- Shoulders/Arms = relaxed and swinging like a pendulum naturally with hands relaxed
- Hips = under your shoulders
- Feet = landing with short, quick strides under your hips
Running more than 13.1 miles. When an elite runner races an event, they employ various strategies to win and to use the least amount of energy making their way from the start to the finish. That is because long distance racing is all amount energy management. One such strategy is to run the tangents on the course. When a course is measured (and certified) it follows the tangents to the curves. A tangent is a straight line just outside the curve (or as close to the curve while still on the road). Set yourself up to run the tangents on the turns. This will help you run only 13.1 miles and it will keep your mind actively engaged in running the course as you think your way through every turn. If you don’t, you can add another quarter mile to the race!
Hurrying through the aid stations. Hydration and energy are two very important ingredients in half marathon success. It can be tempting to hurry through the aid stations to save time, but when you do, you miss the opportunity to get the fuel in you rather than on you. Navigate the aid stations efficiently by running in the center of the street and toward the middle set of tables (avoid the first tables because that’s where everyone stops, so the course bottlenecks). Pay attention to the order of the fluids — water or sports drink, as that’s how it will be for the rest of the course. Identify a volunteer by looking at them in the eye or pointing, take the fluids, get them in you rather than on you, thank the volunteer, and be on your way. Establish an aid station system, and hit the repeat button on it at every stop. Treat every aid station like a triathlon transition, thinking ahead of time about what you need, where you’ll get fluid, and what you’ll drink.