There are so many ways to approach a race. This can depend on each individual, their preference, how disciplined they are, motivation, and a whole bunch of other factors. A large part of my approach to races has been from trial and error. I try to learn as much as I can from each race and become more efficient in the next one. I have not used a coach in my racing career up to this point and do not plan to at this time. I don’t have the extra money to dedicate to a coach and have been successful (so far) in my ability to learn from my mistakes and become a stronger runner. Keep in mind that I am not a professional and do not have goals that would require me to have an extremely fast time. I am an ultra runner that goes into each race enjoying the journey and experience that these races and challenges can give me. I do not plan to qualify for Kona or run a sub 3-hour marathon. Big respect to those of you who can. For those of you that take more of a self-motivated approach to training, let me share with you what has worked for me.
The most important learning strategy I use is the race report. As soon as possible after a race, write up every detail you can remember about your experience. Even if it is a detail you don;t feel is significant it may be in the future. I often read my race reports and remember a strategy that worked well or didn’t. This is especially helpful if you plan to return to the same race or event in the future. I have even used my voice recorder to record a few details of the race while I am on the course so that I remember to include them in the report. I have even written notes about particularly significant training runs or bike rides I have done in preparation for the races.
Be sure to thoroughly document what worked well and what didn’t work and why. Some strategies that worked well for a while may become not so good as you develop as an athlete. It’s nice to document this development, including the time, the level you are at, and the adjustments you had to make. For example, I tend to heat up quickly when I start to run. I am freezing pre-race and bundle up while waiting for the race to start. Then, 5 minutes into the race I am about to die of heat exhaustion (sarcasm). I learned to take some old, clean knee high socks (you can get them at the dollar store), cut the toes out, and make perfect arm warmers. Then you can pitch them as soon as you warm up. A good strategy to remember for future races and I documented how well that worked.
Many times I will encounter challenges that I did not expect during a race. I have run countless smaller races, triathlons, and ultras and still will be surprised sometimes of a particular challenge. I once did a training run on the beach and encountered high wind, rain, snow, flurries, drop in temp to the 20’s, running wet, sand challenge, and did this all overnight to get ready for the Destin race in a matter of 10 hours. There were also some nutritional issues that became a factor in this training run. I documented the run and adjusted my strategy for the race based on what I learned. Many times you never know until you try. This can be why having a coach is very beneficial. They have been there and done that so they can tell you how to prepare and adjust your strategy. The rest of us have to learn the hard way.
My biggest tip would be to always pack extra food, water, and warm clothes. Much easier to have something and not need it rather than been desperately needing something. For food, be sure to bring lots of different kinds of food because your tastes will change after a long day of training. I use to bring just a few pieces of my favorite foods until I found out that I have a reduced appetite when I am tired, in pain, or hot. Bring food that is easy to eat like soup. I always bring organic tomato soup to each race and seem to be able to eat that without a problem in all different challenges. Chicken broth is good also.
Train how you race! Train with the food, water, and electrolyte supplements you plan to use on the race. No surprises on race day. GI issues are one of the biggest challenges for endurance athletes. The last thing you want to do is find out that the food you brought is not going to cooperate with you the day of the race. I know for a fact that any kind of carbonated drink is going to tear my stomach up so I don’t train with it or have it on race day. Experiment and document.
Your pre-race preparation is important to get right. I have a routine I try to follow before each race. This allows me to have everything ready, packed, categorized, and not forgotten. Having all that done and ready allows me to focus on getting as much rest as possible the two days before a race. Make a list of what you need. Get your drop bags packed and ready. Do as much prep as you can so that on race day you can focus on being calm, happy, and focused. Also, have backup supplies such as bike helmet, water bottles, chap stick, GU, just in case you forget it. For my first Ironman, I left all my water bottles for the bike in the fridge. They had my Tailwind supplement in them and I had to go without. I learned my lesson and pack extra bottles and supplements just encase now.