Getting Ready to Race - A Guide for Beginner Runners

05/12/2017 - 13:41

By Lena Hollmann
I want to begin this month’s column with a general note to my valued readers. After writing here in Running Journal for eight years and covering what seems like every subject under the sun that is related to masters running, I will sometimes expand my horizons and write about things that may not specifically apply to Masters runners. Hopefully you will still find a tidbit or two that you find useful, like this month when I focus on getting a beginner runner ready for his or her first race. After all, we were all beginner runners once upon a time, and a few of you may be new to running right now. Also, several of us have friends who have recently taken up running.

Last month I discovered some notes that I wrote 14 years ago, to get participants in a local beginner runner program physically and mentally ready for their first race. And it dawned on me that we were all beginners at some point. Even a seasoned runner like me can always use a few reminders about how to get ready to race!

For a new runner entering her first race, it will always be a challenge and a milestone. Her reasons for participating in an organized event instead of continuing to run on neighborhood streets or trails could be many, but to master a challenge is almost always one of them. Even if she doesn’t consider this a reason when she signs up it will evolve into one as race day nears, because she will be on unchartered territory. So, rather than aiming for a specific time I would recommend for a first time racer to focus on crossing the finish line, being somewhat challenged but at the same time as comfortable as she can.

So how is this possible, to be comfortable and challenged at the same time? Shouldn’t we step out of our comfort zone when we take on a challenge, such as a race? Whether we are beginners or experienced runners we want to perform as well as we can on race day, which means leaving our comfort zone. This is easier to do if we are prepared for what lies ahead, which is why I have addressed some of the most common new runner questions and pitfalls below.
The biggest confidence builder for a new runner is probably to have completed the race distance on a training run before attempting it in a race. But what else might a new runner want to know prior to their first race, in order to make it a positive experience? Below I will answer some questions they may have.

“Should I run the day before the race?”
For a new runner, I recommend NO. We want to feel as fresh as possible on race day. A light walk or swim may be beneficial though, especially to remove some of the pre-race jitters.

“What should I wear during the race?”
The most important piece of gear for a first time racer is a good pair of shoes, which are not brand new. Experienced runners have figured this one out of course, but beginners maybe not. For them it might be tempting to go to the store the day before their first race and get a new pair of shoes. But they will certainly regret it when they reach the finish line with their feet full of blisters! The best advice you can give a new runner is to wear a pair of shoes they have worn and felt comfortable in during several training runs, but show no visible signs of wear and tear.
Other wearables that new runners might not give enough attention to are a good and supportive jog bra for the women, and for all of us, whether new to running or not – sunscreen! Especially here in Florida, and especially during the spring and summer season, sunscreen in a must. Even if the race is early in the morning, we will get sun exposure as we are hanging out after the race, enjoying refreshments, talking to friends, and waiting for the awards ceremony.

A new runner may also feel tempted to bundle up too much, especially if it’s chilly on race day. So they need to be reminded that it’s OK to feel a little cold at the start, as they will warm up once the race is under way.

“What should I bring to the race?”
An experienced runner usually knows what to put in their race bag. However it still helps to have a checklist so that we don’t forget anything as we leave the house in haste early on race day morning. Even better, pack your bag the night before. Some things to pack are an extra shirt (as you will sweat and may want to change), warm-up clothes for pre-race, a towel, a banana or other light snack for after the race, extra pins, a water bottle or two, and if it looks like it might rain, a garbage bag or raincoat to wear before the start. Again, most of us know how to pack for a race. But for a new runner a checklist will come in handy, for their comfort and confidence.

“What should I eat before the race?”
This varies from person to person. In order to avoid unpleasant surprises on race day, it’s a good idea to test before heading out on training runs what works for each of us. The best advice for a new runner is to eat foods they are familiar with the night before and morning of the race, and nothing too spicy. Personally, I will have a cup of coffee and a slice of toast or two on race morning, and this should work for most new runners as well.

Last but not the least, we need to pay attention to hydration. I could write an entire column about this, as the amount we need to drink depends on a number of factors, among them the weight of the runner and the weather on race day. A general guideline for a new runner would be to drink enough so they don’t feel thirsty but not so much that they feel bloated. And also to drink plenty after the race, to replenish fluids lost.

“When should I arrive at the race site?”
For a new racer, not arriving early enough to the race is probably the biggest pitfall of all. They might believe that if they get there 20 minutes before the start, they have plenty of time. So, it cannot be emphasized enough that runners need to allow an abundance of time for parking, warm-up, potty visit, etc. etc. If they haven’t picked up their race packet beforehand, they need to allow additional time for that. I would recommend arriving 45 minutes to an hour ahead of time at a minimum, more than so for larger races. And again, make sure a new runner knows to allow time for the potty line!

“How do I control nervousness before the race?”
I’m not nearly as nervous before races now as I was during my more competitive days. I race mostly for fun now, and have raced for so many years that it has become routine. But for a new runner arriving at a race site for the first time, it is a different story! They need to know that being a little bit nervous can be a good sign and nothing to worry about. This indicates that they are geared up and concentrated on the task at hand. But if pre-race nervousness bothers them, they need to remind themselves that they are doing the race for fun, and that they have done it before, even though it was in a different setting, on a training run. (This why having completed the race distance on training can be so very helpful!) To have a friend or a support group on site also helps, which is one reason why beginner runner group programs can be an important confidence builder.

I hope you can pick out what applies to you, or maybe to a friend who is new to racing, from the advice I have shared here. Maybe you even have a Masters runner friend or two that you can inspire to join you at the races after they realize how fun and easy it can be!

Lena Hollmann is a certified personal trainer with American Council on Exercise (ACE). She lives and runs in Naples, FL, and can be reached at

This article appeared in the May issue of Running Journal.

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