How to get ready to run races again

It’s been a year since most runners have lined up on race day. Here’s how to prepare.

The weekend of March 27 was a big one for Tricia Cecil — it was her first big return to racing in a year.

The 38-year-old from Maryland was gunning for a good time when she lined up at the Two Rivers Marathon, not far from home. While she was excited and raring to go, Cecil also admits it was nerve racking to officially get back in the saddle.

As races start to return in earnest, Cecil is going to find herself in good company. Other than virtual or very small options, the past year has been largely void of live events. Getting your body and mind prepped to face the demands of racing again will be a challenge — in some ways, almost like starting over again.

Your mileage may vary, of course, and much is dependent on how fit you stayed throughout the pandemic. Natalie Mitchell, a coach with True Potential Coaching, based out of Los Angeles, says that many of her clients took time away from any real training throughout the pandemic.

‘They key is to ease back in… Focus on the small things, like getting out the door consistently, sleep, hydration, strength work, and just having fun.’

“Many people had full plates, balancing remote work, having kids at home, and all the other extra tasks of the pandemic,” she says. “They’re just now getting back to training.”

Others, like Cecil, have done their best to stay close to race ready. “I have run consistently throughout the pandemic,” she says. “I did different challenges in place of racing, like the Goggin’s Challenge to raise money for a local charity, racing different Strava segments, and training for the mile.”

When she decided last December to race in the spring, Cecil began more regimented training, adding in tempo workouts, track workouts and marathon-pace runs.

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, real-live racing will probably feel a bit foreign after a long break. Mitchell and coach Cory Smith, of Run Your Personal Best, have suggestions on how to ramp up mentally and physically.

Get the body ready

Mitchell says that as runners get their vaccines and races start showing up on calendars, the inclination is to jump back into training to ramp up quickly. “The key is to ease back in,” she says, however. “Focus on the small things, like getting out the door consistently, sleep, hydration, strength work, and just having fun.”

She also recommends playing around with your training and giving yourself some wiggle room with your schedule. “Don’t put pressure on yourself to hit a certain mileage or pace,” she says.

“If you get out there and don’t feel good, cut it short. Give yourself the time and space to do what you want for a while, with the goal of simply getting fit again.”

‘We always talk about ‘no new on race day,’ but this is a good time to get out of your comfort zone and explore some new things’

Once you have identified a race on the calendar, add in a warmup race or two to help work out the kinks. “Allow yourself to make some mistakes,” says Mitchell. “We always talk about ‘no new on race day,’ but this is a good time to get out of your comfort zone and explore some new things.”

This might include new distances or terrains. If you’re a regular marathoner, for instance, maybe use this transition period to run a couple of fast 5ks. Or if you’ve never ventured off road, try a trail race.

Another pointer Mitchell offers is making an appointment with your PT for a little tune up. “Have your PT check for imbalances and look in on any aches or pains you might be having,” she says. “Get ahead with a pre-hab routine so that nothing advances to requiring rehab.”

Get the mind ready

While it’s natural to think of all the physical training you need to return to racing, don’t discount the mental side of the equation. “Racing is a skill, one that needs to be practiced,” says Smith. “Mentally, you need to go into it knowing that.”

Smith says he is having conversations with many clients right now about returning to racing. “In general, I’m seeing two types,” he explains. “Those who are really amped up and likely to overestimate their current ability, and those with anxiety about trying to race again.”

For the former, Smith works to help them bring expectations down a bit. “The goal of a first race back should be to get your feet wet,” he says. “You want to come out of it excited to do another, rather than demoralized.”

With a long break in racing, many runners will naturally forget how uncomfortable they can be for a sustained period of time. “Workouts are great for practicing this, but you still get breaks,” Smith reminds. “With races, there are no breaks.”

Avoid the temptation to add pressure to yourself by keeping your cards a little closer to the vest. “In these days of social media, everyone might know you’re racing this weekend,” says Smith. “That can be a lot to deal with if you have a disappointing result.”

‘The goal of a first race back should be to get your feet wet’

If you do get pulled in to going out too hard and crashing and burning —something every runner has undoubtedly experienced — allow yourself some space to feel down and process that. “Then go back to the drawing board and put another race on the calendar,” advises Smith.

For those on the more cautious side who are worried about how a first race back will play out, have a look at your training logs. “No one races well 100 percent of the time, but if you can remind yourself that training went well, it will help your confidence,” Smith says.

That’s the tactic Cecil is using as she closes in on race day. “I looked at the workouts I nailed,” she says, “things like 13 miles at marathon pace or 10 by 1K at 10K pace. I reminded myself that I crushed these solo, usually in the dark on tired legs, and often in bad weather.”

She’s going into this race feeling as confident as anyone can following a long break in live events. “A marathon is a hell of a rust buster,” Cecil says. “But I am ready to nail this marathon. I’m itching to race and see what I can do.”


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