Common Racing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Racing requires experience. The more often you race, the more you will refine your racing strategy. But even frequent racers and advanced runners are prone to common racing mistakes – especially if you are just getting back into racing after time off.

The following racing mistakes are common to all runners. Chances are, you have made them once. But you can learn from them, grow as a runner, and avoid these common racing mistakes in the future. 

Changes Your Normal Routine

Race day nerves can lead to second-guessing and irrational choices. Perhaps you have never had oatmeal before any run, but you read that Shalane Flanagan ate it before every race. You decide to try it, only to learn it sits too heavy on your stomach and you cramp mid-race.

Virtually every runner has committed this error. For my first half marathon, I was so nervous that I skipped my normal morning cup of coffee. While I still ran a strong, enjoyable race, deviating from my normal routine did me no favors. 

It’s cliche, but it is true: nothing new on race day. New gear can cause chafing or blistering; new shoes can hurt; and new foods can cause stomach upset.

 While race day is special, treat it like a normal day in some aspects. Eat the same pre-race meal you usually eat. If you drink caffeine normally, have caffeine before your race; if you never consume it, do not start now. Don’t wear new shoes or clothes.

You Engage in Negative Self-Talk

Often subconsciously, the phrase “I can’t keep doing this” creeps into the minds of even the most well-trained runners during a race. Negative thoughts can ruin the race of even the fittest runner out there.

The power of positive self-talk is not some hokey pseudo-science. A 2014 study published in Medicine and Science of Sports and Exercise concluded that motivational self-talk reduces the rate of perceived exertion and improves performance in endurance athletes. 

You do not have to embrace a Pollyanna level of saccharine self-talk. Ignoring the discomfort of racing is just as detrimental. Simply reframing negative thoughts with neutral ones can provide a tremendous performance boost.

Rather than thinking “this is hard, I can’t do it,” frame the thought as “this is hard, but I trained for this and will give it my best.” “This hurts too much” can be replaced by “I will focus on five minutes at a time.” (If you still fall into the trap, read this full article on how to overcome a negative mindset on race day.)

Inadequate Fueling Holds You Back

You do not need to pop open a GU in the middle of a 5K race; it will barely hit your bloodstream by the time you cross the finish line. However, for races lasting longer than 80-90 minutes, you are putting yourself at a disadvantage if you run on empty. Even under-fueling is a common racing mistake that many runners do not realize they are making.

Fueling on race day is different than fueling during long runs. You may be able to complete a two hour long run with nothing more than water. During a race, however, your energy needs are higher, since you are running at a higher intensity. 

A large body of research indicates that runners can take – and run well off of – 60+ grams of carbs per hour during a race. That’s a significant amount more than the 22 grams of carbs from gel every 45-60 minutes that most runners take. In a 2013 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, they found that marathoners who consumed 60 go of carbs per hour ran 15 minutes faster in the marathon than those who self-selected fueling intervals. 

Not everyone needs 60 grams per hour, but you may see a radical difference if you consume 45 grams per hour vs 25-30. Be sure to practice on at least one long run training though – nothing new on race day includes fueling frequency! 

Don’t wait until you are hungry or feel tired to take in calories. Start fueling early into the race – within the first 30 to 45 minutes. Any calories take several minutes to absorb into your bloodstream; wait too long, and you will be running on empty by the time the calories hit your bloodstream. 

How many calories and carbs will depend on your height and weight, but don’t skimp on race day. And while you may think you do not need fuel, or as many carbs per hour, in the half marathon, remember that you are running at a harder intensity than the marathon – which means you are burning more carbohydrates per mile. 

You Let a Bad Mile Determine Your Race

Inevitably, a bad mile happens in even the most serendipitous of races. Whether your mind goes to a dark place of self-doubt or your lungs are screaming at you, you will experience a mile that could make you question everything. But those miles are not predictors of the remainder of the race; they simply are what they are. 

One of the most pernicious yet common racing mistakes is to sentence your race to doom after one bad mile. You can always rally and dig deeper into the well. If a slower than desired or abnormally hard mile happens, accept it and then simply focus on the next one, which you can control. 

You Obsess Too Much About Finish Time

Yes, finish times can bear special meaning, especially when it comes to qualifying for races such as the Boston Marathon. But finish times do not always reflect the race you ran. 

During the race itself, fixating on your finish time too much can ruin your race. Too much pressure can lead to excessive stress – and stress is the energy of performance. You can lose your ability to be present in the current mile, make poor pacing decisions, or quit pushing when you still have something to give. 

Likewise, factors beyond your control – think the weather at the 2018 Boston Marathon – will affect your finish time. No race guarantees unicorns and rainbows. However, you can still put forth your best performance that day, even if it ends up being far off your goal time. 

What racing mistakes did make in the past?

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11 Responses

  1. Great tips, Laura!
    When things get hard, it’s so easy to tell yourself that you “can’t do it”.
    I found that having a set of easy to remember mantras really helped me to avoid negative self-talk.

  2. Great tips. I try all of these. I always fuel even on my long runs. I’ve been pretty successful also on not wearing or looking at my watch so my pace doesn’t become a negative factor. I eat the same breakfast for every race. The pandemic has helped me with racing for not for time.

  3. Staying on your normal routine can be challenging on a race day but it sure helps. I went through a time of tracking my negative self talk and reframing it It was a great lesson to me. I hope I am better at it now

  4. I think self talk is such a huge factor…in one’s success or (unfortunately) failure. My 2018 marathon in North Carolina was so tough. It was my comeback marathon from the previous year’s knee surgery, so I had a lot of emotional collateral invested. The course was horribly hilly (and had not been advertised as such) and the crowd support was pathetic (at least in miles 10-25). Somehow, I came up with the mantra “too much grit to quit” and that powered me through…even with a lot more walking than I’d ever imagined.

  5. It is so true how positive self talk can get you through a tough race, I’ve posted I about it often. I swear by it.
    Fueling on the other hand is tough for me. Sometimes I can’t stomach the thought of taking in another energy gel even when I know I should.

  6. Such a good point about fueling. Since I haven’t raced in so long I’ve really slacked on my fueling. I might take 1 gel or some raisins during long runs, but not even all the time. Whenever I start preparing for a real race again I’m going to really need to work on that!

  7. Oh, I’ve done all those things. I also freak out when the finish line is near. One would think I might be excited to be done, but no. For some reason, I have some bizarre finishing anxiety, and have been known to hyperventilate, especially if I am running an “important” race or one I love.

  8. I’m pretty sure I’ve made most of these mistakes over the years I’ve been running. Not fueling properly is probably my biggest issue. I have always had problems with my stomach during marathons so I’ve been hesitant to “mess with success” when I’m feeling good, which, of course, is not a good strategy.

  9. It’s very easy to get sidetracked when it comes to preparing for races, which can make the actual races themselves needlessly challenging. Great tips to be seen here!

  10. All great tips Laura! I think of every long run as a dress rehearsal for my race. I practice with gear, pacing, fuel, attire, self-talk, even weather conditions. It really helps.

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