How to Get Back Into Racing After Time Off

At the publication of this article, one long year has passed since a majority of runners have raced. Fortunately, with Covid-19 vaccination roll-outs, a return to racing will occur sooner than later. Many runners are planning their first race back in several months – you may be one of them. That first race after a hiatus can feel both exciting and intimidating. These tips will help you get back into racing! 

Racing hiatuses occur outside of the 2020-2021 Covid-19 pandemic. You may have a long layoff from racing due to injury, illness, or pregnancy/postpartum. Whatever the reason for a hiatus, these tips will help you with returning to racing after a break! 

How to get back into racing

Practice Race Effort in Training

Racing brings a unique level of suffering for a runner. The final quarter of any distance is a battle of the mind and body both wanting to stop. Chances are, if you have not lined up at a start line in a long time, you have not entered the pain cave in a long time. Like many skills, enduring the final miles of a race is refined by practice; without practice, your ability to dig deep may soften.

That is not a license to run too fast on all of your workouts. You do not want to dip into the well more than once per month. You can practice the skill of suffering through certain workouts (such as these), a time trial, or a virtual event. Be sure to allow appropriate time to recover; you do not want to do this within three weeks of your actual race (four to six weeks before is ideal). 

Retrain Your Gut 

A long time may have passed since you last took a gel during a run – much less tried to eat one while breathing hard. Your body adapts to stimuli; without eating on a run in a long time, you may be prone to stomach upset. Or you may feel clumsy at eating on a run without practice! 

However, the gut is a muscle and can be trained. Spend the few weeks leading up to your race training your gut to handle carbs mid-run again. Begin with a lower dosage of carbohydrates (30-35g per hour) and then add a bit more each week until you can tolerate enough to support a race (30-60 g per hour). Practice hydrating with your gels also, as this aids in absorption and reduces the risk of GI upset.

 If you can, begin on medium-long runs first; it is easier to deal with GI upset if you are only running for an hour. (Typically you do not need mid-run fuel on an hour-long run, but for the purpose of gut training, you want to fuel on a few shorter runs). Then introduce them on longer runs and gradually increase the quantity. Finally, in the week leading up, take a gel on your final tune-up workout (approximately four to six days out), so that your gut stays trained to intaking fuel. 

Gut training is a process. The first time you take a gel after months of forgoing them, you may experience a small amount of GI upset. Give yourself time to adapt; you will likely notice that after one or two runs of fueling, you feel better. 

Adjust Your Mindset

For many runners, physical fitness is not their biggest obstacle on race day – their mindset is. A negative mindset can set you up for failure before you even cross the start line. Many runners fall into a negative mindset when they are slower than they hope or the race feels harder than they want. 

This mindset emerges when an athlete has a fixed, outcome-oriented mindset. The race becomes an all-or-nothing, even though it is a single day in your running career. This all-or-nothing mindset is a pernicious trap during a comeback race, since it has been so long since you raced that the event carries extra emotional weight. Everyone wants to make a strong comeback, after all. 

However, a fixed, outcome-oriented mindset only holds you back. It fosters negative thoughts that can sabotage your performance. This type of mindset holds you back from your full potential, both long-term and short-term. It produces anxiety around racing, which is not an emotion that harms both experience and performance. However, it is possible to overcome a negative mindset!

Instead, focus on growth and the process. With this mindset, you do not treat a single run as all-or-nothing. You do not view a race as a test that passes permanent judgment. Rather, you view a race as a challenge that is part of your lifelong journey as a runner. 

Shifting to a positive mindset for racing is difficult work, yet worthwhile work. When facing your comeback race, equip yourself with mantras to remind yourself that it is not all-or-nothing. These mantras may include:

  • I get to race and am prepared for whatever the day throws at me. 
  • Just do the work. 
  • I am in charge of my reactions.
  • I am capable of stepping up to challenges. 

No matter how your race goes, remember that:

  • Racing is a gift and ultimately an experience to enjoy. 
  • Good days are never a fluke. 
  • A bad race is a single day in your fitness journey and does not define you. 
  • You can learn and grow from a sub-optimal experience. 

Set Non-Finish Time Goals

Depending on how long your hiatus from racing lasted, you may choose to focus on goals other than a finish time. Even as marathons resume, pandemic stresses can hinder you from achieving peak performance, and the last thing you want is to be let down in your first race after a year of cancellations. Plus, focusing too much on a finish time can actually prevent you from hitting your full potential. 

Non-finish time goals can include:

  • Not starting too fast and running a negative split
  • Thanking volunteers and waving at spectators
  • Nailing your nutrition plan
  • Throwing down a strong finish kick in the final 800 meters
  • Practicing positive self-talk

If you are focused on a finish time, be mindful not to compare to your pre-hiatus PRs. This is especially true if you are returning after an injury, having a baby, living through a pandemic year, or taking a break due to burnout. Your potential in running is not a fixed point; it is a shifting spectrum based on your age, training, good and bad stress levels, life circumstances, and other factors. Think of your race as your post-baby, post-injury, or post-pandemic PR. 

Embrace The Experience

No matter the reason for time off, the first race back is a joyful opportunity. Before the race, make a list of what you missed most from racing. Maybe it’s the spectators, the start line excitement, the marathon distance itself, or the reward of crossing the finish line. Review your list before you race and bring your focus to these things during the race. Savor the full experience. 

 After a year of no mass events during the Covid-19 pandemic, most runners simply want to get back into racing and compete. Go into your first race after a break with an open mind and eager heart. Even when the final miles hurt, find enjoyment in that – racing is a gift! 

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Are you excited for races to resume? What’s your plans for your first race back?

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14 Responses

  1. I will have my first race in two weeks, on 27 March. It’s an ultra (76k) and I am terrified.
    I will think about your tips on having a positive mindset. Especially – I get to race – it’s a gift!

  2. These are all great tips. Even if you don’t take time off.

    A positive mindset is the most important. As well as goals not related to finish time. I and others set a b and c time goals. Nope. No more.

  3. My last IRL race was in Bermuda back in mid-February 2020. Sigh. I runfess I’ve kind of enjoyed just running for the fun of it, with no time or distance goals. It will be nice to get back to racing for the friendship and community of it though!

  4. My last in-person race was in Bermuda in mid-February 2020. I runfess that since then, I’ve enjoyed running for pure enjoyment, with no time or distance goals. It will be good to get back to racing for the friendship and social connection with the running community though!

  5. These are all so great. I’m so glad you are back in the game, and feeling like yourself again. I know those were hard days.

    My stomach definitely needs to be retrained for races. I had that all down to an art and then when I broke my leg, I fell out of practice. Whoops.

  6. I’ve done very few races in the last 6 years due to injury, pregnancy and COVID. I am not sure if I will do a fall race or not. It kind of depends on how our numbers are looking and what precautions will be in place. Its going to be weird to race again at some point!

  7. Interesting point, to retrain your gut. You wouldn’t normally think of that, but I’ve found that my gut does need a little reminder when I start running faster and farther again. Great post!

  8. I don’t have a race planned yet, but I’m feeling that when I do it will feel like my very first race ever. Nervous, unsure of what will happen, but excited at the same time. I have kept up my training, at least at the level I could run a half marathon (and I’ve done a couple of virtual ones). But retraining my gut really hit home. Of all the issues I’ve had with running marathons lately, stomach problems have been the worst. I need to revisit my fueling choices, which I haven’t bothered to do in the last year (because no races).

  9. I absolutely LOVE what you say about MINDSET! A couple of years ago (I saw as the memory popped up on my feed yesterday) I ran a Half Marathon and at 15/16km I let all the negative thoughts in – I lost it completely and was so disappointed afterwards. But a few weeks down I realised this poor race was the best thing for me, as it showed me all the things I needed to work on including my mental game.

  10. All wonderful tips, Laura. I have run a few small races this year, but you are right about training my gut. When I get to run longer races again, I need to learn (again) how to eat to refuel.

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