Your Top Racing Questions, Answered

Your top racing questions answered

Whether you are embarking on your first road race or aiming for a marathon PR, it is normal to have lots of questions crop up during training. Will you be ready for your goal? Are you fueling right or pacing correctly? While a common answer is “trust your training,” you need to be able to understand your training or race strategy to trust it. These are answers to some of the most common questions I’ve received about racing – and hopefully, the answers give you more trust in the process of training and racing! 

A half marathon feels so hard at the end. How will I be able to race another 13.1 miles?
  1. Pacing. No matter your skill level, you are racing a half marathon at a faster pace than you will race a marathon. Half marathon pace is a higher intensity than marathon pace. For many runners, this intensity is near or at lactate threshold. Lactate threshold is the point where your body can not longer efficiently clear lactate and its associated metabolic byproducts. The accumulation of the byproducts affects cellular processes of muscle contraction, thus causing fatigue. In the marathon, you are not running so close to your lactate threshold – and therefore fatigue via accumulation is delayed. (This is why proper pacing is so important in the marathon! For well-trained runners, there may only be 20 seconds per mile difference between marathon pace and half marathon pace.)
  2. The power of training! When you race a half marathon, you have done your long runs targeted for that distance (10-16 miles). When you race a marathon, your long runs extend well past the 2.5 hour mark, which elicits more physiological adaptations for endurance. The training is what makes the difference! 
How often should I take gels during the race?

If you are following the instructions of the back of the GU wrapper (every 45 minutes), you are under-fueling. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends 50-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour, spread out at 20-30 minute intervals. These guidelines mean you will want to take a gel (or another source of 20-30 g carbs) every 30 minutes during the race. 

Yes, that will seem like a lot during the marathon. However, a significant culprit of fatigue in the marathon is glycogen depletion. When you run out of carbohydrates in either glucose or glycogen, you rely on fatty acid oxidization. The problem is, this only works at submaximal intensities below 60-70% of VO2max….aka slower than marathon pace. As a result, you slow down. 

I can tell you from first-hand coaching experience: a gel or pack of chew every 30 minutes, combined with a carb load, works. I have had athletes run negative splits, break four hours in their first marathon, and shock themselves with massive marathon PRs using this strategy. Just be sure to practice your fueling in training!

How do I dress on race day?

Cooling wastes precious energy. This is why you run slower in the heat. In short, your body relies on the sweat mechanism to cool. In order for the sweat mechanism to properly work, your body increases blood flow to the skin – and reduces blood flow to the working muscles. Your heart rate increases to maintain your pace or you slow down. 

The harder you are running, the more heat your body produces as a result of metabolic processes. Race efforts generate a lot of heat – and that heat needs somewhere to go. If you dress too warmly, you lose the ability to efficiently dissipate heat. For this reason, you want to dress as if it is 15-20 degrees Fahrenheit (8-11 C) warmer than it actually is. If it is a colder race, keeping your core warm will prevent the negative effects of heat loss.  

How can I stay cool in a hot race?

In the best case, a hot race means you run slower than normal. The worst-case scenarios range from an epic crash to heat exhaustion to heat stroke. During a hot race, you want to practice cooling strategies to control your core temperature. The simplest is to dump plain water from aid stations on your head and neck. On very hot races, you can even tuck ice in your hat or sports bra. This strategy aids in keeping your core temperature under control. Pre-cooling strategies also work, especially when combined with mid-race cooling. Add ice to your electrolyte drink or coffee before the race and use a cooling cloth or ice pack before you start. (For more tips on racing in the heat, read here!)

How do I pace hills during a race?

Uphill running drastically increases the oxygen cost of running. Your muscles have to work harder to propel you against gravity and up a hill. As a result, your breathing rate and heart rate increase. When you are running a long-distance race, the sudden increase in oxygen cost can cause you to fatigue later on if you try to hold the same pace on uphills. If the hills are early in the race or the entire course is hilly, you will want to mitigate the increased oxygen cost by maintaining your effort on uphills – which translates to a slower pace on the uphills. Exactly how much slower will depend on the gradient of the hill, its duration, and your economy and strength in uphill running  – which is why you want to focus on effort. (Here’s how to become a stronger hill runner.)

Likewise, you want to use the downhill to your advantage, as the oxygen cost is lower. You do not want to supercharge the downhills, but you will find that you are naturally faster at your race effort compared to flat. However, the muscle damage is higher, so be mindful to have good form and lean into the downhill.

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9 Responses

  1. Thanks for these tips, Laura!
    I’ll remember that fueling tip: a gel every 30 minutes. I will need to practice that in my training and see how it works.

  2. I took a gel every 30 minutes in my marathon a few weeks ago and I really think it helped me to keep running even though it was a hard race. Previously, I had fueled based on distance , but fueling by time makes so much more sense. I had been fueling close to that on my training runs too and at first it felt like alot but I really got used to it!

  3. I love these.

    If I don’t fuel enough, I do bonk… hard to remember when you may not be hungry.

    Hills are my nemesis… but I do do what you suggested. Slow pace often translates into a fast walk for me.

  4. All these years of running and racing and I still have troubles fueling correctly, especially in marathons. My stomach gives me a lot of problems during races so it can be really hard to stay on a fueling schedule. Working on it. 🙂

  5. Great questions and great answers! Thanks!! A huge awakening for me (years ago) was when I was told to not fight the hills, going up OR down. For me, that translates to running the incline “easily” (or power walking, depending on the grade…being tall, with long legs, I can often walk a hill faster than I can run it). As for the decline, I just let my legs go, but with caution. If I try to race downhill, I risk face-planting (again, long legs LOL).

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