28 April, 2023
It's 'marathon season' but not every runner is rushing towards their start line in anticipation...
For many people the commencement of Spring has been readily greeted with open arms because it marks the start of more good things to come. First, the changeover to daylight savings time means there are now more hours of daylight to enjoy, in weather that has mostly improved. With Spring temperatures now occasionally dipping into the double digits we can also spend more time outside without having to be swaddled in heavy winter woollies. Then there’s an abundance of seasonal produce now available on supermarket shelves which is welcome in most kitchens. Even though this new Spring veg has to compete for the appetites of those with too many leftover chocolate eggs. And lastly, the start of Spring also means that the Summer is not so distant in the future and so we are just a little bit closer to long summer holidays and lazy days ahead.
But not everyone is quite at ease as we begin a new season. There is another group of people who will are feeling slightly more nervous and even a bit anxious about the Spring. Some of them even wish that time had stood still for little longer. Because these people are now having to face up to something they did many, many moons ago. And just like Brexit, it was totally unnecessary. Alas, it was also self-inflicted. This group of people is made up of runners who intentionally signed up to run in a Spring event. And they all have the appearance of deer caught in the headlights of a double-decker bus, while the countdown to their race day rushes towards them at breakneck speed.
Of course not every runner who signed up for an event this Spring can relate to this. Some participants will be ticking off their calendars with what can only be described as unbridled glee. And if that’s the case, you may be wondering how couldn’t anybody else feel excited and looking forward to trying to accomplish an amazing goal or smashing their PB? Well if, like me, you are a member of the other slightly startled-looking group then the thought of achieving some epic result cannot enter your mind. Our heads are already too full of potential DNFs swirling around in a tailspin together with a long list of ‘What if’s?’ of the event. What if I get a cramp, pull a muscle, run out of energy, have to walk, have to wee, get too hot, get too cold, get sick, get lost, get heckled, trip and fall, am attacked by wildlife or am slower than the event’s cut-off time??! In other words, what if on the big day, I just can’t do it?!
Well, now would be the perfect time to pass on some sage wisdom and practical advice from all my years and experience of taking part in a countless number of running events of all distances. However, as I have still not managed to completely shift the ‘What if’s’ myself, it’s safe to say that there is no easy answer or magic formula that works for every runner. Nonetheless, I have learned to slightly dampen the flames of the ‘What if’s’ by doing three things. Hopefully they can also help others get to the start line feeling slightly calmer.
First, face the facts. Unless you are running as an elite athlete and your job depends on your performance it really doesn’t matter how well you do. It may sound brutal but trust me. It is not that important, doesn’t make you a better person, will not enlighten you to the meaning of life and no one honestly cares about your time other than you. As they say, it’s not that deep. But in effect, it means that the reality is very simple. If on the day of your event you succumb to one of the ‘What if’s’ then you can always try again in the future. In fact, most of the other runners at your event are already doing just that and will be giving it their second, third or fourth go. The truth is that everybody at your event is just trying to get to the finish line without embarrassing themselves, too, so you will be in good company. I have yet to meet someone who actually believes that they have run the perfect race, not even the ones who managed to achieve new PBs. The fact is that whether it goes well or not is just not all that important to anybody other than yourself.
Second, trust your prep. Unless you enjoy turning up spontaneously at random running events or you are one of my children, you will likely have done a lot of planning and training to prepare for your event. It will likely have been difficult at times to stick to your training routine especially in bad weather. But runners of all abilities know that we don’t keep plodding along with our training as a leap of faith. Training gets you the results. The weeks and months you spent getting stronger while building up all of that mileage in your legs means that you can now count on having more in the tank on the day. So think of your race day as the time to finally reap the rewards of all your hard work and discipline. And be confident that even if it will be the first time you will be running a distance for your event your feet will not fail to take you there.
Lastly, don’t forget to taper. Depending on the distance of your event, it is important to spend at least some time tapering before race day. Which doesn’t mean cutting down on your mileage and putting your feet up altogether. Tapering essentially involves active rest, not too much running and allowing to your body to recover from all the weeks of hard training. Sleeping well and getting enough rest is really the key to this in order to allow your muscles the time to repair and strengthen. As a result you will be in the best possible shape to run your event on the day. Ensuring that you are eating healthy, nutritious food is also central to tapering because it’s important to fully replenish your energy stores in time for your race. And this is where my last piece of advice comes in.
Think quality not quantity when it comes to tapering nutrition because it will make a difference on the big day. Although you will not be using up as much energy during the days you are tapering it is not a good strategy to compensate for this by drastically reducing the amount of calories you take in. Having said that, if you previously snacked liberally on crisps and biscuits between massive training sessions without it doing you any harm, eating those extra empty calories now will not be helpful. Neither is trying to carbo-load everything in sight.
Instead, base your meals on complex carbohydrates that include a wide variety of different grains. Choose wholewheat versions which are more nutritious and filling than white where you can. However, in the 48hrs before your race pay attention to the amount of fibre in your diet and consider cutting down if you are sensitive to GI issues. In the same way, eat a broad range of different vegetables and fruits while you are tapering but be mindful to avoid anything too fibrous right before your event. Although carbohydrates are the priority in tapering to store as energy in our muscles protein still plays a large role in muscle strength and recovery. So include plenty of lean protein in your meals including vegetarian sources such as tofu, nuts and eggs as well as good sources of calcium to support your bones.
Of course when it comes to the day of your event and the question of what to eat for the best race day breakfast it is always best to stick to whatever works for you. Only eat whatever you have tried and tested beforehand that worked while you were training. Never try anything new on the day or resort to eating something that works for someone else because ultimately, you will be the one out there on your own having to face the ‘What if’s’.
Hopefully these tips will help more runners avoid having a complete meltdown on their start line this Spring. But if they don’t and the worst happens then I am willing to bet that you will find yourself signing up again. Because if there is one thing I have learned it is that the majority of runners are never completely satisfied with their performances yet are repeat offenders of entering the same events. Luckily the memory of runners is almost inversely related to the difficulty of an event. Because why else would we keep signing up for something so challenging?
Finally, if you are having a tough time out there running your race this Spring take a good look around yourself because it’s likely that someone else is too. Misery loves company in any big event so just try to stick to a fellow straggler and get to the next km together. If you follow it with another then before you know it, the kms will begin to go by and you will be that much closer to the finish line.
As the days tick down to my own marathon effort in May here is some food for thought in the shape of a healthy recipe for Spring pasta with asparagus and mushrooms.
I am originally from Canada but I settled in the UK after studying at university. Sports have always been a part of my life and I have participated and competed in several throughout my childhood. But today I would describe myself as mostly a runner, a mother of 3 grown-ups and a keen cook. As a teenager I was a sprinter and a slightly reluctant cross-country runner but while my children grew up I started to run further and further distances. I never thought that I could ever run anything longer than a half marathon but when my runner husband decided to do a marathon for his 50th in 2019 I found that I had a serious case of FOMO. My children encouraged me to sign up for my first marathon and I ran it just to see if I could finish. Somehow my time was good enough to qualify for the Boston 2020 Marathon. However, due to Covid it was postponed several times.
Like many other runners, I spent much of my time in the Covid lockdown keeping up my fitness by participating in virtual races while waiting for the real events to start up again. As time went on I found myself becoming fully immersed in the world of endurance running and ran the Threshold Trail Series ultra, Race to the Stones. Unfortunately, by the time the Boston Marathon was finally held in late 2021, I could not go because US travel restrictions were still in place. Although I missed my chance to run it and will now have to requalify again at least my time spent keeping in good shape wasn’t wasted. These days I participate in everything from half marathons up to ultras and have also run the Great Glen Way and West Highland Way in the Scottish Highlands.
I also work as a Registered Nutritionist with children and families and founded the consultancy Just add water® in 2019. I write a blog at https://justaddwaterblog.com/ to give free information and advice about nutrition and running whilst also sharing some of my favourite healthy recipes. The website is mainly aimed at busy families who want to make easy to prepare meals that are both healthy and really tasty, and for active families who want to know what they should be eating before, during and after playing sport.
I have always enjoyed cooking and previously cooked as a profession and I like to share my passion for good food. I have been involved in teaching cookery in schools, children's centres and for the NHS. I also enjoy entering the odd competition to push myself out of my comfort zone. I was awarded Highly Commended at the Teflon™ Diamond Standard Awards 2020 national culinary competition in the category of Keen Home Cook and was a National Finalist in 2022 & 2019. I have also had my recipes published in The Guardian's supplement, Cook; and featured in the 2012 Waitrose LOVE life calendar (July); and selected for inclusion in the 2020 #AnyWhichWayaBix Weetabix recipe book.
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