How to prepare for your road race

As a lead up to the Singapore marathon on 3 Dec, I did a presentation for my athletes and those who missed my presentation yesterday, here is an article covering my presentation. This is a good article for those new to racing and a useful checklist for the experienced runners. Please share forward this or share with your friends on Facebook.

I get many questions from my athletes during training and compiled these frequently asked questions by grouping them into logical sections : 

‘A’ Race and ‘B’ races and your bank account

I often am asked ‘How many races should I do in a year?’ It really depends on how hard you run them and what your goal is. Some enthusiastic runners want to collect as many medals as possible, with more than 150 races a year in Singapore, literally they could be racing every weekend.

However if you plan to go all-out and achieve a marathon personal best, Depending on your age, you will need up to three weeks to recover from a full marathon. Coupled with a 16-week plus training program, that leaves you just enough time to do two to three ‘A’ race marathons a year

Racing is like withdrawing from your ‘bank account’ – too many withdraws and you run out of cash. Training is ‘depositing’ into your account; go ahead and race, but remember to deposit enough before your next withdrawal.

Your training is a rehearsal for Race Day

‘Am I prepared? How fast should I run on race day? ’ is another crowd favourite.

Consistent, structured training is key to success. Treat each training session over the last few months is a mini-rehearsal for race day. Try out new stuff ONLY during training – from new shoes and socks, to gels and gear, and know what works for you.  Then use what’s tried and tested on race day.

Another key to rehearsal is your training program itself. At SSTAR.fitness each athlete has an ‘A’ and ‘B’ training goal for every workout which are carefully calculated based on each runners ability – aerobic capacity, lactate threshold and V02Max. That’s more than 50 training sessions! So on race day, its no surprise – the pace, time goals have all been determined by you over the 16-weeks of training. Race day is merely the ‘performance’ after months of ‘rehearsals’


Race pace, how fast should I run?


The most efficient way to complete a race is to run at even pace, keeping each kilometer roughly at the same speed. Of course one will slow down for uphills and speed up slightly downhill. There will be potential bottlenecks at hydration stations and turns. Some experienced runners try to mimic the elites and do a negative split - running the 2nd half faster. While many elites do this because they are trying to win a position - they are racing - the majority of us will be trying for a time target, so even splits is a better approach. That said, most runners end up doing a positive split - running the 2nd half of the race slower. That's not ideal and it's probably because the runner did not have a good idea of what their ability was. Another reason for this is when one tries to follow a constant heart rate goal. All runners experience cardiac drift - our heart rates go up when we exercise, even at constant effort, so maintaining a level heart rate means running the race progressively slower. Basically, if you are racing to beat a time goal, then use a time / distance / pace training program.


Novice runners might do better with a run-walk strategy - I recommend walking through the drink stations, get your hydration and resume your run. Better to be hydrated then rush your drink stops. Some experienced runners still practice this with great success.


The Final three days – hydration, nutrition and rest

‘I get nervous, and can’t sleep the night before the race. How will this affect me?’

It’s been proven scientifically that if you had enough rest three days before the race, lack of sleep the night before race day will not adversely affect your physical ability. So get three nights of quality sleep if you can. Having done so, and knowing this fact could just be the assurance you need to have a restful pre-race night ! Some races start very early, or you could be travelling to a different time zone, so it’s best start adjusting your body clock three days before race day.

‘Should I carbo-load? How is it done?’

Another popular question, fuelled by the many ‘pasta parties’ at races. The reality is carbo-loading is effective for races lasting more than 2 hours, and there could be adverse effects like weight gain ( up to 2 to 3 kgs!). The prudent way to store more glycogen ( that’s the goal of carbo loading)  - is to taper your training, maintain a healthy diet and simply increase carbohydrate intake two days before the race but maintain the same amount of calories consumed to avoid weight gain.

‘When, What, How much should I eat for breakfast before the race?’

Breakfast is probably the most important meal. Eat something you are familiar with, avoid oily and high fibre foods. Go for a combination of low and high GI carbohydrates with a bit of protein. This high-low GI combo will give you energy at the start and also sustain you through the race. Protein in small amounts is helpful with carbohydrate absorption. Eat about two hours before the race to allow for adequate digestion, but it depends on the individual. I have a high metabolism so 90 minutes before the race is when I eat. Others might need more than two hours.

Here are some suggested high, mid and low GI breakfast foods : High GI – rice and corn based staples, potatoes, sports drinks, dounuts. Medium GI – pasta, wholemeal bread with peanut butter, most fruits. Low GI – bananas, most nuts, milk.

‘Any tips on what to do and avoid when arriving at the Race start’

Here are some Do’s and Don’t’s when you arrive at the Race start area :

Do arrive early, and queue at the porta-loo. You might not feel the need to go, but when you eventually do, the queues are usually way too long by then.
Do know your start pen and where it is. The volunteers are doing the best they can, but they don’t always know where things are.
Do warm up with dynamic stretching (not static stretching). If time and space permits, do a light jog or just running on the spot.
Do run with a small bottle of your favourite sports drink and sip it for the first 5km to 8km. The first hydration stops are usually very crowded and you need your fluids early in hot weather.
Don’t be a victim of the weather. Arriving early means being out in the open for a longer time. It won’t be a problem in Singapore, but stay warm if you are running in colder climates.
Don’t get stuck in the ‘pen-jam’. If you are already in your pen, try to move to the front to avoid congestion. Big races like the Singapore marathon could mean 30 to 45 min after the starters horn before you actually shuffle to the start line.
Don’t forget the sunscreen. While people have sung songs about this, it’s no singing matter if you get sunburned. Reapply if sweat washes it away.

Race hydration and nutrition

‘How much should I drink? How many gels should I eat?’

‘It depends’ is the best answer, but that’s not very useful, so follow these simple guidelines.

Drink frequently and in small amounts. This allows your body to absorb the fluids without having it slosh around in your stomach for too long.
Thirst is a sign of dehydration, so drink before you feel thirsty. Obviously the downside is drinking too much and having to visit the porta loo mid race, so back to ‘it depends’ Listen to your body, practice during  training. For those more scientifically inclined, I can help calculate your sweat rate, and you will know precisely how much to drink.
All these depends on the weather, your pace, how long you have been running and your state of hydration at the start. Ideally you should be in an euhydrated state (normal hydrated levels) before the race starts.

Of gels, chomps, chews, bars and such

Vast majority of runners will consume gels, chomps, chews, bars, bananas and isotonic drinks. All these are essentially the same ingredients – simple sugars, electrolytes and carbohydrates for quick absorption. The general rule of thumb is to consume one gel every 10km. There is a simple reason for this – each gel contains approximately 30g of carbs or 120 calories of energy. For a runner doing a 4h30min marathon weighing 62kg, it will take 2700 calories to complete the race (source: https://www.runnersworld.com/tools/calories-burned-calculator)

Replacing all of these calories is not possible during the race as the body needs time to digest and covert them to energy. We usually can get about 20% replaced – that’s about the equivalent to three gels and multiple cups of sports drink.

The truth behind ‘fat burning’

For all humans, muscle glycogen is the preferred fuel source over body fat because fat metabolism involves more complex chemical processes and takes much longer. Simply put, fat does not supply energy to the body fast enough, even for those who have trained specifically to burn fat. While some advocate ‘fat adaption’ and claim to have achieved it, the reality is we all burn BOTH glycogen and fat at the same time, the proportions will change depending on the intensity of the exercise.

So sitting in front of my laptop, I am now consuming proportionally more fat than carbs. Likewise a slower paced run tend to burn proportionally more fat but you end up taking longer to finish your race and invariably you run out of glycogen before the end. ‘Fat adapted’ runners claim they can run faster yet keep burning more fat than glycogen. True fat adaptation is hard achieve and even harder to maintain as it goes against our bodies natural preference for using glycogen.

If gels, bananas and isotonic drinks are readily available during the race then why not use them? A vast majority of runners, including elite runners consume carbohydrates in their sports drink during the race and train with that in mind, I would prefer to be one of the happy majority.

‘Should I consume gels with water, never with a sports drink?’

This is quite widely practiced and many do this without knowing why. It’s osmosis. The process in which water molecules move through a semi-permeable membrane, in this case your stomach wall. Gels with water provides the optimum concentration and your body absorbs the fluids well. Anything more concentrated (like gel plus sports drink) means the stomach will take longer to ‘empty’, the drink sloshes around longer.

‘How do I cope with the pain? What mental strategies can I use?’

Here are some mental strategies that you can use to cope with the race. Pick your favourites and ideally practice them during training. The science behind mental toughness is fascinating.

‘Sing’ in your head. This is called disassociation, simply put, using external stimuli to distract yourself from the pain and effort. If you are allowed and choose to run with music, remember to choose songs with the correct ‘cadence’ or beats per minute so that you can follow it.
Mentally 'ínspect’ your running  form, body parts, body sensations. This inward focus is called association. This is one of my personal favourite activities, especially at the closing stages of the race where my running form is often in disarray.
Examine your emotional state : Say ‘I feel…’ and fill the blank with something positive, strong and encouraging. Self talk like this is a proven sports psychology tactic.
Look at the scenery, give out hi-fives to the crowd. Another form of disassociation.
‘Target’ a runner in front and when you ‘beat’ him or her, target another.
Do mental maths, recall your grocery list, to-do lists. Another way to disassociate.
Recall positive feelings and use them. Remember that a good training session you had when you felt strong; you exceeded your training targets. These are golden moments you should upload into your ‘memory bank’ and replay them during critical parts of the race. Recall those positive vibes, the strength you had and use the feelings to energise yourself.
Imagine another ‘you’ running  ahead, effortlessly, in perfect form. The more vivid the image, the better. Sounds like a nut-case, but this form of imagery can be very powerful.
Have a conversation with ‘Mr Pain’ and expect him to show up at 30km. Self-talk is a well documented sports psychology tactic and this is another of my personal  favourites, Mr Pain and I have ‘conversations’ all the way to the finish line. And I am very happy when he shows up late.

This race is just one step in your running journey. Motivation to keep running and training  comes from being able to enjoy the process rather than focusing on the outcome. So may you have fun on race day, whatever the outcome – enjoy the race and learn more about yourself .


I hope these tips and suggestions resonate with you, and if it has in some small way helped you run a better race, do drop me an email - andrew@sstar.fitness or comment on our Facebook/SSTARfitness if this has helped you. I would be delighted to hear from you.

Win this mental battle !

Andrew Cheong

Founder and Head Coach at SSTAR.fitness

photo credit : Victor Fong

Contact : Andrew Cheong mobile +65-94239403    email : andrew@sstar.fitness