Rookie mistakes I made during my first races

Everybody makes mistakes in all areas of life. When it comes to running, I made quite a few during my first marathon, half marathons, parkruns, club league, or whatever races I did. But the most important achievement was learning from these mistakes, as I pointed out in my Great North Run and London North Half reviews.

Starting off too fast

Probably the most common mistake is going too fast. For me, this is caused mostly by bad or no planning. If I don’t know what pace I’m going to run at, “too fast” loses its full meaning. You know you started too fast when you’re flooded with heat, muscle pain and inability or improper breathing coupled with a very high heart rate – when you can literally feel your heart almost coming out of your ribcage.

Also, throughout my first two years of serious running, I actually didn’t know my normal paces for various distances, so I had to estimate. And estimation is done according to your feeling. If you’re feeling good about yourself – nothing to do with your actual running fitness – you’ll overestimate, and that’s another source of starting too fast. For me, at least.

Months went by, I acquired a lot more experience, but that doesn’t mean I stopped overestimating. The truth is, you need to be more realistic about your expectations. Your estimation needs to be for a “dull” race. One where you didn’t push, but also didn’t go too slow, you ran just at your pace according to your current level of training. So next time you estimate, don’t try to account metaphors like “enthusiasm“, “mental strength” or “beautiful day outside“. Try to estimate the pace for just a dull race. You’ll leave room for running too slow or crashing it, which are things that depend on so many external factors anyway. Also, try to focus as much as you can on keeping yourself from going too fast in the first 1-2 miles.

Lack of hill training

How many times did you have the conversation with your inner self about that hill in front of you? “Woa, that’s a pretty steep hill, isn’t it?” Being overwhelmed by hills is something that has two main root causes. One is the lack of hill training and the second is the lack of research on the race profile. They’re tied one to each other, but the former is the most important. If you train mostly on hills, you’ll gain a countless list of physical advantages. The main psychological one is that seeing steep  in front of you over and over again will toughen you for these kind of challenges during a race.

And since there aren’t too many flat races out there, you’d better start training more and more uphill and avoid unwanted surprises.

Great North Run and North London Half were 2 very hilly races. But it wasn’t that scary anymore

Missing start pen

I did this a couple of times and because you’re starting with people that run at different paces than you – most probably slower – will take your mind off the actual race and make you focus on overtaking other folks. Plus, you won’t be able to run at your pace, you’ll either be going too fast when overtaking a group, or going too slow when the group in front of you is taking the whole width of the road. It may be possible at smaller races to just run faster and not necessarily be hard to overtake slower people, but larger races are definitely a challenge.

London Marathon was such a race. You all know this is a big race in itself, but it made me realize that the bigger the race, the earlier you need to be at the designated start corral. Don’t just assume you’re going to be there 15 minutes before and you’re going to be all right. Be there an hour before, as insane as it sounds.

Poor nutrition

One of the causes for being late at the start is the loo. Well, not the loo itself, but the queues outside. Estimating half an hour for a wee should be written down in your race day plan. But the root cause of that can also be nutrition before the race, hydration, other liquids, food.

My best races were ran on an empty stomach. Some people can do it, some others can’t. But it worked for me. There are 3 important nutrition elements I consider before a race. Water (hydration), food (carb loading) and coffee (energy kick).

So when it comes to hydration, my best strategy is to do it before the race day and only drink few 100s ml of water on the race day. That will ensure that the water you overdrink is eliminated at home and not at the race venue.

When it comes to food, and this applies easier to races that start earlier than usual (i.e. at 9am), I tend to feel a lot better on an empty stomach. I eliminate the possible stomach upsets before I head up to the race. With the carb loading done early in the evening before the race day you can bet on a full hydration and a full carb loading.

When I was waking up to go to the race, I used to drink one coffee at home and another one just as I arrived at the venue. This is probably another 4-500 ml of liquid intake, not to mention the slight diuretic effect of coffee, all these will only increase the chances to spending your pre-race warm-up queuing for the loo. So my solution to this is simple: late coffee, just before the race. This will increase the actual effect – you drink coffee not to wake yourself up, but to delay fatigue during the race. The extra liquid will be eliminated while you start sweating and get the extra kick.

Pre-race coffee

Racing ill

I went to race my first badass cross country race when I got a bug just a couple of days before that and I was still ill. I mean, I could barely keep my eyes open. It didn’t go well to put it mildly, after just few minutes in the race, it became a nightmare. I did finish it, 10 minutes later than I trained for, but I won’t do it again and definitely don’t recommend it to anyone. When you’re ill, stay home, have a hot cuppa and watch the race from your sofa – look, a rhyme! 🙂

With the hope that my list will help your next race, I’d also love to hear your ones.

What rookie mistakes did you make?

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