Coach Jeff

Written by Coach Jeff

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How to Create a Flexible Race Plan to Adapt When Things Go Wrong During a Race

No matter how hard you train, how much you pray to the weather gods, or how thoroughly you prepare, if you race frequently, you’re going to experience a day when nothing goes right.

It’s easy to plan the perfect race strategy, but many runners forget to also include contingency plans for when things go wrong. Sometimes, these events are within your control, like training mistakes or not properly testing your pre-race breakfast.

However, more often than not, when things go wrong they are out of your control – like weather, crowds, or a rolled ankle. Regardless of why something goes wrong, you can take steps to prepare for them in your training and have a plan in place for how to adjust mid-race.

In this article, I’ll outline the steps you can take in your training, during the race, and after you finish to develop a flexible race plan that can help you get through any situation you may encounter.

We can do all the training, preparation, and wishing we want, something will go wrong on race day (especially marathon races). Here are our tips to be ready

Preparations you can do in training

The most important thing you can do is prepare for things to go wrong in training. Not only is this a critical strategy for race day, but it also helps you bounce back from bad workouts, which happen often, especially during marathon training.

When athletes I coach have bad training days (which will happen to every runner – for example, 2:14 marathoner Nate Jenkins admits that he’s “never had a marathon cycle where I didn’t have one or two bad workouts.”) I tell them to look for the things they did wrong and work on fixing them for next time.

Here’s why:

This mental approach to having bad training days not only helps you prepare for when things go wrong in races, but it also helps you bounce back faster in training.

Getting prepared physically

One mantra I preach to my athletes is that you can’t expect to do things on race day that you haven’t done in training. For example, if you haven’t practiced proper pacing, you can’t expect to perfectly pace yourself during you race. Along the same lines, I recommend preparing yourself for some of the more common issues that plague runners during races.

Here are some of the more unconventional tricks I’ve tried:

  • When training for my first marathon, I was nervous about running with a full stomach. So, before some of my short, easy training days, I drank lots of water before I hit the roads. This taught me not only how to be more comfortable running with a sloshing stomach, but some unique and odd ways to get rid of cramps by changing my breathing patterns. I even went so far as to scarf down two donuts and a glass of milk, just to be sure (and because I have a weakness for donuts)
  • If you’re worried about running in the heat, especially if you have a spring race, and you live in a cold climate, consider running most of your workouts with more clothes than you need. Wear a hat, even when it’s a beautiful 65 degree day.
  • If you’re concerned about weaving through the crowds at a big race like NYC or Chicago, run a very low-key tune-up race as a long run and start in the back of the field. Practice working your way up through the field patiently and wasting as little energy as possible.

These are just a few ways you can prepare yourself to handle missteps on race day. Write down some of the fears you have (or issues that have plagued you or your running friends) and devise unique strategies to practice them during your training segment.

Getting mentally prepared

The best way to prepare mentally for something going wrong in a race is to use visualization techniques in the weeks leading up to the race.

When visualizing your race, be as specific and detailed as possible.

Imagine yourself at the starting line, surrounded by thousands of other high strung runners – is it hot? Is it cold? What are you wearing? When the gun sounds, envision the acceleration in your heart rate and the claustrophobic feeling as the stampede begins.

Here’s why:

By conjuring up these emotions, sights, and sounds, you can prepare yourself to remain calm, collected, and execute your race plan in a chaotic environment. The more specific you can be with the sites, sounds, and emotions, the more calm and confident you’ll be on race day.

More importantly, visualize positive and negative scenarios.

Create a specific plan and visualize what you’ll do and how you will feel should something go wrong. What if your shoe comes untied or you have to go the bathroom? By visualizing these scenarios, you’ll have a specific plan in place and instead of panicking, you’ll be calm, cool, and collected.

What about during a race?

Now that you’ve prepared in your training for things to go wrong, it’s time to execute on race day. Here are some helpful tips to deal with unexpected issues in the moment.

Adjust expectations and have a backup plan in place

As mentioned above, you should have already created and visualized a backup plan during your training. When things go wrong, adjust your expectations and fall back to your backup race plan.

For example, if you went out too slow because you got caught in the crowds, begin to execute your backup plan and slowly start making up the time.

I advise runners to have three target splits at ten miles of a marathon (fast, perfect, slow), and a specific plan in place for the second two-thirds of the race should they hit either one. Likewise, if it’s hot, try using a temperature calculator to help you adjust your pace to account for the heat and humidity.

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Turn off your watch

In 2007, I ran in the very hot and infamous Twin Cities Marathon (the same year they closed Chicago because of the heat).

The biggest mistake I made in that race was getting frustrated by looking at my watch and not having a backup plan. I was running slower and slower every mile because of the heat, but I was actually gaining on the entire field (which is a good reference point for your performance when time is out the window).

However, because I was so stuck on my watch and my paces, I defeated myself mentally and forgot to just compete and run to the best of my ability. I got so frustrated, I ended up dropping out of the race, thinking I was running poorly.

This is crazy:

What I didn’t know at the time was that I was 5th place overall and the first American. Had I finished the race in that position, I would have earned close to $10,000 – BIG mistake.

Be patient and don’t freak out

The most important thing you can do when something goes wrong during a race is be patient, and don’t over compensate. If you have to stop and go to the bathroom, your shoe comes untied, or you have to stop to take extra fluids, don’t try to make up all the time you lost in one mile.

Spread out the time you need to make up over the course of the remaining distance. By sprinting and trying to make up all the time (or more than 10-15 seconds a mile) at once, you run the risk of changing your energy system (for the marathon) or burning yourself out so you fade badly over the last 3-4 miles.

How to cope with bad weather

Rain

  • Take a trash bag, cut a whole for your head, and wear it while you wait at the starting line. DO NOT RUN with the trash bag on for any distance; use it to keep yourself dry at the start. More than likely, you’ll be standing in the starting corral for a long period of time before the race with little shelter.
  • If you have friends/family on the course, give them a dry shirt or socks that you can swap at 16 or 20 miles to get a nice fresh feeling and to get rid of any soggy clothing or shoes that are holding you back.
  • If it’s a very cold rain, using Vaseline on exposed body portions will help keep you warm. Vaseline is waterproof, which will help keep your hands and lower legs from getting too cold. One caution, Vaseline does not allow your body to sweat efficiently, so don’t put in on your head and neck. You want excess heat (yes, there will be some even in such cold temperatures) to dissipate as needed.

Cold

  • Find that ratty sweatshirt/pair of gloves/hat/sweatpants you’ve been meaning to throw out for years. If you don’t have any clothing items ready to be ditched, head to Wal-Mart or a cheap clothing store and buy some warm weather clothes you could run in for a mile or two. You can wear these warm items in the corral when you’re standing in the cold and have nowhere to move to stay warm. Once you get running past the first mile or two, your body will begin to warm up and you can shed them. Most marathons pick up discarded clothing at the start and donate to charity.
  • Likewise, layers are key while actually running. Remember, you’re bound to heat up as the race progresses, so having layers that are easy to remove will allow you to stay cool.

Heat

  • There are a lot of strategies you can use when running in the heat. In the interest of brevity, here is a link to a very detailed post of tactics you can implement for running a marathon in the heat.

What you can do after a race goes wrong

The most important thing you can do after a frustrating race is conduct a post mortem.

Start by making a list of all the possible factors that lead to your disappointing race. For the time being, it doesn’t matter if these factors were within your control or not – if you think it may have affected your performance, write it down.

Next, write as many possible solutions or tactics you can implement in your training to prevent these possible hindrances from happening again. For example, if it was hot, you can try training with more layers or if you had bathroom problems you might want to experiment with a different nutrition strategy in training.

When you’re finished, you’ll have an extensive list of training tips you can implement during your next training segment and marathon race.

You might be wondering:

What to do if there are a few factors that you couldn’t find ways to improve. These are the factors you can’t control (rolled an ankle or the crowds were too large) and sometimes these are just bad luck.

The important thing with this task is you’ve taken your mind off the unknown and turned your focus to actionable tips you can implement for next time.

Keep this list with you and make sure you look it over before starting your next training cycle. You’ll eliminate the same mistakes and increase your chances of having a great race.

While I sincerely hope everything goes perfect for you on race day, experience tells me it probably won’t. Hopefully, this article gets you mentally and physically prepared for those unintended hiccups and helps you stay on track.

RunnersConnect Master Extra

Download your FREE Improvement Performance Calculator now in your members-only download section.

Click here to access this handy pace calculator to determine what pace you should be running at for in training and at each racing distance based on a recent race result.

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A version of this post originally appeared at competitor.com

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References

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3 Responses on “How to Create a Flexible Race Plan to Adapt When Things Go Wrong During a Race

  1. Info-packed post, nice job Jeff. For my marathon this weekend, I’ve got three scenarios I’ve specifically prepared for mentally via visualization (which, since I ran the course last year, is maybe easier than for someone running a course for the first time). First (and ideal) scenario is that I find myself a few minutes back from the leaders at the mile 9 turnaround, and still within a few minutes at the mile 22 turnaround – this is what happened last year, and I was able to finish strong to win. Second scenario is that I take an early lead – key will be continuing to run my marathon pace and focus on reaching my time goal at the end, knowing that if I hold my pace it will be difficult for anyone to catch up. Third scenario (and most likely) is that some faster runners do show up this year, and it becomes clear by mile 22 that a repeat is not in the cards, at which point the motivation is, like scenario 2, meeting time goals. Regardless, the mantra is that it’s “my race” – early on, this means I run my paces regardless of what’s going on around me, and later the tone turns more aggressive and I dig deep to defend if the opportunity is there.
    I’m pretty comfortable with potential weather conditions as I’ve seen most of them (unless it snows – very unlikely), and the pre-race breakfast has been done many times.

    • When I first started reading this comment, I thought you were running Chicago (from your other comments on the Chicago article) and I thought “Greg needs to taper less if he thinks he’s going to run with the leaders”, haha.

      From my experience in marathons, running your own race for the first 13-15 is important. Sounds like that is your strategy. let the leaders do their thing and after 19 start plucking em off and pushing for the win. Couldn’t agree more with that plan.

      Good luck!

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