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Mid-Race Tweaks: How to Handle Race Day Conditions

02 May

Which path will lead to the result you want?
Photo from Flickr, by i_yudai

This post is an excerpt from our new guide, Your Best Marathon (available here). If you like what you read, know that the full guide is 49 pages long and includes pace planners and tools to help make your next marathon your best effort!


There’s just racing, there’s racing with a plan, and then there’s being able to adapt what you’ve got to meet where you’re at. In terms of experience level, know that anyone can register and show up on time for the start of an event. Few will actually have a plan based on their training, as you do by this point. But what really separates the elite crowd from everybody else is their ability to adapt.

Your race plan requires that everything goes according to your plan, and the odds of all those stars aligning for you are pretty slim. What happens if the weather changes? If your stomach tanks? If you forget your nutrition? All these things not only can, they will happen to you at some point in your racing career.

Here’s a quick primer on how you can make adjustments to keep yourself on track.


The most important thing is that you don’t lose sight of what has brought you to the starting line. Honor the hard work you have done thus far by striving to stay as close to your original race plan as possible — after all, it’s what you’ve planned and prepared your body to do. Changing gears without due cause can lead to some serious (yet avoidable!) race day challenges.

Whenever possible, whenever you are faced with a choice, be conservative as your marathon race day is such a long event.  Find the easy option, the one that requires the least effort and creates the path of least resistance.

For example:

  • I am kind of bunched up; running 5 seconds slower per mile than I’d like. I can either (A) sprint out and around and ahead of this group; OR I can (B) simply ease off the gas and let them pull away, then drop into my given pace.   Answer = B.
  • It’s not that hot, not that cold, and I am not sure what to wear. I can either (A) just wear what I think I need; or I can (B) bring that extra layer just in case. Answer = B.
  • My nutrition plan says to eat a gel every 45 minutes. I have 15 minutes to go to my next scheduled “feed,” but I am starting to get hungry right now. I can either (A) tell myself to suck it up and wait like I have trained; OR I can (B) have the gel at the next aid station with water and make a note to adjust moving forward. Answer = B.

Race Morning Tweaks

But what about race morning, you cry, when you wake up only to discover that the beautiful day forecast for your PR effort has been waylaid by the evil weather gods? We’ve all been there; it’s just part of the racing experience. On some level, your high energy around this minutiae is a clear sign that you are dialed in and ready to race…so don’t feel like it’s taking you out of the game at all!

Temperature Changes — All of a sudden you wake up to discover that the temperature outside is significantly different than you had anticipated. Don’t worry — you still have time to adapt. Better to know this now than to find out halfway through your race! Here’s what you can do:

Colder Temperature:  Know that you’ll be less likely to want to drink, so make a note to stick with the proper hydration cycle. Don’t make up for the morning temps with excessive hot beverages as they’ll function like a diuretic, robbing your body of critical H2O. Instead, cover your extremities like your head and hands with some lightweight gear that can easily be stowed or tossed to a friend. Plan on being very warm to the race site (and afterwards), reducing your body’s need to create warmth and wasting valuable energy.

Hotter Temperature:  This can be the race killer; so be very careful here. Consider adding some more fluids (sports drink) to your morning routine; as well as bumping up your hydration cycle from 15-minute to 10-minute intervals. Any calories you take in will require a bit more fluid than ususal, so be sure to eat close to the aid stations, and slow down as required to get in as much as you want.
You’ll want some sunscreen and coverage, if possible, on your head / eyes. Avoid pouring water over yourself unless it’s a last resort; holding ice in your hands is just as effective at cooling you off. And don’t forget wiping your face can make a difference too!

Wind — The biggest fear is to have a serious head wind come race day; that’s effectively like running uphill for the better part of your day. It can take a real physical and mental toll. If you find the winds in your face, don’t focus on the pace numbers on your watch…instead focus on the effort you are running. Your 9:00 effort into a headwind might only get you a 9:30 pace, but that’s preferable than having you run 8:30 effort to earn the 9:00 you want to see and then imploding long before the finish line.

Conversely, don’t “chase” a tailwind. It’s tempting to run much faster when you know there’s a wind at your back, but all that speed isn’t exactly free. You are still running harder than you’ve trained, and the cost of that subtle change won’t be evident until too late. Also, remember that without wind in your face you’ll actually feel hotter than it actually is, so hydrate accordingly.

Don’t be afraid to draft off of a similarly paced runner; simply slide in behind or next to him/her such that they stand between you and the wind. It’s not so much about free speed as it is getting a break from the full effect of the wind.

Late Arrival — Forget about Mother Nature…what if you are the problem? Due to poor planning, traffic, getting lost, etc., you find yourself arriving on race site much later than you’d hoped. You can fix this situation by working backwards from your race start in your head and eliminating all your “want to do” items such as: stretching, warm up, early seeding, etc. Focus on the critical stuff such as last minute fuel, getting your gear on and settled properly, and taking care of any last minute issues first…you can warm up as the race starts but you can’t get dressed after the race starts!!!

The Bathroom “Break” — It turns out that the Red Hot Chili Sampler Platter isn’t the ideal pre-race meal. Now it’s race morning and you have to take care of your body…this is non-negotiable. In the modern day era of chip times, your personal race won’t start until you cross that starting line, so take a deep breath and focus on getting your body in as good a place as possible. Ideally you’ll be able to get rid of most of you pre-race food with an early morning trip to the bathroom…sometimes coffee helps with this.

If not, consider something like Tums to neutralize the situation (with water!). If you want to go nuclear and take something like Immodium, know that while that means no potty breaks it doesn’t mean that your tummy will feel any better…do what feels right and just try to make the best decisions when eating!

Mid-Race Tweaks

The Pace is Forced — You’ve been training at your goal pace for a few weeks now, and it’s always felt natural…but today in the race it’s just not there. For whatever reason, you can’t run 8:30s, but you can sit on 8:35s no problem. Don’t fight the pace; your body is sending you messages for a reason. Settle into what feels right for you. 26.2 miles is a long way to go, and there will ideally be opportunities where you can pick up the pace later in the day. But fighting it now only means that you’ll have a very long day ahead of you should things go South.

Nutrition — You hit mile 14 and suddenly your beloved strawberry-banana gel packets are your mortal enemy. You are burping like mad, can’t take in your food, and have a ways to go. Don’t panic! The easiest way to solve a nutrition problem is to slow down. SLOW DOWN. Ease off the gas and sip a bit of water to facilitate the absorption process. Better to take two minutes now than have to take the final 10 miles off because you imploded.

If you can’t use or have lost your personal nutrition, it’s time to turn to what’s on the course. Consider the sports drink there, with some water at each aid station until your stomach gets under control. Once things have settled, you can try to eat something else (with water), and just continue to monitor your body.


Problems happen to the best of us. Whether you brought it on yourself or you are the victim is not the issue, so save the pity party for later. Ignoring a problem isn’t a strategy, it’s a coping mechanism. Pretending your problem isn’t there won’t make it go away…in fact it will most likely lead to other more complicated issues.

Your top priority should be resolving the issue at hand as quickly as possible so that you can get back to the business of running.

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