Mary has represented Great Britain ten times in mountain running, winning six medals, including three team golds. She reveals her top racing tips:
I love racing, especially off-road. A trail race provides the perfect opportunity to test myself not only against other people but also against the challenges of the course terrain.
A target race is the culmination of a lot of hard work. Sometimes you often have to run hundreds of miles in training, in all weathers, have stuck to your plan and then hopefully you’re in the best possible shape to run a PB and more importantly enjoy the race experience.
Although there are many things that are outside of your control in a race such as the weather, illness, delays etc and there are also lots of things that you can control. In doing so will help you feel calmer, more confident and allow you to focus on running the best race you can.
Here are my top tips that I use to help me try and get the most out of every race.
1. Ease down
‘The Taper’ is either the best or worst part of training depending on who you are. For me it’s definitely the worst! I know that reducing training in the week or so before a big race is essential to maximising my performance but I still find it hard. I rarely feel good during my taper, but over time I have learnt that this is OK, it’s my body saying it’s saving itself for a big performance.
It’s taken a lot of trial and error but I now have a taper that really works for me, so you may need to try different durations and types of tapers to see what works for you. I have found keeping my usual training routine, but with a reduced volume works for me. I train as often as normal but the runs are shorter. I also add an element of fast running to each run in the form of a few strides at the end just to remind my legs how to run fast!
2. Believe in your training
It’s very easy to talk yourself out of a good performance! The last few days leading up to a race can be plagued with worry that you haven’t done enough and this can be hugely negative. Having confidence in your fitness and believing in the effects of your training can help reduce this and remember, you can’t change what you have or haven’t done now so look on what you have done positively.
I look back through my training diary to see exactly what I’ve done and I am usually pleasantly surprised, as it’s easy to forget good sessions. By doing this, my confidence improves and focuses me on what I have done rather than worrying about what I haven’t.
3. Prepare your kit
Prevent last minute panics by preparing everything you need the night before. Make sure you cover every eventuality. It may be sunny at your house but torrential rain at the race. I’d much rather take too much than regret not packing my merino top when the temperature plummets before the start!
I have a ritual of laying my race kit out before I go to bed, pinning my number onto my vest, attaching my chip to my shoes and making sure everything is packed up ready to grab and go in the morning. I can then go to bed without worrying about what I need to remember.
If you are travelling abroad to a race my top tip is pack all your racing kit in your hand luggage (yes that includes your muddy inov-8 x-talon’s!) If the rest of your luggage is delayed you’ll still be able to race in what you are used to and know works for you.
4. Go to bed at your normal time
It’s usual that the race will be running through my head the night before, which often means I don’t sleep well. But the worst thing you can do is cause anxiety about not being able to sleep and worrying how this might make you too tired to run well. It probably won’t!
The sleep you get the night before the race actually has less effect than the days preceding this, so don’t panic. I try and go to bed a little earlier in the week before the race knowing I probably won’t sleep as well the night before, so I ‘bank’ some sleep. I’ve found that going to bed too early before a race is actually bad. I’m not tired enough to sleep and my mind wanders to the race even more, so keep to your usual routine.
5. Fuel up/drink up
Nutrition and hydration recommendations are constantly changing and the duration/weather of the race also affects how much fuel and fluid I need before and during it. My simple tip is to be boring, just eat plain and simple food!
Don’t eat or drink anything out of the ordinary in the days before, or during the race. I try and eat a healthy balanced meal the night before that’s quite light, something like plain rice, chicken and vegetables.
I struggle to eat much before racing, but for a morning race I have trained myself to be able to have a small bowl of porridge and honey about 3 hours before and then I just take small drinks of a sports drink. A strong coffee is something which I will usually drink about an hour before the race to give me a caffeine boost and I am also a huge fan of beetroot juice. Having this for a few days prior to the event and a final drink about 90 minutes before the race usually works for me.
6. Dress for success
Clothing and footwear choices really can make or break a race. If you’re too hot, too cold or don’t have enough grip your performance and enjoyment can be severely reduced and even dangerous.
With tip No. 3 you should have kit with you to cover any weather and underfoot conditions! I really suffer in the cold so on long races, I’ll carry extra clothes in a pack.
Footwear choice is very personal, but my advice is to over grip rather than under grip. I want confidence to descend at speed and good footing really helps to climb faster, there is nothing worse than half your energy being lost as your foot slides back with every step! Many European competitors favour racing flats whatever the weather, but often suffer for it, so I’ll use a pair of inov X-Talons.
A good warm-up doesn’t just raise body temperature; it also prepares you mentally for the challenge ahead. It’s good to have a structured warm-up that you have used in sessions before so you know it works and you can focus on this rather than getting more and more nervous!
The race length and temperature influences the duration and intensity of my warm-up, but I go through the same stages. Working back from the start time, I need to be at the line 10-15 minutes before, so I start my warm-up 45-60 minutes before the start with 15-20mins gentle jogging. I’ll then do a few drills and mobility exercises, change into my racing shoes with 20 minutes to go and do a few fast strides before heading to the line.
If it’s very hot I shorten the jogging time and if it’s very cold I’ll try and keep as many layers on as possible right up to the start (it’s worth having an old top to throw off at the last minute).
8. Know the course and run your race
Knowing the course is a huge advantage, identify your strong sections and any potential hazards, it’s especially good to know the finish so you can give it your all! If you can’t see the whole route, look at maps, profiles and photos if possible. Before championships, Team GB try and get as much course information as possible which I can then use visualisation to re-create what I will face.
Once the gun goes my nerves disappear, and I settle into my race. I will have a plan of how I am going to run depending on how my training has gone, who is racing and knowing where I can make the most of my strengths, but I also have to be adaptable, things happen and you need to react. An untied shoe lace…do you stop or carry on? Having run a 10 miler with a lace undone from mile 2 I’d probably recommend stopping to tie it!
There will be a point in any race where you go through a bad patch(s) and these times can make the difference between a PB, a win and not finishing at all. Rough patches can cause distraction and a loss of focus resulting in a drop of effort level.
I have a couple of tactics to help me keep going and maintain focus. On long, unrelenting climbs or non-descript sections of trail I count, usually 10-20 on each foot and then switch until I get to 100 then I start again. This focuses me on maintaining a rhythm and the distraction means the long drags pass quickly. Secondly, I repeat positive mantras writing these on my forearm so I see them. A couple of my favourite are; “You are Stronger than you think” and “Dare to be remarkable”.
10. Recover, re-fuel and celebrate
You’ve done it! Crossing the finish line knowing you’ve done everything to get the best result possible is a great feeling and deserves celebrating. But first things first don’t just stop, go for a short walk or jog (if you can manage it!) and your legs will thank you the next day. Equally important, ensure you eat some food and drink water, you’ll need carbohydrate and protein to help recovery. It may seem strange but a favourite of mine is Rice Pudding, it’s easy to eat, has a great recovery nutrition and you can take a can anywhere you go, just don’t forget the can opener! Now you can relax and celebrate, oh and plan for the next one!