Top Ten Ways to Adjust to Changing Race Day Conditions

By Rick Morris

It just never fails. You carefully prepared for your upcoming race only to find out that something has changed. Maybe the weather forecast took a nasty and unexpected turn. You may have woken up with a stuffy head and sore throat. Are the road or trail conditions not what you expected? No worries. Distance runners always need to make adjustments on the fly and be able to adapt to changing race day conditions. Here are our top ten ways to adjust to changing race day conditions.

Hotter Than Expected

A sudden and unexpected heat wave can wreak havoc with your racing plans. If temperatures are unusually high on race day there two most important steps you should consider. First, you need to be sure you stay properly hydrated, but not over hydrated. Second, try to keep your body as cool as possible. Hydrate with a couple of cups of fluids before the start of your race. If your race is a 5K or shorter you should be OK with one or two more fluid stops consuming water or sports drink. If you are running a half marathon or marathon, rehydrate with sports drinks at each aid station. It’s OK to also drink some water but focus on sports drinks during longer races to avoid hyponatremia. Surprisingly, it is relatively common to over hydrate in high heat conditions because of the belief that more is always better. You do want to stay properly hydrated but try to only cover your fluid losses and avoid over hydrating.

Staying cool during a hot race can be difficult. At the start consider drenching your body and head with water. As the water evaporates it will cool you down. Grab a cup or two of water at each aid station and pour it over your head and body.

Colder Than Expected

Colder than expected temperatures are usually more of a problem during the pre race waiting period than during the actual race. Once you begin running your body will probably generate enough heat to keep you comfortable. During the pre race period try to find a plastic trash bag or some other throw away garment that you can toss to the side of the road once you begin running. Don’t worry too much about the litter. The cleanup crew will take care of that, but be sure to thank them for their efforts. Most races will collect usable discarded garments and donate them.

Icy or Snowy Conditions

An unexpected snow storm can not only be an inconvenience but also a danger. Living and running in Colorado, I have been up close and personal to the hazards of running on ice and snow. If you run into these slippery conditions try to shorten your stride and take very light efficient steps. Focus on avoiding a heel strike. Running on your heels is a sure way to end up head over teakettles.

Wet and Rainy

I don’t think there are any of us that haven’t been caught by a sudden rain storm. If rain hits during your race keep a close eye on the terrain in front of you. Try to avoid puddles. They may be hiding a deep, ankle turning hole. Be especially cautious when running on an asphalt road. The oil deposited by the thousands of cars can get very slippery when wet. You may also want to consider taking off the sunglasses. You don’t have windshield wipers on your glasses and your vision could suffer.

High Winds

High winds can be a wonderful dream or a horrible nightmare. It all depends upon direction. If you are heading directly into a high wind it’s like running straight up a steep hill. Nightmare time! When you’re heading into an unexpected wind, run with more of a whole body forward lean and keep your head down. Keep your stride compact and economical. Avoid the tendency to fight the head wind with large strides. On the other hand, if the wind is at your back, it’s dream time! Use the wind to your advantage.  Make your body a sail and let the wind carry you as much as possible. Keep up a nice fast cadence with quick light strides and increase your pace. You can run faster because the wind is doing part of the work for you.

More or Steeper Hills

A hill that is steeper than anticipated can be an especially nasty surprise. I recall one race I did on an unfamiliar course. I saw the hill from the starting line but it looked moderate in incline. Imagine my surprise when I got to the hill, after a very fast start, and found myself looking up the face of Everest. If that happens to you , don’t panic. Just work your way up the hill with short, efficient and very light strides. Lean into the hill and use it, don’t fight it. Run at a hard pace but don’t try to maintain any clock pace. Keep up a nice steady rhythm and you will soon conquer your Everest.

Off Road

Once in a while, what you thought was a road race goes off road. You were expecting the entire race on paved roads and you end up doing a good part of it on trails with less stable terrain. You are probably running in road shoes and are ill prepared for trail running. What do you do? Really, just run normally with some additional focus. Your road shoes will get you through, just be sure to focus on the terrain and be very cautious when you come upon loose gravel, soft dirt and uneven terrain. Watch your footing in those areas and shorten your stride just a bit for some stability.

Narrow Trails/Single Track

This is one the race day surprises that I hate the most. Running on narrow or single track trails takes a lot of up front planning. You want to be sure you avoid getting trapped behind slower runners. If you get to the start of your race and find the start is on narrow trails I would suggest ignoring the prevailing wisdom of starting at a moderate pace. In this case I would go into an all out sprint to get myself a favorable position on the trail. You may pay for it a bit later in the race, but not as much as being trapped in mid pack and unable to pass.

Sudden Illness

I really hate waking up on race day with a cold or just not feeling well. If you wake up sick on race day, and decide to compete anyway, I would suggest altering your race goal. It will be very difficult to run at full speed when you are ill, so consider making this race either a training run or just  fun run. I think is very refreshing to run a race for fun and not competition once in a while.

Running Late

Oops! You either got up late or ran into a delay and you get to the starting line late. If you made it before the start but don’t have time for a proper warm up, use the first half mile to mile to gradually warm up into your full pace. Then let it rip and make up some time. If you missed the start, bag the goal of competing and just run for fun. If you try to sprint to catch up you will crash and burn well before the finish.

Hopefully these tips will help you adjust to changing race day conditions.