Race morning is very stressful for most athletes. The alarm goes off and the adrenaline starts pumping. Even those with years of racing experience may find themselves jittery, questioning their preparation and worrying about jeopardizing months of training with a race morning misstep.
To calm your athletes’ minds and help them channel their nervous energy into better race-day performance, remove the unknowns and aim to get ahead of their concerns. Here are the most common questions I receive from athletes I coach — hopefully, these will help you advise your athletes as well.
What time should I wake up?
Early! Athletes should wake up three to four hours before the race start.
You can probably hear the retorts. “You mean I need to wake up at 3:30 AM?! But I wake up 15 minutes before most workouts! Shouldn’t I get an extra hour or two of sleep!”
Although these objections sound reasonable, waking up three to four hours before a race starts gives athletes sufficient time to eat and digest breakfast, which is especially important for long-course racers who need to top off their glycogen stores.
There is also evidence that oxygen uptake kinetics are the lowest upon waking and may improve later in the day, so giving time for the body to wake up may enhance performance.
What about breakfast? How much should I eat?
As a rule, athletes can eat more food the earlier they wake up. Four hours before a race, athletes can consume approximately four grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight. Three hours before, they can consume three grams/kg, and two hours before just one gram/kg. Since many athletes will be depleting their glycogen stores during a race, getting in a good breakfast can make the difference between bonking and finishing strong.
What should I eat?
Everyone is different, but as a rule, most athletes should focus on consuming a high-carbohydrate, low-fiber, low-fat breakfast. Oatmeal, bagels, granola, and yogurt are great options.
For example, a 70kg athlete who wakes up three hours before an Ironman could reasonably consume 210 grams of carbohydrates. This could be a bagel (70 grams of carbs), jelly (30 grams), peanut butter (10 grams), granola bar (30 grams) and sports drink throughout the morning (70 grams), totaling 210 grams of carbohydrates.
How early should I get to the transition area?
Arrive at the race site no later than 60 minutes before the race start or the close of transition. I’ve witnessed too many athletes arrive late, frantically set up their transition area, forget something (cycling shoes, race belt, etc.) in the car or hotel, sprint to get it and beg to be let back into transition after it closes. Do not press your luck. Minimize stress and arrive early.
A vital reason to arrive early is to rehearse transitions. Visualizing what they will need to do in T1 and T2 will ensure a smooth, fast transition. Athletes should know precisely where their bike is and learn the most efficient route for navigating out to the bike or run.
How should I set up the transition area?
It’s best to keep it simple!
Athletes should securely attach water bottles and other nutrition to their bikes. It is easy to launch a bottle going over a bump or waste time in transition dealing with loose gels. The idea is to set up gear so that athletes can confidently grab their bike or run gear and GO!
Athletes should hang their bikes by the saddle and make sure the front wheel is on the ground. Helmet, sunglasses and cycling shoes should be placed next to the wheel (note, if athletes are comfortable with a flying mount, they should leave their cycling shoes clipped to the pedals). Behind the helmet, athletes should place their running shoes, race belt, race bib and hat/visor.
It is also good to encourage athletes to double and triple-check that their bike is ready to race. This means checking brakes, derailers, tire pressure, and calibrating/connecting power meters to cycling computers.
How will I be able to find my bike!?
Running out of the water and into T1 can be a disorienting experience. Athletes are often dizzy and forget exactly where they racked their bike. Therefore, it is ESSENTIAL for athletes to walk from the swim exit to their bike (and from “bike in” to their transition area) multiple times before the race so that they know where to go. Since the transition area is typically split into rows based on bib number, athletes should memorize their number and know on which side of the rack they placed their equipment. It is also a good idea for certain directionally challenged athletes to put a uniquely colored towel down in their transition area (if allowed) so that they can quickly locate their spot.
What should I do with my stuff?
Most races have dry clothes bags (or morning clothes bags) that athletes can fill with gear that will be returned to them after the race. This is a good place to store clothes and bottles they wore/brought to the race site. These bags are typically collected from athletes right before the swim (often when athletes are standing in line at the swim start) and are particularly useful when athletes don’t have the luxury of dropping equipment off at their vehicle after they set up transition. Make sure athletes mark this bag (along with all other bags) with their bib number and know where and when to drop it off.
In certain large races (such as significant Ironman events), it is also common to have additional bags, including a bike/T1 bag and a run/T2 bag.
In the bike/T1 bag, athletes must store bike gear, such as cycling shoes, helmets and sunglasses. In the run/T2 bag, athletes store run gear, such as running shoes, visors and race belts. These bags are typically checked in the day before a race and are accessible to athletes during each transition. The purpose of these bags is to consolidate equipment so that the transition area does not become congested with gear. Athletes should understand the logistics surrounding these bags and refer to the athlete guide for the transition flow of each specific race. I always encourage athletes to check these bags on race morning to know their location and ensure that the gear is accessible (i.e., the bags are not tied shut).
When should I warm up?
The structure of a warm-up is different depending on race distance, with sprint triathlons requiring a longer warm-up than long course triathlons. Assuming athletes are racing a sprint or Olympic distance race, they should start their warm-up ~60 minutes before the race start. Fifteen minutes each of running and cycling (if they’re allowed to ride) with a few short pick-ups to race pace will prime their system for racing. If they can get in the water as well, a short swim warm-up composed of five to ten minutes of easy swimming with a few short builds (20 hard strokes) is exceedingly beneficial.
The warm-up for a long course race should be shorter and begin approximately 45 minutes prior to the race start. Strong 70.3 athletes would benefit from an abbreviated warm-up, such as five to ten minutes of easy running in addition to a short swim if available. Most Ironman athletes do not need to do an extensive warm-up. A dry land mobility routine (e.g., 20 neck rolls, arm circles and arm swings) is sufficient for most athletes so long as they ease into the swim.
Do I need to have a gel right before the race begins?
It isn’t a requirement, but a gel ~30 minutes before race start is beneficial for topping the glycogen stores, especially for long course racing. Make sure athletes consume gels with a couple of mouthfuls of water.
What should I bring for after the race?
Athletes should bring a change of clothes and additional sunscreen if they need to sit in the sun during the awards ceremony. They can also bring baby wipes or makeup wipes (or similar products) along with a towel so that they can clean some grime off their bodies and more thoroughly enjoy post-race festivities.
What are other tips for ensuring a smooth race morning?
- Lay out all gear the night before.
- Keep a checklist (see below) of all the gear.
- Apply sunscreen, chamois cream and body glide upon waking up.
- Do not try anything new on race morning.
- Bring two pairs of goggles to transition just in case.
- Relax. A lack of sleep the night before a race will not impact performance, so do not stress about not being able to sleep.
Race Day Equipment Checklist
- Tri suit
- Race Belt
- Suntan Lotion
- Watch/Bike Computer
- HR Strap if relevant
- Charging Cords
- Body glide
- Chamois cream/lube
- Change of clothes
- Race packet items (ankle tracker, swim cap, wristband, morning clothes bag, etc.)
- Goggles (two pairs ideally)
- Cycling Shoes
- Flat Kit
- Air Pump
- Running shoes
- Sports drink (Tailwind/Gatorade/GU, etc.)
- Gels (keep a few spare gels with you on the bike in case you launch a bottle)
- Water Bottles