Mistakes? Oh, I’ve made plenty of mistakes at half marathons over the years. However, I prefer to call them learning moments because I learned what not to do and my hope is to pass along this knowledge so that others may learn from my mistakes. Here are just a few of the many mistakes I’ve made at races.
- Not fueling properly
This one took me several years to get “right.” I started out not fueling enough and would run out of energy after running for around an hour. After I figured out I needed to run long training runs with something to give me quick energy (simple carbs), I tried gels and they made me nauseous. Bloks likewise made me nauseous and sometimes also have diarrhea (the absolute worst when you’re on a long run and are desperately searching for a bathroom).
Finally I discovered Honeystinger products. First I experimented with their waffles and found they were good for runs up to an hour but I needed more for longer runs and I just didn’t like eating them while running. I really liked the taste and convenience of their chews so I experimented further with those. Before starting on a run longer than an hour, I eat three chews then have two chews after thirty minutes. At the next thirty minutes (so after 60 minutes of running), I have three chews, then two chews thirty minutes later, and three chews after another thirty minutes if I’m going to be out longer than 2 hours. For a two hour run I will (sometimes) end up having about 10 chews. If I just wasn’t feeling up to more chews, I would occasionally skip some, usually around 90 minutes but often at the two hour point. Before a half marathon I have a waffle within 15 minutes of the race start time, along with three chews, and continue my alternate schedule of chews every thirty minutes after I begin running. I find it easier to put my chews in a plastic bag and stash it in the front pocket of my Nathan running vest for easy access.
Fueling is more than just what you eat, though, and it also includes hydration with electrolytes. For runs more than 60 minutes, since I have a high sweat rate, I need more than plain water; I need sodium, potassium, and magnesium as well. I started out making my own by adding honey and salt to water and putting that in water bottles when I ran. That worked fine but I realized I wanted more of a flavor (plus there was no potassium or magnesium) so I tried Gatorade and Powerade. I wasn’t happy with the long list of ingredients and how much sugar was in these. Finally I discovered Nuun hydration products and I’ve been using those for what feels like a decade at least.
Nuun makes several kinds of hydration products but my favorite ones are Sport for shorter runs or when I get back from a particularly challenging run where I lost a lot of sweat. For long runs, I make some Nuun Endurance and put that in my water bottles which I put in my Nathan running vest. When I have my Honey Stinger chews, I’ll take a long drag of Nuun along with them and that combination works well for me.
- Starting out too fast/getting caught up with the energy of the running crowd
This one is an easy trap to fall prey to. You’re excited about running a race, everyone around you is also excited, and for many people, it’s their first time running a race, or maybe even their third time but the point is, the experience is still fairly new. You’re trucking along, feeling great for the first few miles and you think to yourself, “I could continue at this pace for maybe even the rest of the race. I feel great!” and then it hits you around mile 6 that no, you can’t continue at that pace. It’s too fast for you to sustain and your body starts slowing down. If the course is hilly or it’s hot and humid, starting out too fast will come back to bite you hard. By not reserving some energy for later when either the course begins to get challenging or your body begins to fatigue, you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment later in the race.
Even though it may seem tough mentally, you will benefit from holding back in the first few miles of the race regardless of how “amazing” you feel. Just think how strong you’ll feel when you’re able to pass all of those people who ran past you in the beginning of the race when you’re hitting mile 11 or 12 and those people who started out too fast are now walking.
- Not dressed properly for weather conditions
Weather can change quickly so being prepared for the weather on race day can be a challenge if you’re traveling to a race. I learned that when you’re in the mountains, even in the summer, if a storm blows in suddenly, the temperature can easily drop by as much as 20 degrees from one day to the other. In the winter, extreme temperature changes can be even more drastic.
Challenging doesn’t mean impossible, however, you simply need to pack a little more running clothes unless you are more of a cold weather runner. For me, I tend to fare better in warmer temperatures so for a summer race in the mountains I like to bring shorts and a short-sleeve shirt, along with back-up capris and long-sleeve shirt in case of those quick temperature drops. I might even consider bringing a buff and lightweight gloves if the predicted temperature at the race start is already on the cool side of a summer race, in case it drops even more.
If you know you warm up quickly when you run but it will be chilly at the race start, you might want to bring a jacket, hat, and pants that you can either hand off to a non-running friend or family member right before the race starts or put in your gear check bag if that’s offered. My daughter is the opposite from me when it comes to dressing for the weather at races and she fares better in colder temperatures. For races in cold weather, what works best for her is to wear a jacket to the race and remove it just before the race starts, and she’ll run in shorts and a tank top even when it’s in the 30’s. Meanwhile, I would be dressed in running tights, long-sleeve pullover, hat, gloves, and have a buff around my neck and I would run the race in all of that. Find what works for you in advance before the race.
For hot weather, make sure you’re not over-dressed but this is more difficult than when it’s cold because there’s only so much clothing you can remove. Many women like running in just a sports bra but test that out on training runs. In fact, you should test out all of your running gear before race day to make sure everything feels the same after wearing it for a couple of hours or more as it did when you put it on. Sometimes bottoms will tend to bunch up around the thighs or the waist band will pull down after you’ve been running for a while. You don’t want to discover this on race day. Sports bras often chafe, especially on hot days so test different sports bras as well as different lubrications like Squirrels’ Nut Butter, BodyGlide, Vasoline, or others.
- Not wearing appropriate running shoes
When I first started running, I just wore whatever athletic shoes I happened to have. When I was a kid, it wasn’t a problem but as I got older, I saw just how important having good running shoes is when I developed shin splints in college. I have no doubt they were caused by wearing old, run-down athletic shoes.
If you have a locally-owned athletic store where you live, see if they do running shoe fittings to determine the best type of shoe for your feet. I would skip the big box athletic stores for this, because at least in my experience, they don’t have qualified people for this. People in local running stores are happy to talk shoes with you all day and they’re trained to know what they’re talking about, plus many stores have cool gadgets that measure things like your arches and more.
- Putting too hard of expectations on yourself for a race
One race won’t define your life. Things often happen that are out of our control on race day and even before the race that can alter your performance in a race. You get sick, the weather is unseasonably warm, a storm rolls in and it’s cold and rainy, you didn’t sleep well for the past week, you miss a turn on the race course, and on and on. Life happens. If you put so much pressure on yourself for a goal time and you see during the race that you won’t be able to reach that goal, it’s good to have a plan b (and plan c). I’ve had many races where I wanted to finish in x amount of time and the course was more difficult than I thought it would be or I was having stomach issues or I just wasn’t feeling that great and I had to alter my goals. If you go into a race with multiple levels of goals, it will make it easier to drop down to your b goal if you already have one in mind. Preferably your b and c goals shouldn’t be linked to a specific time but more general like “finish with a smile on my face” or “not die.”
I’m sure I’ve made plenty of other mistakes at half marathons but these are the first ones that come to mind. What are some mistakes you’ve made at half marathons or other distance races? Have you also made some of the same mistakes I made at races?