April 24, 2019

How To Prepare For A Night Race (Like The Sundown Marathon)

Night races like the Sundown Marathons have grown in popularity recently. Here’s how you can prepare for these tough races so that you can perform your best.

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I have run the Sundown Marathon twice and both times have been a self-inflicted disaster.

To cut a long story short let’s just say that I failed in my preparation and in the execution of the race.

To be fair I had long since retired from racing pro when I did these races, and I was doing them more for shits and giggles than to run a great time.

But still, I really should know better.

With the next edition of the Sundown Marathon just around the corner, we have been getting a lot of questions at Coached about racing at night.

I thought I would use my failed attempts as the framework for a post and have put pen to paper (and by pen to paper, I mean fingers to keyboard) to share what I have learned about racing at night.

To begin, let me share what I did wrong, and from there I’ll offer suggested strategies for addressing each issue.

  • I didn’t train consistently and get in the necessary long runs (I won’t get into this in this post, but I think you should know by now, that training for a race is essential if you want to do well, enjoy the experience and recover quickly afterwards).
  • I wasn’t used to racing so late at night.
  • I ate my last meal far too early.
  • I started too fast.
  • I didn’t drink enough.

Get Used To Running At Night

I am a person who likes to run in the morning. There are several benefits to training in the morning (that could be a post for another time), but in preparing for a night race, it’s not optimal.

If you want to run well late at night, there are a couple of things I have seen work well in the preparation of the athlete’s I coach.

1. Do More Of Your Training In The Evening

If you’re a morning runner (like me), move the majority of your training to the evening for 6 – 12 weeks before race day.

While not late, running in the evening around 6 – 8 pm, familiarises your body with what it feels like to run after a busy day and forces you to think about your meal timing and fuelling needs later in the day.

2. Do 1 – 3 of your Longest Runs Starting At Race Time

The body is smart and responds to what you show it.

By doing your critical long runs at the same time as the race, you will prepare your body for the demands of running at that time.

Your body doesn’t typically function well in the middle of the night when you are used to sleeping so by doing a couple of your longest runs at race time; your body will begin to adapt and become more comfortable running without sleep.

A word of warning though!

This is not a more is better thing. Avoid doing these late night runs too regularly as they promote fatigue.

Your body needs an adequate amount of sleep to benefit from the training you’re doing so if you throw your sleep cycle out by doing all of your running late at night, it’s likely you’ll do more harm than good.

Instead, aim for somewhere between 1 – 3 long runs at race time in the final 5-weeks of your preparation. The last one should be 2 – 3 weeks before the race date.

Cut Race Times, Not Corners.

Racing at your potential and enjoying training is easy when you’re following the right programme.

Time Your Meals To Ensure You Have Enough Fuel

As a Kiwi, I tend to eat dinner around 6 pm which is 5 – 6 hours before the race start. That’s too early, and I didn’t have gas in the tank for the race. As a result, I blew to pieces midway through the run and suffered for the remainder of the race.

What I should have done is had a bigger breakfast to put fuel in the tank earlier in the day. Had lunch a little later than usual at around 2 pm and had a light dinner at around 8 pm.

You’ll need to play around with timing depending on the exact start time of your race. Ideally, your last meal should be 3 – 4 hours before the start.

Regardless of how you choose to eat on race day, I will remind you that you don’t want to deviate from the foods you usually eat.

Stick with familiar foods your system is used to digesting and avoid anything new. The time to make dietary changes is during the training period, not on race day. If you’re travelling to a destination race, save the culinary excursions for post-race when you can savour every bite without concern.

Start Conservatively

Starting too fast is not specific to night racing, but it is ubiquitous and is the main reason why athletes don’t maximise their fitness and achieve their best result.

What I want to highlight here is that you need to be conservative in the opening stages of the race. In night races, it is not uncommon to feel sleepy, if you start too fast, you tend to accelerate this process and as a result, lose focus.

You need to stay focused during races so that you can keep your pace consistent and hydrate and fuel yourself appropriately.

Hydrate Strategically

In race week and especially on race day, it is vital that you hydrate yourself well. If you start the race dehydrated you’re already on the backfoot and are limiting what you are going to be able to produce.

I recommend that you preload with sodium. Salt helps you to retain water, increasing blood volume and assisting your cardiovascular system (heart) in the circulation of oxygen to the working muscles.

If you haven’t already, do the Precision Hydration online sweat test (or come and see us for an advanced sweat test) and pick up some 1500’s for your preload.

We recommend preloading the morning of the race and again 90 minutes before the start. In between that, it is recommended to keep a water bottle on you with a sugar-free electrolyte drink. Sip regularly from it throughout the day.

During the race, it’s crucial that you stick to your race hydration plan.

Night races are often cooler, and as a result, many runners (like me) forget to hydrate appropriately.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

While I try to lead by example most of the time, sometimes I bugger things up and it’s better to learn from my mistakes.

Do as I say, not as I do.

If you are running the Sundown Marathon (or any other night race), I hope these tips will be useful, and I wish you all the best.

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Ben Pulham

Ben Pulham is the founder of Coached, a personalised training programme that helps runners & triathletes optimise, track and enjoy their training.