Road Racing Strategies

By Warren Finke, Team Oregon

Races are often won or lost, successful or regrettable, due to your pre-race strategies. No matter how fit, nourished and rested you are, your approach to an event is important for success.

Race Knowledge

Unfamiliarity with the course can lead to mistakes and catastrophes. These can be as bad as getting lost or as simple as not having the inside position on the last turn before the finish. In one example, the women's winner of the prestigious Falmouth road race was decided when the lead woman mistook a banner and crosswalk for the finish, which was actually just over the hill. She slowed and was passed just before the actual finish. In another example, the leading man in a marathon ran into the women's chute. In the ensuing confusion, the second place competitor ran past and won the race and additional thousands of dollars.

The last thing you want during a race is a surprise. Even good surprises have negative consequences and may leave you wondering if you could have done better if you had only known....

Knowledge of a race course can be divided into 3 pieces: The start, the main body of the course and the finish.

Knowledge of the body of the course can be obtained in the hours, days or weeks prior to the race. For major events, study maps, topographical drawings, pictures and videos. Find out what the typical weather is and what past extremes have been. Talk with others who have been on the course. If you can, go over the course yourself by car, bicycle or on several early training runs. The important things to determine are the location and degree of any obstacles such as hills, tight turns or constricted areas. You should also know dominant landmarks such as turn around points, aid stations, and points where you might want split times. Other items to consider are the type of surface you will be running on and exposure to potential winds, sun, rain etc. If you can, check out the course at the same time of day as the race will occur. For smaller events, at least attempt to drive the course prior to the race.

Little knowledge of the start and finish areas can be obtained prior to race day. If possible these areas should be viewed before the race for their general features and terrain. Make sure you locate your starting position well before the start and stay close enough during your warm-up to get to it before the gun. Knowledge of the finish may mean the difference between winning and losing precious seconds toward a personal or age group record. You should know exactly where the finish is and pick out a landmark when you could start to sprint if you wanted to. Some marathons, such as Honolulu and Rock 'n Roll, have a very long finish straightaway where it is difficult to tell how far it is to the finish. Notice if there is a turn or corner just before the finish and how far it is from this to the line. If there are turns near the finish, determine the best position to be in going through them (i.e. the route giving the shortest distance to the finish).

Other things you should know about the race include:

  • How long it takes to get from your house or hotel to the race and how long it takes to find a parking place.
  • The locations of the bathrooms at the start and along the course.
  • The place to leave and retrieve your warm-ups.
  • The location of aid stations and the types of aid available.
  • The place to meet your family or friends after the event.

The Right Stuff

People often arrive at a race without their race numbers, proper clothing or even running shoes! The best way to avoid this is to have a checklist of all the items you may need for a race. The checklist below was developed using years of racing experience. Use it yourself to make sure nothing gets left behind.

Race Checklist








____Short sleeved shirt

____Long sleeved shirt

____Running Tights

____Jacket (either wind or warm-up)

____Pants (either wind or warm-up)

____Gloves or Mittens

____Sun glasses

____Hat or Visor



____Fanny pack

____Change of clothes for afterwards


____Heart Rate Monitor

____Number if picked up early

____Safety pins

____Race Chip (for chip timed races)

____Course Map

____Race Instructions


____Felt tip or ballpoint pen

____Paper tape, Band-Aids

____Athletic tape






____Pre-race food and fluids

____Aid to be carried or placed on the course

____Post-race food and fluids


Use this list to pack on the way to an event and to make certain that you have remembered to take everything you need to the starting line.

Race Numbers and Chips

Pin your race number to the front of the singlet or shirt you plan to wear to race. Pin it on as early as the night before if you have your number from a pre-race expo. This way, you will make certain that you have enough pins and that you wont forget the number when you go to the start. Many races use your number to announce your name as you finish, so you want to be sure it can be read.

In races using a chip system, make certain to attach the chip to your laces. Runners have mounted their chips in unbelievable places making it not register. If you are unsure about how to attach it, ask the race volunteer who gives it to you. If your chip does not register, you will not get a time or place.

Pre-race Anxiety

At any race, runners exhibit a lot of nervous energy before the start. It shows up as loud excited talking, inability to stay still and long lines at the porta-potties. The bigger the race the more nervous energy runners have. You will see people warming up hours in advance of the race. On bus rides to the start, runners all talk at once creating a din of noise. Pulse rates reach near performance levels as people stand motionless at the starting line. How do you cope with this?

The first step is to realize that it is happening. The second step is to relax and to try to save all that energy for the race. Have a plan for what you will do at the start. It should include fluid drinking, warming up, a toilet break, stowing your warm ups and getting to your starting position. If you arrive early, instead of getting caught up in the anxiety, sit back and enjoy watching others do foolish things and waste their energy. Drink some water. Use your warm-up to relieve some of your nervous energy and try to stay focused on your pre-race plans.

Warming Up

Warming up before the event has both physiological and psychological benefits. Physiologically, the increased blood flow and muscle core temperature can be beneficial as can the facilitation and recruitment of muscle motor units. Warming up will preserve muscle glycogen at the start by establishing aerobic metabolism before the race. A proper warm up will help you to prevent injury during the run by having your body prepared and ready to go. It may also free up your guts to allow a final potty break before the race.

Psychologically, warm up can help you to become clearly focused on the event and on your body. It may burn off a little of the pre-race anxiety and allow you to start at or near the desired pace. Establishing a routine of pre-race activities which become "automatic" can also help calm you.

Use a walk to slow jog to warm up the muscles and the core temperature slowly without causing fatigue or reducing energy stores. Start walking/jogging about 20-30 minutes before the race starts. Slowly move from jog to run, run for 5 to 10 minutes, then carefully do some easy stretching. Do not stretch before the race unless you have warmed up the muscles because a muscle pull or strain at this time would be catastrophic. After stretching, you may want to do a little bit of striding at race pace before getting into the start staging area. Do 4 -5 practice runs of about 50 yards at the smooth, relaxed pace you want to run the race.

Warm up in your warm up clothing and slowly peel down as you get warmer. Warming up should also give you an idea of the amount of clothing necessary for the run. If the temperature is moderate to cool, you should feel chilly after removing your warm-ups. If you are comfortable, you either are wearing too many clothes or will need to deal with hot weather running.


Seeding is lining up at the start with the fastest runners are in front. This allows for unencumbered starts and avoids congestion and jostling. Many races will use pace or finish time signs or groupings to establish seeding. Many races do not have seeding systems. Even in races that do, there are people who are naïve, or who try to cheat the system. Therefore, it is best for you as a runner to take the responsibility to seed yourself appropriately at an event. First, if there is a system of signs, corrals etc, use it first to get near where you want to be. Next take a long look around you at the runners nearby. If the ones in front look much slower than you, you should move up. Often if you race frequently in the area, you will recognize the runners who run your pace. If runners behind you look much faster than you are move further back. Although it may seem like a good idea to be further forward to save time, it is not worth it if you get knocked down by faster runners trying to get around you. Finally, start near the middle of the street. Runners will flow more smoothly from this position and there are fewer hazards (e.g. parked cars, spectators etc.).

Relax the last few minutes in your starting location. Use the time to mentally rehearse starting on pace and relaxed.

To have a successful and memorable race, use these strategies along with reasonable goals and a pacing plan. As you run the race you can stay under control, having the confidence that you know what is to come and how you are going to finish.

Warren has coached runners through Team Oregon, the Portland Marathon Clinic and the Leukemia Societies Team in Training.

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