Race-Day Tactics

Race day has finally arrived. Don’t squander your hard-fought preparations by losing unnecessary time and positions on the course. Whether you’re a front-of-the-pack runner looking to crush and dominate your competition, an age grouper gunning for a title, or simply hoping to set a new PR, every second counts, even over the course of 100 miles. Use these performance-boosting strategies to enhance your race-day results.

Know your competition.
Whether you’re first or last, your fellow competitors will bring out your best on race day. Study the start list. Our sport is still small enough that you should be able to recognize names of people who run a similar pace or have finished near you in previous events. Put an imaginary bull’s-eye on their back and go after them.

Formulate a race-day nutrition plan.
The most successful racers don’t wing it when it comes to eating and drinking. Make a spreadsheet that includes distances between aid stations, estimated times, and how many calories, electrolytes, and liquids you need to consume. Here’s an example of a hydration/nutrition plan that Austin, Texas-based nutritionist and ultrarunner Meredith Terranova designed for me for Moab’s Alpine to Slickrock 50 Mile a few years ago. Having this solid framework helped propel me to the win that day:

Ian Torrence Moab Alpine to Slickrock 50 Mile Nutrition PlanUtilize your strengths.
Learn what you excel at during the months of training leading up to your event. Are you a strong uphill runner? Can you fearlessly zip down descents? Do rock- and root-covered trails appeal to you, or do you feel more comfortable on less-technical trails? Study the race profile. Find out what the terrain is like. Know precisely where to take advantage of your strengths and make your move there. At the same time, know where the tougher areas for you lie in wait, so you remember to be patient.

Take advantage of free speed.
Use a few of these tactics to shave seconds (which will become minutes over the course of 30 to 100 miles) or to leave your competition behind.

  • Change gears. Transitioning from different terrain types can be tiring, but if done efficiently you can save time and energy.
  • Crest a climb with authority. Shorten your stride and increase your cadence when you get to the top. This helps shake the fatigue from the climb, re-establishes proper running form, and prepares your legs for the ensuing flat or downhill.
  • Continue into an uphill with the inertia you’ve built. Don’t slow or stop to hike simply because the terrain has changed. Keep running up the slope until your heart and breathing rates dictate otherwise.
  • Change directions. Weaving and twisting will undoubtedly slow any runner. As we tire, we’ll comfortably settle into that slower pace. Like a car entering an on-ramp, make sure to accelerate after a turn to regain your race pace and speed.
  • Take the tangent. Never cut the course, but picking the straightest route on a winding trail or road can save you a few steps. Over the length of a trail 100-mile event this adds up to a lot of distance.
How to take a tanget when running

Stay alert and use the tangents to your advantage. Photo courtesy of McMillan Running.

Finish strong.
You’ve always got more to give. When you near the finish line—be it three miles away, one mile away, or mere feet—pump those arms and legs. You may not pass anyone and a few seconds here or there may seem inconsequential to the outsider on a results sheet, but you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you gave it your all. In the final miles of the 2005 USA Track and Field National 50 Mile Trail Championships at the White River 50 Mile Endurance Run, I found myself hunted by Seattle, Washington’s Dustin Gilbert. I thought I had nothing to give, but found enough energy to out lean Dustin, keep my fourth-place finish, and earn a few hundred dollars more prize money.

Ian Torrence 2005 White River 50 Mile Sprint Finish

Leaning at the tape at the 2005 White River 50 Mile. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama

Idle time is wasted time.
Many runners lose precious minutes at aid stations. Make every effort to grab what you need and continue on your way as quickly as possible. Eat, drink, and shuffle equipment and apparel as you move. Prepare your nutrition and equipment beforehand. Take advantage of crew and drop bags to have pre-loaded vests, bottles, and packs ready so you can quickly switch and go. Diana Finkel made good use of this tactic en route to her 2009 Hardrock 100 victory. She didn’t have the fastest splits, but she spent only three minutes total in aid stations over the entire race. This not only kept her ahead of the rest of the women, but also in front of all but two of the men.

Overtake with authority.
When you’re racing for position, make your actions decisive by voicing your intentions to your competition. Ask if you can pass and, once permission is granted, move quickly ahead with resolve. Establish a gap and then look ahead for your next target. At the 1999 Chancellor Challenge 100k in Boston, Massachusetts, Jim Garcia worked his way through a very competitive international field by using this strategy all the way to the finish. “[Jan] Vandendriessche had a three-minute lead with 10k to go,” recalled Garcia. “That was down to one minute with a mile to go. I ran him down and I had him going into the last turn. We were both pretty fatigued, but trying to win. As he cramped, we ran into each other 10 meters from the finish.” Jim managed to stay on his feet and finished first.

Jim Garcia 1999 Chancellor Challenge 100k

Jim Garcia passes Belgium’s Jan Vandendriessche in the final meters of the 1999 Chancellor Challenge 100k. From the January 2000 edition of Runner’s World.

You can’t be hunted if you can’t be seen.
Once your competition spots you in their crosshairs, you’re as good as caught. Stay hidden by using trailside vegetation and low light to your advantage. “Going stealth” was the motto for the 1998 Angeles Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run. The top-three runners (Ben Hian, Scott Jurek, and Tom Nielsen) were only separated by 21 minutes at the finish. In order to avoid giving away their location to each other, they used lamps with red lenses and turned off their lights at strategic locations.

Practice good sportsmanship.
Your attitude says it all. You can win all the races in the world, but if you’re a jerk, no one will care. The best runners in our sport are humble and class acts. Even with their game faces on, they practice proper trail etiquette, offer support to one another, and always congratulate the winner.

Tony Krupicka - Hal Koerner - Karl Meltzer - Scott Jurek

Anton Krupicka, Hal Koerner, Karl Meltzer, and Scott Jurek, all fierce competitors, enjoy trail time together. Photo: Ian Torrence

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What race-day tactics work best for you? Can you tell a story of employing one of the tactics In describes to a race that turned out particularly well for you?
  • What other race-day tactics do you use that aren’t covered here? Share your thoughts in a comment!

There are 10 comments

  1. itgoes

    Point taken. I should have merely said "other options" instead (working off of old notes). As you know, one type of nutrition can old after eating it hours on end. We were simply looking for other edible calorie sources that I've used on training runs and that were offered on the course. Thanks. Ian

    1. austinhobbs

      I deleted before I saw the reply because I realized I was just reading too much into the word choice. Overall, I appreciate the article and the advice. Thank you.

  2. Meghan Hicks

    @austinhobbs,

    For this particular race, it looks like Ian got most of his calories via a liquid-based mix. I, thus, interpret Meredith’s use of the word “real” less literally than you have, and as her instructions to get a bit of food that has substance (rather than just calories transmitted via liquids) from among an aid station’s mix and Ian’s drop bags. There are perhaps/probably some further limitations here that we as readers can’t know about, like what kinds of non-liquid nutrition Ian’s determined he can tolerate/prefers when racing in the conditions specific to this race (heat, altitude, pace, time on feet, etc.) and what the race has said will be available at aid stations. This seems a pretty solid nutrition plan for a mountainous, higher-altitude, hot, and thus, significant time-on-feet race that I know the Moab Alpine to Slickrock 50 Mile is, and for someone who prefers to get the majority of their calories in non-solid form and from among typical running-nutrition products.

  3. northacrosseurope

    Should race day tactics also include something on 'mental tactics'?

    You know, the many tricks of the trade for convincing yourself to keep on going when the body demands: 'stop'…

    Or is there another post on that in the making? I hope so… these are all wonderful and useful to read!

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