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5 Tips to Survive a Road Race You Didn't Train For

Posted by Tim Kennedy on

Way back in the wintertime, after cultivating some body mass over the holidays, you signed up for a road race. “I’m gonna shed this fat and recapture that summer bod from my prime years,” you thought. Their jaws will drop when I post that Instagram at the finish line.”

Well, February came and went, March was all about basketball, April was too cold to run outside, May and June had too many weddings, July was prime PTO time and here we are in August—three days after you had a tall stack pancakes and syrup for breakfast—and you’ve barely trained for the big race. Sad!

We’ve been there, and we’re here to help. Whether it’s a 5K, 8K, 10K or half-marathon, it doesn’t matter. We’ve got a few tips to help you survive race day. Because you might not “run” the entire time and you might not feel good while you’re doing it—but you ARE going to finish. Consider these tips:


The exact opposite of how you should begin your race.

In the moments leading up to the starting gun, energized by the fanfare of race day and surrounded by legitimate runners, you may find yourself overcome by a wave of irrational confidence. Suppress those emotions. You cannot hang with them.

Just before my first road race, I found myself ready to shoot out of the gates like a rocket. I had to remind myself that the goal here was not to clock some great time. The goal was simply to finish. So I thought about what it felt like to jog pretty slowly. Then I jogged slower than that.

At first, I felt silly lagging behind the big group of overachievers. But I quickly realized two things:

> Nobody else cared how fast or slow I jogged

> If I tried to keep up with the group, I’d regret it before reaching the first water station

Speaking of hydration…


The first hydration station should not look like the scene of a crime after you pass through. Try not to leave carnage in your wake.

About a mile into your race, some super-friendly volunteers will be handing out medium-sized plastic cups filled with water and sports drinks. You’ll be tempted to stop, grab a cup, take it down in one gulp, then repeat that process two or three or maybe four more times. Seemed like a good idea to me during a recent 10K. I immediately regretted that decision.

The moment I got back into my slow-jog stride, I could feel that cold liquid sloshing around in my stomach. To those around me, I probably looked as if I was due for a “reversal of fortune,” as they say in the competitive hot dog eating business. Really, I was just reacting to the half-gallon of yellow sugar water that entered my body quickly and unexpectedly. I left the water table worse than when I arrived. Classic mistake from a novice.

Even if you’re feeling parched this early in your race, try not to overdo it at the first hydration station. Pace yourself—there will be plenty of opportunities for liquid later in the race, we promise.


People naturally group together in longer road races, but the earlier you find someone with your same level of fitness, the better. Unbeknownst to them, this person will serve as your pace-setter.

The stranger in red doesn’t know it, but she’s the only reason our guy in blue even finished the race.

The first thing I look for in a potential pace-setter is apparel. I personally don’t have any fancy running gear. It’s usually regular t-shirts and basketball shorts for me. When I see a man or woman nervously fidgeting with their headphones while wearing an old shirt from college (rather than a previous road race), I know I’ve found my partner.

When you feel yourself dragging, dig deep and try to stick with your slow compatriot. Gotta keep up appearances, after all. And if this stranger happens to notice you tagging along, all the better. By the end of the race, you’ll have built an unbreakable silent bond.


With so many variables on race day—weather, course conditions, a little wrinkle in your sock—the one thing you can absolutely control is the music in your ears.

A great playlist is your secret weapon. Like Michael’s Secret Stuff in Space Jam, it might not help you physically, but it will give you a mental edge. And at this point, we’ll take what we can get.

If you’re in a pinch, Tim’s got an expertly curated
emergency road raceplaylist on Spotify just for you.

The key to a great race day playlist is to start with a few slow, building pump-up jams. I recommend some St. Lucia. The middle portion can include your feel-good songs, something to keep up your morale after the initial high of the start. Can’t go wrong with Phil Collins here. For the final few songs, you need some fast-paced stuff, such as Calvin Harris, to give you that confidence boost in the home stretch.


A quality roller thing (seen here massaging the author’s sad and pale leg) can do wonders for tense muscles.

In the days leading up to a recent road race, my leg muscles were stiff as cement. So I went to the running store (where I was by far the biggest chunk of a man in the room, but hey, you gotta start somewhere) and picked up one of those roller stick things with the massage balls on it. The purchase was one of the few great decisions I’ve made in recent memory.

If you’re feeling some muscle tightness and don’t have easy access to another human’s fingers, treat yourself to some light massage with a roller stick. We can vouch for this one. And while you're at it, one of these wouldn't hurt.

Hopefully these tips make your big day feel a little less daunting. You might not set any records, but if you approach race day with confidence, you might surprise even yourself.