The Pre-Race Workout That Primes You to Perform

Running doing his pre-race workout

You’re a day out from your goal race and unsure what to do: work out or rest? On one hand, you want every muscle and joint to feel loose and ready to go fast. On the other, you want to make sure you’re fresh for your race. So what’s best?

To meet both mandates, your pre-race workout should be intense but “short and sweet,” says Jonathan Dugas, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist who’s currently supporting research at the Cardiovascular Research Institute at Loyola University Chicago.

Runners often call this type of workout a “shake out” run and the short intervals within it “striders.” Cyclists and triathletes may refer to the brief burst of speed as “openers.” Whatever the name, the goal is the same: “You want to maximize rest,” says Dugas, “but also maintain all the speed you’ve worked so hard to earn.”

The Benefits of High-Intensity Race Prep

There are two reasons why you’d want to include a few hard efforts in your pre-race workout. The first is physiological.

During a “taper”—a week or two of reduced-volume training—you should hit your lowest, most rested point a few days before the race, says Dugas. But then you need to wind things up a bit to reawakens the neuromuscular adaptations you developed during earlier speed training. “High intensity helps your brain remember how to activate muscles to produce your race pace,” says Dugas. Afterward, he adds, “you’re still very rested, but are now also feeling primed and sharp.”

The second reason to incorporate high-intensity work into your race prep is psychological: It can help quell nerves and feelings of uncertainty. “You’re trying to give yourself a little bit of confidence that on race day your legs will answer the call—they won’t hang up on you,” says Dugas

How to Add Speed Work To Your Pre-Race Workout

What you do the day before a race largely depends on what makes you comfortable, says Andrew Kastor, coach of the Mammoth Track Club in Mammoth Lakes, California.

Kastor likes to have runners go out for an easy 20- to 40-minute run (or whatever time or distance constitutes a short run for you). Then, following some form drills like high knees and butt kicks, he’ll have his athletes do four to eight 100-yard strides—at 80 percent of their max speed—with full recovery between each. “You’re not trying to set your personal best in the 100,” says Kastor. “You’ve come this far; don’t risk straining or pulling anything.”

But Kastor also has athletes who stick to different pre-race workouts. One prefers to run a few 200-meter repeats at 5K pace. Another elite marathoner will only do a couple of very light strides. “You should have comfort in the routine and comfort in the zone of effort,” says Kastor. “What matters is what works for you.”

According to Dugas, cyclists tend to go hard for a bit longer when doing “openers.” For instance, during a one-hour ride they might do three 45-second sprints. But check out any forum and you’ll find a great variety of preferences among cyclists as well.

Regardless of the sport, the mandate is the same—go hard enough to wake everything up, but not get tired. “You don’t want to accumulate training stress,” says Dugas. “Only do what you need to do to make yourself feel ready.”

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