Mike Hamberger’s One Rule to Beasting the Big Race

This DC running coach focuses on training and simplicity.

Photo via m-gucci/ iStock

October is a big month for runners in the District. The Army Ten-Miler just passed, and the Marine Corps Marathon happens on October 25. We talked to running coach Mike Hamberger to find out exactly how to prep within 24 hours of start time. The answer may disappoint anyone hoping for a complex ritual: “Keep it simple, stupid,” he says.

Within 24 hours of a race, what do you need to be thinking about?

If you’re running a 5k, the answer is nothing. Have breakfast, then go have fun. If it’s a marathon, you want to make sure you have a breakfast that consistently works for you. Nothing that’s new. That’s the worst time to start experimenting. You also want to give yourself time to get to the track and do dynamic stretches. The Army Ten-Miler and Marine Corps Marathon can be more chaotic in the morning because of all the security, so there’s logistical issues to consider for your warmup.

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Any mantras you recommend or tips for mental prep?

KISS—keep it simple, stupid. The best pilots and surgeons in the world don’t overthink things. It’s good to think and set out goals, but you want to have that all thought out before you hit the pillow at night. Focus on one or two small things: stride length, breathing, the first mile. When you start thinking too much, it causes tension in the muscles, which leads to premature fatigue. Keeping it simple ties into goal-setting, it ties into confidence, and both are necessary. It allows for that “in the zone” state.

Ibuprofen beforehand or no?

My ethical answer has to be no, unless it’s been prescribed. Nothing new on raceday. Do whatever you’ve been doing on the past few weekend long runs. That’s when you should have answered all your questions. Nothing new within 48 hours—no new food. No massages that you’re not used to or from a new masseuse. No additional medication. No alternative warmups.

How should a runner fuel for race day?

The sports psychologists’ goal is to help an athlete feel right on race day. After 10 years of coaching, it’s really hard to generalize because everyone’s different. I have my athletes tell me what they’re going to eat on race day, and they need to be eating that at least four weeks before the race. You need some notion of what’s tolerable, what can you hold down and how much. You want to get some carbs because our body runs off carbs for all exercise, not too much fat because it takes too long to break down, and water. But if you don’t normally eat tons of carbs, you don’t want to lead race day with a bagel. Go with what you know.

How much sleep should a runner get the night before game day?

If you’re used to seven hours of sleep and you get 10, you’re going to be groggy. Know what you’re body needs, and get your adequate amount of sleep two nights before. The night before doesn’t matter too much.

What do you recommend wearing for a big race?

That goes back to intensity, which is related to how fast you’re running. If it’s not competitive, more layers; if it is, less.

Which muscles need to be stretched beforehand, and how?

All of them, because they’re all connected. Make time for a jog and dynamic stretching before a big race—if you’re in good shape. Think high knees, butt kicks, arm circles, neck rolls, shoulder rolls.

Are there any general tips that apply to everyone?

You want to stand at the start line feeling that you’ve been there before. You need to be confident. It’s just another track workout. You want all that training and routine to be in your subconscious. A lack of uncertainty keeps the brain quiet and the body relaxed.

Mike Hamberger has trained athletes in the District for over 10 years, and is the founder of DC Running Coach.