I once saw an interview with an ice hockey goaltender called Tim Thomas, who won the NHL’s Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins in 2011*, in which he was asked about a pre-game superstition: having a cheeseburger the day before every match.
When asked, Thomas admitted he did, but clarified one thing: it wasn’t a superstition, it was a routine. A semantic difference? No. According to Thomas, because it was only a routine, it didn’t matter if he missed his cheeseburger. Had it been a superstition and he missed doing it, it might affect his performance mentally in that game.
It’s an interesting point, and it’s in that spirit I view my pre-race routine: a series of things I like to do, but that I’m not tied to – because I won’t always get to do them.
There are several things you’re supposed to do before a race or a big training run: eat and drink, warm-up, put running clothes on, that sort of thing. And how you approach those sort of depends on how your body works a bit.
My routine mostly kicks in on a Saturday morning. Saturday is Parkrun day, and Parkrun starts at 0900hrs. So most Saturday mornings generally follow the same routine. It starts the night before, when I’ll usually have some form of pasta dish (because carbs).
In the morning I find it difficult to eat anything until I’ve been awake for at least half-an-hour or so, and had a cup of tea (hey, I’m British). But to effectively fuel before a run, it’s recommended you eat around one or two hours before you run. Which means getting up around 0700hrs, having a cup of tea, watching the news headlines, checking the weather, going and buying a newspaper (a newspaper! How old-fashioned…), and then having breakfast sometime just before 0800hrs.
I read somewhere once that porridge is particularly good pre-running food, so while I usually have Weetabix for breakfast most days, on the day of a run I’ll usually plump for some porridge and fruit. After that, time for a coffee (for the caffeine), and then a vital pre-run banana.
Then it’s out the door in time for a brisk jog to the start, a few sprints to get the heart pumping and some vague effort at doing some stretching.
So that’s my Saturday running routine – and in my head it’s all worked out so that I can achieve my best possible time on that day’s Parkrun.
Except here’s the thing: the fastest time I’ve ever done a Parkrun in was when I was down in Somerset visiting my parents. The day before I didn’t have pasta, but a Mexican feast from Wahaca (which may have included some decidedly unhealthy but very tasty desert).
On the Saturday, I got up before 0700hrs, had some Weetabix, drove from my Mum’s house down to my Dad’s, had a cup of tea and a banana, and then jogged slowly to the start, missing out much of my usual pre-race build-up while I chatted to my dad. A completely different routine, then… and yet I set my best-ever 5k time.
So have I got my pre-run routine wrong? Should I be swapping pasta for Wahaca’s spicy cauliflower cheese every Friday? Or was my record time largely down to the fact the Parkrun course I did that day was smoother and faster than the one I usually do?
Much as I like the idea of eating Wahaca’s spicy cauliflower cheese once-a-week (seriously, it is, to quote a friend, hashtag totes amazeballs), I’m pretty sure my record time was down to that last factor.
Maybe I’d have gone faster still that day if I’d been able to follow my usual pre-race routine. Or, more likely, unless you’re a finely tuned professional athlete, your pre-race routine isn’t quite as important as you think. And that’s probably just as well.
Here’s the thing: with most races, there’s no way to apply a set routine. They start at different times of the day in different places. Sometimes I drive to them, sometimes I walk, sometimes it’s public transport. Sometimes you need to be at a run venue an hour before the start, sometimes you can rock up ten minutes before. I’m rather imagining getting to the start of the London Marathon is going to be an exercise in planning, logistics and battling crowds unlike any run I’ve done before.
All of which means it would be counterproductive to become superstitious about following the same series of events before every single run. Of course, it is important to do certain things before a run (eat, drink, pee…), and that’s why you do need some form of flexible plan – a routine, if you will.
Although sadly, unlike Tim Thomas, my pre-run routine doesn’t involve a cheeseburger.
Perhaps I should add that to the post-run routine…
* as a fan of the Vancouver Canucks, who lost to the Bruins in that year’s Stanley Cup finals, it still pains me to type that…
I’m running the 2016 London Marathon to support the South West Children’s Heart Circle. You can sponsor me by clicking the big Just Giving button below – all money will go to a hugely worthy cause. Thanks!