I often read the New York Times articles on running. They are actually very good articles, and you can read them for free online (after you register).
This week, they had an article that gives pretty good advice on marathon racing (link to article, you need to register, for free). However, their advice applies to any running distance (I have inserted my own comments):
1. "Your goal is to keep an even pace or, even better, to speed up at the end, running so-called negative splits." In other words, do not start fast!
It is so difficult to not start too fast when everyone else is behaving like they are being chased by the bulls at Pamplona (link to news on this crazy tradition). Many will pass you, but if you are smart about how you start, you will pass many of them later on.
2. "Taper for 14-10 days before the long distance race. Too many people go to the race exhausted!"
Very true. I have experienced this on my own skin. One more long run or speed workout during the last few days before a race is NOT going to improve your performance. Your goal is to get to the starting line with rested legs. You should feel very strong during the first half, and your legs should not burn when you are just starting. If they do burn, you probably didn't rest enough (or you started too fast).
3. "Have a rousing mantra for when the going gets tough."
Your mind plays such an important role when racing. My yoga teacher tells us that the way we think, react, and behave when we experience a physical challenge is a reflection of how we think, react, and behave when we experience problems in life. By training your mind to change when you exhort yourself physically, you are also training your mind for life's problems. I truly believe this.
You can learn so much about yourself when you challenge you body. For example, I have learned that I mentally break down when I am almost done (~80% of the distance covered), regardless of the distance (5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon, ultra...). After I recognized this in my running, I realized that I behave in much the same way in other parts of my life. When I can almost see the finish line, I sort of self-sabotage by letting myself feel tired and discouraged.
Once you recognize your weaknesses, you can try different strategies to overcome them. For example, I pretend that I am running a longer distance(when running a half, I pretend like I am running a full marathon, etc). This has worked a few times, one problem is that sometimes I run slower, oh well...
Having a mantra that inspires you is huge. A mantra can be a memory, or thought that keeps you going when every part of your body is telling you to stop. It does not have to be a sentence or word. For example, I keep thinking of all those people who cannot move due to an illness. I celebrate that I am moving, that I am capable of pushing my body while other people can only hope that they could walk again.
4. "Hydrate before the race, we don't actually absorb much fluid during running. Drink water one hour before the race...", and drink LOTS the days before the race.
I have found that when I drink fluid during a race, it just sits in my stomach slushing from side to side (I can actually hear it). For some reason, I don't absorb much water while running. Eric, on the other hand, can drink lots, and he makes restroom stops at least 3-4 times. So hydration depends on your body. But no matter who you are, it is always good to hydrate heavily the days before a race. Actually, you should try to hydrate every day, but at the very least, make an effort during those last few days before the big day.
5. "Have a friend or family member wait for you at the 15 mile mark with a fresh dry shirt to change into. This will make you feel much better (psychologically)."
I have never tried this one, but I can see how it would help. I personally don't like to stop during a race, but whatever makes you feel like you are starting fresh helps.
Again, you have to trick your mind. There is this whole new theory about how our brain is 'plastic' (link to information about the emerging field of neuroplasticity). Neuroscientists used to think that the connections between our neurons cannot change much after a certain developmental stage. But, it turns out that this is not true. Our brain can be trained by thinking!. This is a whole different topic for my upcoming blog though, so keep tuned!