How to Prepare for Racing Overseas

As if there aren’t already enough races where you live, many of us dream of heading overseas to some of the big, well established races such as Western States 100, Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, or even our very own North Face 100 here in Australia if you’re one of our international readers. But once you’ve signed up and paid your money, how do you go about making sure you give yourself the best possible shot of doing well on a course you’ve never seen or are unfamiliar with? But all is not lost, as some of the Australian runners showed at the recent Sky Running World champs over in Chamonix.

Many people from all over the world prepare for an race at UTMB each year
Many people from all over the world prepare for UTMB each year

Despite the fact that Australia is pretty ‘flat’ when it comes to serious vertical, and that they’d never stepped foot in the French Alps until a few weeks before race day, the three boys that finished in the top 10 of that race managed to prepare themselves extremely well so that when it came down to it, the vast majority of the locals, for whom training on the course is par de course, didn’t have an advantage at all. So how do you set about preparing for that big race overseas? We’ve pulled together four of what we feel are crucial areas to focus on ahead of your big day

#1 Training to replicate race day

This one shouldn’t be too much of a surprise in the slightest as it goes for any race you’re preparing for, but aim to replicate as much of the type and style of the course you’ll be running on as much as possible. But, it goes deeper than simply doing hills if it’s a race filled with vertical. Where you can, break the course down into chunks and train according to certain sections. For example if there is a section of say 20kms in the 100km or 100 miler that you’re racing that has some seriously steep sections that you’ll know you’ll be hiking – then make sure you get some very specific hiking sessions in that replicate the gradient as much as you can, even if you’re doing hill repeats, it’s vital to get as close as you can to race conditions.

But you can go a step further. If that 20kms of really steep climbing comes at around 80kms in the race, then you’re going to be doing that steep section on pretty tired legs. So the day before, it makes sense to head out and give your legs a bit of a bashing so that you’re doing your steep hiking on tired legs and understanding more about how you will feel on race day at this particular section. However it’s not just a physical sense of what it will be like, doing this type of training allows you to mentally adjust and understand too. On race day, suddenly this 20kms of really tough, technical steep climbing doesn’t feel as tough because your legs and brain remember the training you’ve done that have replicated this.

She might not be the fastest, but she’s one of the best prepared for her overseas races – Tayebeh Alirezaee

One lady on the local Aussie scene who time and again prepares herself to the utmost is Tayebeh Alirezaee from Victoria. She’s not an elite or front of pack runner. In fact, you’re most likely to find her towards the back, minding her own business and simply getting on with it. I’ve known Tay for a few years and she’s one person that will always ask a question and find out what she needs to know. Recently, she’s been doing a number of races overseas now, so I thought it would be perfect to ask her for some advice too:

I look closely in the elevation profile, mostly trying to find something compatible in my training – I read the website carefully, they mostly provide training and nutrition guidelines plus blogs and recommendations, special attention to mandatory gear – I train in variety of conditions, rainy cold warm etc. I train a lot in the dark and make sure I train comfortably by myself for many hours as I know this is most likely the case for the race.”

#2 Getting to know and understand the course / terrain

How can you do this when you live thousands of miles or kilometers away from it? Simple, there are a number of things you can do. The first is to study course notes and maps that most race directors provide. Try to commit them to memory so you know exactly what to expect on race day and where certain sections might be. Not only does this mentally prepare you, but it also allows you to understand if there are certain sections you can push ahead on, or you should hold back on.

But there’s more. Chat to people who have done the race previously too. Speak to as many people as possible to understand what they thought. What did they think were the toughest sections? How did they prepare for each checkpoint/aid station. What was the terrain like? While studying maps and charts gives you a sense of the physical nature of the course, the addition of some of the more ’emotional’ responses from those who have done it before help you to build a really clear picture as to what’s coming your way.

Conversely, Tay says she enjoys the fact that she only arrives a few days prior as she’s curious about the course she’s about to embark upon, Because of home/work obligations I hardly get the time to train on the course, I get to the race start 4-5 days before only enough to overcome the jetlag. I believe this could be beneficial as I am extremely curious about the course during the race, and almost every step is new and memorable.

“However, if altitude could be an issue I try to get up there (easiest way possible, mostly using chair lifts!) and stay up, watch and breathe. Most likely you see runners just like you around and it is great having a chat about why they run and what other great races are around.”

#3 Dealing with different climates / weather

This is a huge one for those that travel to different hemisphere’s to race. Right now, Australia is in the midst of ‘winter’ (I use that term extremely loosely!), but when we head over to say, Western States, we could be experiencing temperatures of anything up to 40C. This is a problem. All of your training is done in a primarily cold climate and your body needs to adjust to being baked in an oven.

The heat can be a big factor when racing overseas, particularly if you're coming from a colder climate
The heat can be a big factor when racing overseas, particularly if you’re coming from a colder climate

While you can’t change the weather outside, you can inside. Sauna/steam room sessions (depending upon the climate you’re heading too), can be invaluable in helping to raise core body temperature by a degree or so in the few weeks leading up to a race. Why would you do this? Well it enables the body to learn how to deal with the hotter weather than you might currently experience on a day to day basis. Another tactic used by many is to place as many layers of clothing on as possible, turn a heater on full blast and get onto the treadmill. Extreme measures indeed, but if you think it will help you on race day, no reason why you shouldn’t do it.

#4 Races rules and interpretations

Finally, it also pays to make sure you understand the rules and regulations in the country in which you’re racing. As we saw with the infamous, ‘switchback-gate’ involving a certain Mr. Jornet at the Speedgoat 50km a few years ago, what one person thought was perfectly normal, was totally unacceptable according to others. Most people have bucketloads of common sense when it comes to racing, but it pays to know what’s expected of you.

If you’re racing in France particularly, it’s well-known that they love a bit of ‘red tape’ 🙂 A certain race, run by a French team in the Sahara insist for example that your race number is visible at all times and is only placed in a certain position on the chest and cannot, at any stage be covered by anything. So while you might think that you know it all, read the rules for any curve balls that might find their way in section 67, paragraph 45, sub section 3, line 17 🙂

But what about just before race day, when you’ve arrived in the country? Most of us are going taper crazy, but Tay has some final thoughts to sooth you into race mode, For the last two days before the race I rest a lot, good sleep is key, try to get a light swim, and not being adventurous in food, I make sure I get lots of good nutritious food, focusing mostly on nutrients that stop me breaking down over couple of days, and definitely I avoid overeating.

“Volunteers and home country runners seriously love sharing their trails with others, they are ready to look after you and make sure you have a good race. It is always a great atmosphere of humans beings helping each other, it makes our sport very special.”

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