Flying to the Finish Line

By Shelley Marenka | 08/14/12
Flying to the Finish Line

Photo © Oren Kelly/

We’ve teamed up with Marilyn Trout, certified USA Cycling Elite Coach to answer Voler Newsletter List members’ training questions. You can view her coach profile at Send your cycling inquiries to Marilyn, and for a limited time, if yours is selected to be answered in our Training column, Voler will send you a $20 gift certificate that can be used towards any purchase from the Voler Store at To submit your inquiry, e-mail her at, and type “Voler Training Question” in the subject line of the e-mail.

The following tip was authored by Shelley Marenka, USA Elite Cycling Coach and owner of CycleFit Biking Adventures, Coaching Camps and Tours.

Pre-Race/Event Tips for Your Ultimate Performance

I would like to begin this article by congratulating Cate for coming up with this month’s topic!  Cate was looking for some guidance about pre-race tips, carbo-loading, sleep, pre hydration, etc., for her cycling and running events. In addition, she wanted to know how to handle “pushing through the wall” also known as “bonking avoidance”. She explained that during a race and sometimes at work as a firefighter, “I felt so completely defeated by the sudden lack of motivation because I was physically and mentally drained”.

You have put in the training hours, done all of the necessary preparation, and the race/event you’ve been building for is here! The night before the race, your confidence begins to wane, you start second-guessing your training strategy, asking yourself if you rested enough… too much… are you really ready?

If you’ve followed your plan, you will most likely be ready to rock ‘n’ roll and soar to the finish line, victorious!  No one single factor will ultimately determine the success of your performance or the level of confidence you have going into your event.  So here are some tips to help you plan ahead, cover the bases and avoid typical pitfalls that can ruin a good race!


How do you score when it comes to backing off from your training program a few weeks prior to your event?  For many athletes this is a difficult concept to embrace. However, a single 30-second treadmill sprint has been shown to decrease muscle glycogen content by as much as 32% (Maughan R. Preceed Nutr. Soc., 2002; 61:87-96). Unless you understand the importance and value of tapering, you will most likely toss it aside and try to get a “few more” training sessions in just to be sure you are ready. Don’t do it!

Key Tip: Allow your body to rest and rebuild. Allow your body to rest and rebuild. Allow your body to rest and rebuild. Got the idea? Your transition plan should take place over the final few weeks. Any last minute attempts to top off your training could jeopardize your optimal performance on race day.

Here is what you really want to do.  Taper while you are training.  In the last few weeks prior to your event, your taper plan should be very strategic and well thought out.  You will want to reduce your training stresses but not so much that your body goes into “detraining” mode.  On the opposite end of the spectrum you want to avoid overtraining. The energy systems need to remain finely tuned for optimal performance so you still need to train, but your training should be less.  This can be accomplished with short interval workouts maintaining intensity but shorten duration of workouts. Aerobic sessions can be mixed in with the above higher-intensity sessions or completed on another training day. You should decrease your overall weekly mileage and time on the bike to allow your body to rest and recover. Depending on when you begin your taper, your training time could be reduced anywhere from 10 to 60 percent in weeks prior to your event.


Your body can achieve what your mind can believe!

You have got to train your brain while you are training your body.  This is a sure-fire way to continue to ride hard when your body is beaten. At the point where you are feeling defeated and exhausted, you must be able to control your thoughts and keep them on the positive track in order to drive your body to the finish.  This is why it’s so critical to be mentally prepared ahead of time for what is to come.  So, while you are tapering your training, you are increasing the amount of mental training that will carry you to the finish.  Visualization is a critical exercise for success. Ask any Olympic athlete about what they do to get in the zone before an event and they will most likely tell you that they play a film in their head seeing themselves “succeed and win”. Mentally, elite athletes go over the course, reviewing their strategy, their plan, and they SEE themselves strong, persevering, pushing through, with a relaxed, effortless motion ...

Get the picture?  They are not focused on their competition, rather their own path to victory.  Focus only on those things you are able to control and let go of everything else. This process takes practice, but once you have got it going you will find it incredibly valuable.

One thing you can do to train your brain is to write down a few active, positive key words that describe how you have felt when you had an awesome training session. Take these words and recite them with your eyes closed: Visualize yourself on race day experiencing the same feelings. Some individuals also enjoy listening to meditative music during this exercise.

Having a visualization process will also help with pre-race anxiety and high emotions that you may have about the race. Calm the stressors in your daily routine and take comfort in this psychological and emotional lift to your race preparation.

Review the Race Course

With most of my running races and competitive cycling events I ride the course a week or so before the event.  Some times you can’t do it that early because of location, but once you arrive to the event, go and check it out.  Even if you can only drive it by car, at least you will have a mental map of the race course.  This tool will allow you to put the course into your visualization process, learning the turns, hills, terrain, faults of the course, etc. Now you can decide what you can control in your race and determine how you are going to do it. Sometimes you can view the course online as well, but there is nothing like the real thing!  


In the days leading up to your event the biggest changes will occur in your training, not your training diet. During your taper, your muscles will have the opportunity to “glycogen load” ensuring you a full tank of fuel for race day. When your muscle glycogen stores become depleted you will feel exhausted, and your strength will diminish rapidly.  Eventually your blood sugar will drop and you will have “bonked” or “hit the wall”.  This is preventable by filling up your reserves on a daily basis and by fueling with carbohydrates before, during and after your training. Cyclists, who practice eating 55 to 65 percent of their calories from carbohydrates on a regular basis can expect to prevent chronic glycogen depletion. They are able to train better because their muscles are better fueled and can continue eating the same foods pre-event so there are no unwanted surprises.  (Note: well-trained muscles can store 20 to 50% more glycogen than untrained muscles!)  Research demonstrates that eating more carbohydrates (also known as carbo-loading) the days before an event maximizes muscle glycogen stores and improves performance in events lasting 90 minutes or longer.  Also, when you consume carbohydrates a few hours before exercise, this tops off liver and muscle glycogen stores and enhances endurance performance (Hargreaves et al, 2004)

Proper Hydration Fluids

Any fluids that taste good to you are the ones that you should choose to keep your body hydrated.  Drink plenty, choose a variety of fluids and drink often.  Plain water is important to consume, but it doesn’t have electrolytes or carbohydrates.  Choose a combination of fluids so you get the minerals and nutrients your muscles need to endure, perform and keep you hydrated.  Your job is to concentrate on keeping hydration levels high.

Pre-Event Hydration Plan

  • Drink one water bottle 17-20 oz @ 2 hours prior to event
  • Consume 10-14 oz @ 10-20 min prior to event
  • Drink 5-10 oz every 15 minutes during events

PRE RACE:  Determine what your pre-race meal is going to be and practice eating your pre-event foods during training.  If your event is in the morning, practice eating you pre-race breakfast.  For afternoon events, breakfast and lunch, etc.

The amount of carbohydrates consumed prior to an event is dependent upon the amount of time you have to eat before the event, according to the following ratios:

  • 4 hrs prior = 4 gram of carbohydrates/kg of Body Weight
  • 3 hrs prior = 3g CHO/kg BW
  • 2 hrs prior = 2g CHO/kg BW
  • 1 hr prior = 1g CHO/kg BW

RACE DAY: Have a plan for your race day nutrition. Break your total fluid and calorie intake down into measurable goals so you know how much of what you will be eating and drinking for the duration of your event.

50-100 grams (200-400 calories) in first 15 minutes

30-90+grams (120 -360+calories) per hour Carbohydrate

Consume 3-12 oz. of fluid every 15 minutes

POST RECOVERY:  Use your tried and true recovery plan for post race recovery. Remember, having a post race recovery plan is as important as all the training you have put in!  See archived article “Fueling for Endurance” for more details.


A couple of days before the event you will want to run through the checklist to make sure you have everything you need.  Pre-event preparation will eliminate stressful last minute situations and allow you to focus on your event.

  • Gather equipment into one spot: helmet, shoes, bike, wearing apparel, gloves, jacket, water bottles, hydration drink, bars, gels, supplements, extra tubes, tire repair stuff.  Pack your car the night before with everything you need.

  • Get some sleep. Plan to party AFTER the event. The night before a race try to sleep a solid 8 hours. If you have trouble falling asleep, try practicing your visualization exercises and meditate on your finish line dream.  If you are still feeling anxious, try reading or mediating to take your mind off the matter.  The true ticket for preparation and recovery is sleeping adequate hours during your training, as this is the most critical time for your body to heal itself and recover.

  • Go over the course in your head - have a mental map of course and strategy. Lay out your plan - pacing, fueling intervals and strategy.

  • Breathe, Breathe, Breathe

  • Be in the moment. Concentrate on the short term. Trust your plan, trust yourself, and trust your training.  Confidence, tenacity and perseverance will prevail so just let it happen!

Get on Your Mark, Get Set…GO!   Coach Shelley  

“Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records”

-William A. Ward

Shelley Marenka, Certified USA Cycling Elite Coach

Owner of Get On Your MARK and CycleFit Biking Adventures
Offering Coaching, Cycling Camps & Retreats

For training tips and current articles visit her blog at

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