Experts discover whether there's any truth to these quirky running superstitions, from wearing a lucky charm to obsessing over sleep
Runners are creatures of habit, and sometimes those habits lead to set-in-stone pre-race routines. “Runners are so ritualistic and often have quirky little habits,” says Heather Hausenblas, Ph.D., a physical activity and health psychologist at Jacksonville University. “We also get superstitious before an event.”
But do those pre-race practices actually help you toe the line? “Running a race can be anxiety provoking. Anything that can make you feel calmer beforehand is a good thing,” she says. That's true—except when they trip up your performance. Find out whether your race-ready habits are a help or hindrance. (And make sure they aren't one of the 15 Annoying and Rude Running Habits to Break.)
“I overprepare,” says Minnesota runner and blogger Emily Mahr via Twitter. “I layout all of the clothes I will potentially wear during and after the race.”
This common practice has even spawned its own hashtag, #flatrunner, with racers posting pics of clothes, socks, shoes, bibs, gels, and more, neatly arranged and ready to run. Hausenblas says putting gear “on display” is common among athletes, even her six-year-old soccer-playing son.
“This is a healthy habit,” she says. “You’re trying, in a sense, to get yourself excited, in the zone, and relaxed. Some people even make sure that they have all four safety pins for their bib and every last item they could possibly need. The last thing you want to is wake up in the morning with something missing.”
Furthermore, posting your #flatrunner pics on social media can give you a mood boost. “Running is a very individualistic activity,” Hausenblas explains. “By posting your race-ready photo, you’re creating a sense of community. You know that there are other people out there doing the same thing as you. It can help calm you down and get you ready to race.”
Early morning alarms push some runners to extremes when it comes to catching zs. “This might sound bad, but I take melatonin to help fall asleep earlier than usual the night before a pre-a.m. race wake up call,” says New Jersey writer and runner Erin Kelly via Twitter. She’s not alone.
“Supplements have been proven safe in low dose and short-term use,” says sports nutritionist, author, and veteran marathoner Janet Brill, Ph.D., R.D. But when it comes to how much to take, "the exact dosage needs to be figured out with a physician.”
One potential problem? “Some people feel groggy from it in the morning,” Brill adds. “This is the golden rule: practice before you race.” Hausenblas agrees. “If you aren’t used to taking melatonin, it could throw off your race,” says Hausenblas.
To ensure some shut-eye, “read or listen to calming music,” Hausenblas suggests, while Brill says, “Eat a protein with tryptophan or take a warm bath. Even a glass of red wine is okay if you’ve practiced it in training.”
Whatever you do, don’t sweat getting to bed early, Hausenblas says. You’ll be fine on race day without a perfect night's sleep. (These Science-Backed Strategies on How to Sleep Better will guarantee a full eight hours of beauty sleep.)
Runners are famous for carrying magical talismans that see them through the big day. Five-time USATF Ultrarunner of the Year and prolific marathoner Michael Wardian famously wears a backward baseball cap in every race. Olympian, American 5,000-meter record holder and self-described “nail polish enthusiast” Molly Huddle paints her nails differently before each event.
And it's not just the pros: “Big Sexy Hair Spray gets me thru 26.2 every single time—47 and counting!” says “Marathon Maniacs” running group member Jen Metcalf. “My lucky unicorn, Dale, comes with me to every race!” says Ohio runner and blogger Caitlin Lanseer via Twitter.
But will a lucky item actually help you? Perhaps, Hausenblas says. “They reduce anxiety,” she explains. “Most people are going to feel anxious before a race, so it’s good to have something familiar that will calm you down.”
Just don’t get too attached. “If they lose that object or can’t find it, that could create more stress, depending on how much emphasis they place on it,” Hausenblas cautions.
Every runner has a favorite jam, and many turn to music to get them race-ready. “If my playlist doesn't start with ‘Footloose’ (yes, the movie theme), my whole run is ruined,” says Londoner Marijke Jenson via Facebook. “Music is very motivating,” Hausenblas says. “People who listen to music will work out harder, but won’t perceive that they’re working as hard.”
Listening to music before your run can also improve performance, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Researchers found that listening to motivational songs before a 5K turned out faster times, as did tuning in during a run. (Find out The Best Running Songs To Speed Up Your 5K.)
But like that lucky rabbit’s foot, don’t get too dependent. “People become creatures of habit,” Hausenblas says. “But if their iPod battery dies or they can’t listen to music for some reason, it might create more stress and negative thoughts.”
Many runners stick to tried-and-true breakfasts on race morning. But a surprising number forgo food completely or rely solely on gels at the start and mid-race. “You should never go into a race without eating anything,” Brill says, especially if it’s a 10K or longer. Drink fluids and take in easily digestible carbs to keep your blood glucose level up. “The goal of your nutrition is to go into the race hydrated with your glycogen stores topped off,” explain Brill.
Two to four hours before your race, munch on a meal that’s low in fat and fiber, but that includes protein and plenty of carbs. Brill suggests a banana-and-yogurt smoothie with granola or a light turkey sandwich. Then, 30 to 60 minutes before the gun, pass up whole foods in favor of water, sports drinks, gels, or gummies. “Learn to ingest these types of foods on your training days,” says Brill. “Train your stomach like you train your muscles.” (Consider one of the Best Pre- and Post-Workout Snacks for Every Workout.)
Once you find something that works, stick with it. “Keep it consistent,” says Hausenblas. “Don’t change your diet. Don’t do anything new or drastic on race day.”