How to Prepare for an International Race
Here's what the pro runners do to keep jet lag (and more) from tanking their race experience.
Running a half or full marathon is tough enough. Running a half or full marathon in another country? That brings with it a whole host of additional challenges. But 26 percent of people are willing to travel outside of North America for a running event, according to Running USA, a distance running and racing non-profit.
It's not just people checking off all six of the World Marathon Majors (the most prestigious marathons in the world), but casual runners who are using the sport as a way to explore the world. For example, the Polar Night Half Marathon in Norway takes place under the Northern Lights; the Great Wall Half Marathon covers 5,164 vertical steps on the wall (with the option to do a full 26.2 miles, too); the Safari Half Marathon, which takes place in the South African bush; and the Antarctica Marathon, which is currently sold out through 2020 but includes a two-week vacation through Argentina and Antarctica. And of course, if you're looking to combine running with some solid R&R, there are plenty of beach-focused destination races, including the Marathon Bahamas and the Caymans Island Marathon, that let you do just that. (Related: Destination Races Around the World That Are Worth the Flight)
Thinking about booking a race-cation? Here's what the experts do to keep things like airplane germs, jet lag, and weird fuel options from slowing you down.
1. Bring your gear in your carry-on.
Having an airline lose your luggage on any flight is a nightmare; losing it en route to a race-when the only universal gear advice is "don't wear anything new on race day"-is unfathomable. "'Gear' includes everything you need for the race: Your clothes, especially your shoes, your fuel, your bottles and belts, your headphones, etc.," says Meghan Stevenson, an RRCA-certified running coach. And don't let anyone try to convince you to gate-check it. "I traveled to the NYC Half Marathon last month and booked Delta Comfort (which guarantees overhead space), but when I got on the plane, there wasn't room above my seat. The flight attendant tried to get me to gate check my backpack but when I explained why I needed it, another passenger offered to gate check his instead."
2. Pack your own fuel.
Even though you'd expect race expos and grocery stores to have the basics, you never know what a different country might consider "basic." "It's often hard to find specific GUs and even simple things like peanut butter or Gatorade at international races," says Nurse. "And there will be thousands of people emptying out every running store in the city," adds Cory Jennermann, co-founder of RunGuides. "The last thing that you want to be doing is scrambling around last-minute trying to find a store that isn't sold out of what you need."
Remember: Race day is not the day to try something new. "I once traveled to Berlin and thought I would be able to find instant oatmeal...then couldn't find it and ate Muesli instead, which did not agree with my stomach," says Jessie Zapotechne, a coach with Adidas Runners in New York City and the founder of Girls Run NYC. "Now I carry instant oatmeal with me."
3. Don't OD on carbs.
Of course, you want to carb-load pre-race, but it's easy to find carb-rich foods in airports and on the road. The protein you need to keep your muscles in peak condition? That's harder to find. "I travel with Muscle Milk protein powder and bars, and canned salmon to supplement my meals and make sure I'm staying on top of recovery by getting adequate protein," says Sara Hall, an elite marathoner with Asics. "I also bring oatmeal and a hot cup (it's easy to get hot water on the plane or in the airport) and usually a few almond butter sandwiches, since I'm not as worried about them going bad after a long travel day as I would be with lunchmeat."
4. Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate.
You can tell by your skin how dry plane air is, and that harsh cabin air can lead to dried up membranes in your nose, mouth, and throat-prime conditions for getting sick. "Bring an empty water bottle to fill up after security, and don't be afraid to head to the back of the plane after the beverage service to ask for refills," says Hall. You can eat to stay hydrated, too: "Watermelon and berries, cucumbers and hummus, and celery with peanut butter are all snacks with a super high water content," says Amanda Nurse, a Boston-based run coach and elite runner. (Related: I Put These Healthy Travel Tips to the Test While Traveling Across the Globe)
5. Don't get sick.
Sure, that's easier said than done in the germ-filled stale air of a plane. "I bring a tube of Neosporin and coat the insides of my nostrils with it to block the germs!" says Nurse. "And then, of course, wipe down your seat and tray table and even window with antibacterial wipes, and keep your hands clean." Since you can't avoid all bacteria, boosting your immune system pre-flight is crucial, too. "I take Citrisafe Acetylated Glutathione, an essential antioxidant that gets depleted easily in the body," says Hall. "I've found since taking it regularly I get common colds or suffer from allergies much less frequently than I did before."
6. Give your legs extra TLC.
Sitting on a long plane can cause the blood to pool in your lower extremities, which can lead to swollen feet and ankles-not exactly ideal pre-race. "I wear compression socks or, even better, full compression tights on the plane," says Hall. "The pressure gradient of these garments will keep the blood circulating upwards, and keep your legs feeling fresher and more mobile when you arrive at your destination." It's also a good idea to pack some kind of tool for self-massage, like a roller or softball, she adds. "You can loosen up your legs on your layover (if you're not afraid of the stares!) or just wait until you're at your destination." (Related: The Best Way to Stretch On an Airplane)
7. Arrive early.
Traveling internationally can do a number on your system (cough, jet lag). "Be sure to book a flight with enough time before your marathon (at least one or two days) to adjust," says Stevenson. "The earlier that you can arrive in the city the better," adds Jennerman. "That gives you more time to relax, acclimate to the new city, and take care of race logistics (package pickup, etc.)." But save your legs and resist the urge to do major sightseeing, warns Zapotechne. "In an ideal situation, you have a few days to acclimate and then a few days to a week after to enjoy the city you just traveled to, she says. "I've made the mistake of trying to sightsee before a marathon and then I've exhausted myself before the race event starts."
8. Don't let the jet lag win.
Sleep is just as important as training, and you don't want to negate all your hard work by throwing your circadian rhythm out of whack. "Switch to your new time zone as soon as you can-as soon as you board the plane, change your watch to reflect the time at your destination," says Thomas Watson, the head runner at Marathon Handbook. "When you arrive at your destination, get outside during the hours of sunlight to give your circadian rhythm a heads-up that something has changed so it can adjust your sleep pattern accordingly. And while you should try to change your sleep pattern to suit your new time zone as soon as possible, don't force it-i.e., don't stay up all afternoon if you are dying to sleep; instead, take a power nap and then try and course-correct." (Related: 6 Surprising Jet Lag Cures)