Tried and trusted

There’s a good reason why you should NEVER TRY SOMETHING NEW ON RACE DAY. There’s a lot of new that you could get away with (and I have) but it is so not worth it to throw away weeks and months of preparation on an impulsive decision. ‘Something new’ applies is more than just shoes and food – be cautious of these other gremlins.

Pre-race food

I’ve started a race with jippo guts from a pre-race dinner (chicken something) provided by the event and a teammate spent the night talking to the big white telephone after drinking a juice given out at a supermarket (I thought it tasted odd – he drank mine too!). I’m not very trusting of anything bought (including take-away meals at garages) or provided. I gladly pack my own padkos and a pre-race dinner to avoid road-side take-aways, restaurants and bulk-catered pre-race meals.

Race food and supplements

If you gag trying to get a shake, gel or sandwich down when your heart rate is up, it’s no good. What you can eat while sitting around a braai is different to what you can gulp on the trot and eating on the go can be learned. Flavour (strength, sweetness, saltiness), texture and volume are big factors in the spit or swallow stakes. If you’re offered an unfamiliar, state-of-the-art gel or bar to try? Take it home with you to try later.


Travel fatigue, lack of sleep, motion sickness and jet lag play havoc with your body. Don’t skimp on budgeting for a day or two for post-travel, pre-race recovery and avoid sleeping pills and other potions in the days before the race unless you know that you’re side-effect free on them.

Race routine

An established routine gives stability and sets you off on the right foot, without worry or distraction. If you need to eat 90-minutes before the start so that you can poop before you run, then include this in your pre-race routine. From laying out your clothes before going to sleep to applying sunblock before heading out the door, create a training and pre-start routine so that you don’t forget anything when it counts.


A brand new top seems innocent, but it isn’t. Chafed nipples are common but back rash? Asa Cowell recently faced his first multi-day, staged footrace – the Namib Desert Challenge. On the first two days he wore his old, tested-and-proven, long-sleeved, tight-fitting top. No problems. On Day 3 he wore a two-week old loose fitting top that he’d only worn on a few fast-and-short runs sans backpack. “The result,” he says, “chafe that lasted for days 3, 4 and 5 and gave me clogged pores and back rash. The age-old lesson ‘do not use any kit on race day that has not been pre-tested’ stands its ground yet again.”

Bottoms are even more suspect than tops because they’re in a seriously high friction zone between your thighs, snug in your groin and also sandwiched between your cheeks. Sand, salt, humidity, sweat, fabric integrity, seams, chamois, built-in undies – so much can go wrong.


You know you shouldn’t break out new shoes on race day so why do you do it? Favourite brand? Same model as before? Squished toes, blistered heels, arch agony, damaged toenails can happen regardless, but the chance is far higher with brand-spanking-new shoes. The same goes with wearing ancient shoes that you’re hoping to squeeze one last race out of.

Gaiters are items familiar to hikers and off-road runners. It’s a shoe covering that prevents trail debris from sneaking into the shoe. Fasteners, under-shoe straps and Velcro strips can cause chafing and biomechanical alterations.

Despite having run Marathon des Sables and a Racing the Planet staged race, Charles Cartledge, a London runner, discovered the perils of too small desert gaiters – a full shoe covering – at the recent Namib Desert Challenge.

“They’re pulling on the Velcro at the front of the shoe and lifting the toe section up,” he said to me while attaching the gaiters at the start of Day 4, the ultra-distance stage. “That’s why my toenails and toes are so injured – because of the additional pressure.”

Part and parcel with shoes are changing inserts (or removing them), wearing new socks (a few washes at least works for me), using the socks from the race goodie bag or trying new fandangled no-tie laces or a lacing pattern recommended by a ’knowledgeable’ fellow at a stand at the race expo. Just. Don’t.


A pack for running and a pack for cycling may be two different packs. A running pack demands stability to minimise left-right and up-down swaying, which really messes with biomechanics and is responsible for many illio-tibial band (ITB) flare-ups. Chest strap, waist belt, sculpted and padded shoulder straps, correct back length are key to all-day comfort. Know where the pack nails you and tape those spots pre-race as a preventative measure. I use tape on the side of my neck when running with a larger, loaded pack and definitely a patch under my crop top fastener where the hydration flap from my small pack catches. It’s not just the item but the interaction of items with each other that makes the difference.

Trekking poles

If you know how to use them, trekking poles are great. First-time use is certain to be clumsy, inefficient and tiring. You can expect a chafed hand, from the wrist strap, and stiff upper arms and shoulders. Unless you’ve trained with them, don’t use them.


Sunglasses can fog up continuously, wrap too tightly, sit too loosely or squeeze your nose bridge. Hats may leave the tips of ears or the back of the neck exposed and an absence of a built-in sweat band may send rivers of sweat dripping into your eyes. A comfortable under-the-chin strap will keep your hat on in even the windiest of conditions and quick-drying fabric is perfect for evaporative cooling, especially when dunked in a stream.


Take your own. Especially for multi-day events. The anti-inflammatory, antihistamine or headache tablet a race doctor gives you is unlikely to be the same as the products with which you are familiar and comfortable.

Different brands and types of adhesive tape are also worth testing in advance so that you know whether you have an allergy to the adhesive and also whether it stays stuck when you sweat.


I know your thoughtful partner gave you an mp3 player – pre-loaded with your favourite albums – as a good luck gift to see you through those long, long kilometres but unless you’re used to working out to music it isn’t a great idea to try for the first time on race day. In theory, music can be a distraction, making the time go faster and the miles fly past. In reality you’ll adjust your cadence to the beat, lose focus and pay less attention to your body, form and breathing.

If music is to be your thing, use it regularly in training and select tracks that are suited to how you move, with uplifting melodies queued for tough stretches.

And then… embrace the unfamiliar

Although I advocate tried-and-tested when it comes to what is on or in your body on race day, for almost everything else embrace the unfamiliar. Try new races and new places and new distances and new terrain. Because you can.

Author: Lisa de Speville | Originally published in Go Multi Magazine, May/June 2013 

1 Comment

  1. Agree with all the points. Try to follow them.

    Except – I love wearing a new pair of shoes on a 30 or 40km race for the first time. (Just works for me)

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