My 11 Point Checklist to Help You Run a Faster Race- Heath Matthews


This article is a collection of points I have developed using my personal experience in both competitive and social running over the last 27 years. It is by no means exhaustive and I am sure your personal checklist may be different. I hope that by looking into my approach to a race you are able to gain something from it and perhaps add a point or two to your list and therefore run that little bit faster in your next race. As always I am always very keen to learn from others so if you have any suggestions or advice you would like to send to me please feel free to do so at heath(dot)matthews at

1. Get plenty of Sleep

It’s really important to be in peak condition on race day. One of the best ways to ensure you are fully recovered is to sleep on it. The experts will say that about 8 hours of sleep a night is optimum for adults. In my experience that magical number is much more difficult to pin down. My favourite saying is that “bodies don’t read textbooks”. By this I mean that 8 hrs may be too much or too little for you as an individual. To figure out how much sleep you need you should start by sleeping for 3 nights in a row for the same number of hours. I would suggest starting at 9hrs and decreasing by 30mins every 3 nights. Do this until you start to feel noticeably more rejuvenated and refreshed in the morning. To complete your experiment keep reducing your sleep by 30 minutes every 3 nights until you feel rather tired and exhausted. If this is the case then you have figured out what amount of time you need to sleep. This is not an exact number but more of a bandwidth of time. An example is that you may find that 6.5 to 7.5hrs is enough for you. More or less may make you feel a like tired and sleepy.

2. Wake up with enough time to wake up!

Your body needs time to wake up and get ready to exercise. Give it time to digest your pre-race meal, go to the toilet and loosen up prior to the race.

3. Pre-Race Meal

It’s important to eat the right food prior to your race. DO NOT do anything new in the 3 days prior to the race!!! It’s important to experiment and find what works best for you both during training and racing but this must be done weeks prior to the big day! Do not shoot yourself in the foot eating something that doesn’t agree with your digestive system just because you’ve been told that it’s good for carbo-loading.

Try to eat medium to high glycaemic index foods in the three days prior to the race. Again, nothing new in your diet just more frequent eating of the high energy foods.

On race day you should eat a light and easy to digest prerace meal. Don’t panic and try to cram extra energy into your body. Chances are excessive food and liquid will just bloat you and cause discomfort in your bowel during the race. Often it will cause a cramp or stitch which can be disastrous to your race as you would need to slow right down to let it settle.

I often will have mostly liquids with fruit and sweets. These foods are easy to digest, high on the glycaemic index and I know they won’t make me bloated or uncomfortable.

4. Warm Up

I recommend warming up at home because at the venue it can be too crowed and rushed. Allow enough time at home (after you have eaten) to warm up. Start off with some light cardio for 10 minutes. Build a light sweat so you know your body temperature has increased and your soft tissues like muscles and tendons will be more receptive to stretching and mobilisation. If you need to go downstairs onto the road to do this then go for it. A short jog around the block would be great! Once your cardio is over go back upstairs or find a comfortable place to start your stretching routine. Again nothing new, just the routine you have refined over the months of training and that opens up your body best and gets it going. This should be mostly dynamic is nature working through the full range of motion and less static holds and sustained over pressure. Don’t worry about cooling down after your stretching and prior to your race starting. The joints and muscles will be sufficiently mobilised for you to start your race feeling comfortable and able to get into your stride quickly and comfortably. The aim of your warm up is to get you into your stride as quickly as possible in the race so you don’t waste time running at a slower pace and gently working yourself up to your race pace as you warm up.

5. At the venue

Try to get there early to get a good spot. It’s not always possible to get to the front of the line but being as close to the front as possible does help you in that you will have less people to run around once you start.

If the race is a smaller one and the runners are fewer in number, you might want to consider letting everyone else go ahead and then starting last. Your race only officially starts when your timing chip crosses the mat so the gun at the start of the race is not that important. You have your own watch anyway so you can start it whenever you cross the line.

6. Racing Line

The fastest time between two points is often the shortest distance between them. For this reason don’t waste time by running further. When you are running plot a straight line from where you are to the apex of the bend in the road in front of you. Run straight to that point. This will save you bobbing and weaving down the road adding a few extra meters to your run here and there. I find I can add as much as 150m to a half marathon distance by not running a good racing line. That can be as much as 20 to 30 seconds extra time which can be the difference between my new personal best and not. The shortest distance is a straight line. Avoid extra meters by running in curves and bends.

Be careful at the start not to get boxed in behind slow runners. Pick your lines so you can settle into your race pace as quickly as possible and avoid losing time and energy. I find running along the side of the road is best in races with large numbers of runners. Getting boxed in at a slower pace is one of the most disastrous things when it comes to trying to run a fast time.

7. Race Pace

I believe a steady state running technique is the best. Use a smart phone running app or a Garmin GPS watch to run at the pace you know will get you the time you want. The majority of the training programs I give to runners are based on this principle. Too often inexperienced runners will blow their legs too early in a race by running faster than they have trained to do. This often happens because of excitement and poor understanding of how to pace yourself properly. Having an app or a watch that gives you real time data on your pace every kilometre is a huge help!

Another popular running technique is to run at 5 -10 seconds below your race pace for the first third of the run. This is increased to race pace in the middle third and accelerated to 5 – 10 seconds faster in the final third. This approach in okay but I feel that it may be used by runners who have not warmed up correctly and who need that first third of the race to do so. You really need to know your body very well with this technique so you know when to shift gears. It is very effective if done properly but I find it goes wrong more often than it works in my personal experience.

8. Fuelling Strategy

Don’t rely on the race organisers to decide your fuelling strategy by the placement of their water stations to tell you when to drink or eat. Know your fuelling strategy weeks in advance of your race. This needs to be established in your training runs. It may be influenced by the seasons as colder seasons may need less hydration for example but know your fuelling strategy well.

My strategy is the following:
o Pre-race meal about two hours before the race.
o Sip on energy drink slowly during the next two hours.
o GU Gel 20mins before start. This is to replace the energy spent running around before the race and burned through nervousness. By taking it 20 minutes before the race I aim for it to be in my system by the start of the race and therefore I don’t start in a negative energy balance.
o GU Gel just before start. This should be available for my muscles about 20 to 30 minutes later.
o GU at 7km and 14km using the same reasoning.
o Between these GU Gels I would have the occasional sip of water. Not more than one mouthful every 1km.

Please take note that if you wait until you feel thirsty or tired then you are already too late in fuelling. If you drink at that time it will take time for that energy to reach your muscles and you will have exhausted your glucose supply by then. Try to avoid this by having a fuelling strategy that tops you up before you reach the empty point but that does not over load you so that you are feeling full and get gastric irritation as a result.

9. Use your arms

Your arms can be a great help to you when you are tired. If you increase your arm speed forward and backward, it will automatically increase your leg cadence too. This is particularly helpful running up hills or when you need an extra burst of speed for the finish line.

10. Use the downhill

Increase your stride slightly when running downhill. This will help you run faster without using too much energy to do so. Let gravity pull you down the hill. Only 10cm extra stride length per stride can make a difference.

This strategy is good for short hills like we will face at SCMM but for longer hills of 1000m or more, you may want to use a more conventional approach of shortening your stride to decrease ground reaction forces going up your legs on contact.

11. Finish strong.

Never finish a race at anything less than full speed. Even if it’s just the last 100m make sure you do it flat out. I always aim to run the last 1km as fast as I possibly can. I aim to be exhausted when I cross the finish line. Remember pain is temporary the elation of achieving your goal is forever!