Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Marathon State of Flow

There is a concept in sports psychology called the “State of Flow”.  It is the zone in which the level of challenge is equal with the level of skill.  This is the zone in which the greatest sports accomplishments are usually made.  In this zone, things just seem to click; the athlete becomes absorbed into what they are doing.

 I believe there is a State of Flow in marathon running as well, and our ability to find and stay in this zone will determine how successful we are.
Marathon State of Flow:  the pace range which represents the top 1% of the pace you are able to hold for the whole race on that given day.
So if the absolute best pace you can hold for the marathon on a given day is 6:00 per mile, than your State of Flow zone would be 6:00 to 6:04 per mile (maximum to 1% slower).
If we spend much time out of this zone we will compromise our overall race performance, and the greater the time and further away from this zone we are in a race, the further away from our best potential performance (i.e. Maximum Performance) we will be.  If we run faster than this zone we will “bonk” or run out of energy too soon, and of we run slower than this zone then we are not using up energy fast enough and giving away time.
Finding Your Marathon State of Flow
There are multiple variables that need to be considered when determining your state of flow. 
1)      Preparation Level:  We must review the training cycle in its entirety and compare it to past training cycles and the results of those cycles.  We must also look at key workouts that are good indicators of our marathon fitness. 

2)      Course:  We must take into account the marathon race course.  We have to account for any hills, drop or gain in elevation, the altitude, the amount of turns or u-turns, and how open to the elements the course is. 

3)      Weather:  We must take into account the weather conditions for the race.  The temperature, the humidity levels, cloud cover, and the wind speed and direction.

4)      Field:  We must also consider the other runners to the extent that we understand how crowded the course will be and whether or not we will likely be running alone or in a group.

5)      Fueling:  Will we be able to utilize your optimal fueling strategy – are the fluids and gels/solids going to be available when we optimally want them.

After examining these 5 variables we should be in a position to come up with our Marathon State of Flow pace range.  Here is an example of how that might look:
1)      Our training and key workouts indicates that we are in shape to run at best 6:00 per mile for the marathon distance.

2)      The course is somewhat rolling, with a few tough u-turns late in the race, making the condition modestly more difficult than what we training on.  We estimate this will slow our best maximum pace by 1% so we adjust our maximum pace to 6:04 per mile (6:00 x 1.01).

3)      The temperatures are near ideal, humidity levels are down and there is good cloud cover, but there is going to be a slight headwind for most of the race.  We estimate this headwind will likely add another 1% to our maximum potential pace, so we adjust it accordingly to 6:07.

4)      We have examined previous results and reports of this year’s field and don’t think there will be any significant crowding at our projected pace range and we may even have a few runners running in the same pace range to run with.  No time adjustments needed.

5)      We will have fluids and gels available at the optimal times provided by the race so no pace adjustment are necessary.

So this analysis leaves us with a 6:07 pace as our maximum potential pace, and 1% slower than this maximum pace works out to be 6:11 pace.   So we go into the race with a Marathon State of Flow goal pace range of 6:07 to 6:11 per mile.
Given what we discussed in our recent blog “Start YourMarathon On The Right Note” our race strategy then maybe to start the first mile at 6:15-6:20 second mile 6:10-6:15 and then settle into our 6:07-6:11 pace range for the remainder of the race, or at least until the final few miles. 
Note:  it will also be important to adjust your Marathon State of Flow pace range for the topography of the course, knowing uphill miles will be slower and downhill miles faster.  Using the Boston Marathon as an example, we know the first 6 miles or so of the course are downhill, so we would adjust our State of Flow pace range to the a slightly faster pace during this section of the course, and then in the Newton hills between 16 and 20 miles we would adjust our goal pace range to a slightly slower range.   In essence in this case we are banking some time early on the downhill section that we give back later on the uphill section based on the topography of the course.
Experience is a great aid in finding your Marathon State of Flow.  By having other marathon training cycles and races to look back on, you greatly enhance your ability to know what the correct Marathon State of Flow will likely be and feel like.    An experienced coach is also a great asset in helping you determine your appropriate Marathon State of Flow, as they have seen many different training cycles executed, race run and on many different course and weather conditions, and all of this will give them a good feel on how to determine and adjust your pace ranges based on each of the different variables discussed earlier.
The nature of competition in marathon running is to finish the race before as many people as possible.  The winner is always the runner who finishes the race the fastest.  So there for your best course of action, from a competitive standpoint, is to run the race in such a way as to produce your fastest possible time.  This means running in your Marathon State of Flow regardless of what the other runners do.  In the end it will produce your fastest possible time and that will produce your best possible placing.  Going out of your State of Flow pace range to match someone else’s move or tactics just lessens your chances of producing your best performance.
It is this thinking that prompted Arthur Lydiard to say:  “The idea that you can’t lose contact with the leaders has cut more throats than it has saved” and “the days of tactics are numbered.”

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