Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Racing – A Merger of the Mental and Physical

Start Line Freihofer's 5k 2011
One of the more controversial topics in running is the subject of racing philosophy.  Because of this, in the past I have treaded lightly on the subject and left the door open for multiple interpretations and styles to be used.   But lately I have decided that this approach goes against what I bring to the sport as a coach.  A large part of the value I add in this sport, is that I study each aspect of the sport in detail, using an understanding of the physiology behind the sport, real world experience and observations, and an understanding of human nature, to come up with a philosophy that works to best prepare the runner to perform up to their personal maximum performance on race day (hence the name “Maximum Performance Running”).   Because of this,  in order be the most effective as a coach, I need to come out and state more clearly and completely my philosophy on racing for the longer distances (10k to Marathon - my areas of expertise).  Some will choose to disagree with me, as happens in all other aspects of running, but at least I give the runners I coach and anyone who chooses to listen to my advice, a complete and well thought out philosophy to employ in order to get the most out of their races.
I was prompted to finally write this blog, when this past weekend I failed to help my daughter develop a solid race strategy, and she ended up going out far too aggressively for her current fitness level, and faded badly at the end of her race.  I was conflicted in my role as both parent and coach (a delicate balance); the father in me wanted to allow her to grow and mature and be responsible for developing her own race plan, but the coach in me is responsible for helping a runner do this and guiding them as to what I see as the method for racing their best.  Unfortunately on this day I fell short on both aspects, giving soft or squishy guidance at best, and in the end she ended up sort of playing it by feel, and as a teenager she got excited with feeling good early on and went out too quickly the first half of the race.  This could have been avoided if I had a more established racing philosophy she could trust in and go to.  We will take care of that today, in this blog.
So this blog entry will lay out a more complete racing philosophy that will expand upon ideas I touched upon in earlier blogs: “The Marathon State of Flow” and “Starting Your Marathon Off On The Right Note”.
Racing Overview
For the competitive runner, racing is what use to judge how we are doing.  It is the focus of our training.  As such a goal race is the focal point of our training cycles.  We strive to run races as fast as we can and to place as high as we can. 
Since we can’t control how fast other people run, I suggest that our primary focus is to race in such a way that will produce our best possible time for a race on a given day, and that this is also the most reliable way to also place as high as possible. 
This self-focus on how we run our fastest race performance is where we begin.  The question we are faced with is then is, given our current fitness level, how do we produce our fastest performance? 
In analyzing this question, the first thing that jumps out at me is that in order to come up with the most successful strategy, we have to find the best marriage of the physical and mental aspects of racing.  We simply can’t ignore either aspect but rater must find how they can best work together. 
Race Strategy
For all races - 10k through Marathon
Divide your race up into 3 segments: 
Beginning : 
This is the first 5% of the race distance.  Start the race slightly slower than goal race pace range and ease your way into your goal pace range by the 5% point into the race.  The pace for the first 5% of the race will be 1-2% slower than goal pace, but will start slightly slower than that and ramp to goal pace by the 5% point.  Example:   if goal pace range is 6:00-6:03 per mile then the first 5% of the race will be run an average of 6:07-6:10 pace, and this may be accomplished by starting at 6:15 pace and ramping down to 6:03 pace the 5% point.  Note:  5% of a half marathon is roughly 1k and 5% of a marathon is roughly 2k.  
Physiologically we do this because the body is not operating at peak efficiency at the start of a run/race so starting slightly slower allows us to conserve energy and ramp into full efficiency during the opening minutes of the race.  Starting quicker than this can lock us into a higher energy burn rate for the whole race.
Mentally, starting in this fashion reduces the stress of the race start, allowing us to relax more and not stress about early positioning and the need for a quick start in a crowded race setting.  This fosters a more relaxed transition into the race and allows you to stay more relaxed for a larger portion of the race (which requires a lower energy burn rate).  
This is from 5% to 80% of the race distance.  During this portion of the race (the majority of the race) we are focused on running in our goal pace range as smoothly and relaxed as possible, and in the longer races on executing our fueling strategy as well.  Example:  if goal pace range is 6:00-6:03 per mile for a marathon, then we spend from 1.3 mile to 21 miles (5%-80% of race distance) focused on running at 6:00 to 6:03 per mile pace. 
Physiologically we do this because an even paced race (during this middle section) best utilizes our energy supplies while maximizing our best possible time.  A great example of this is the fact that most every world record in distance events were set on even to slightly negative splits. 
Mentally, this strategy allows us to stay relaxed and focused on conserving energy while executing our goal pace.  We stay in the moment and focus on executing our race plan, but don’t stress about our positioning in the race. 
This is the last 20% of the race.  During this portion of the race we gauge our remaining energy and seek to improve our pace if possible, gradually at first and more so as we get closer to the finish.  If a pace increase is not possible we continue to maintain our goal pace range to the end.   Example:  if goal pace range is 6:00 to 6:03 per mile than we seek slowly increase our pace to sub 6:00 if possible as we get closer to the finish line.  If an increase is not possible we continue focus on executing 6:00 to 6:03 pace to the end. 
Physiologically we do this to make sure we utilize all remaining energy reserves.   We also place the upside potential of our run in this last section of the race so that if it does not materialize it will not hurt our overall performance.  If we have judged our fitness perfectly we will only be able to hold goal pace to the end, but if we are able to achieve up-side on our estimated fitness, it comes at the end when we have the clearest running room and our competition is at their most tired. 
Mentally, given that the majority of runners tend to positive split races (second half slower than the first half), by running and even pace or slightly improvement in pace in the final 20% of the race will put us in a position to be improving our overall positioning in the race (passing people) and this produces a positive mind frame;  that of a predator as opposed to prey.  Additionally with the majority of the race out of the way in this final stage, we get the sense that a solid race is all but achieved and that we are now chasing upside potential, which provides us with a more free and positive mind-set from which to attack this last section.  
This race strategy is the marriage of physiological and mental approach that best work together to produce the fastest and most consistent performances.  Physiologically it best utilizes the resources of the body and mentally it fosters the least stressful and most positive racing mind-set.
A key to the successful execution of this race strategy is to embrace it beforehand, knowing what it will entail and the proper mental and physical approach to use in each section.  Like any race strategy it will come more natural to the runner the more it is utilized and the more the runner embraces it. 
Establishing Your Goal Race Pace Range
It is obvious that a key component of this race strategy is the ability to establish the proper goal pace range.  The better we feel we know our current race fitness level, the smaller of a range we can use,  and the less certain we are of our fitness level the larger the range we want to use.   I recommend using a 1% to 2% range, striving to be in a position to be able to use a 1% range for your goal and major races.

There are the steps on determining our appropriate goal pace range for a given race:
Current Fitness Level:  By utilizing a regular racing schedule accompanied by a dialed in equivalency chart, and through certain key or milestone workouts in our training, we should be able to come up with what shape we are in for a race to within a small range.  This becomes our base goal pace range.  Example:  if my workouts and recent races indicate I am in shape to run an upcoming half marathon in 1:10:30 to 1:11:00 then my goal pace becomes 5:00 to 5:03 per mile. 

Course Adjustments:  We must take into account the course in which we will be racing and whether or not it is easier to more difficult or faster than our recent races and workouts which we are using to judge our goal paces.  Included in this analysis needs to be the amount and size of the hills on the course, the elevation at which the race is run in relation to where we train and race, and the amount of turns and U-turns on the course.   
Note:  we need to adjust our goal pace range for the layout of the course on a mile to mile basisl.  For example if my goal pace range is 6:00 to 6:03 per mile pace, but the 10th mile is significantly uphill I will need to adjust the goal pace expectation for that mile accordingly.  In this case the appropriate goal pace for the 10th mile may be 6:15-6:18.   
Weather Adjustments:  We also need to take into account the weather conditions for the race and how they differ from recent workouts and races we are using to judge our goal pace.  We should consider the temperature, humidity levels and wind strength and direction.   
Field:  We should take a look at the size and strength of the field we are racing against so that we know how crowded it will be where our goal pace is.  Will we be by ourselves or in the middle of a pack?  Very crowded conditions may cause us not to be able to run tangents and have to weave around runners, and this may slow the goal race pace we can expect to run.
Fueling:   Lastly we should understand what fueling options will be available to us during the race and decide if this matches up with our desired fueling strategy, and if not we may need to make minor pacing expectation changes.
Summary:  Once we have gone through these steps we should have a solid goal pace range that we apply to our race strategy talked about above.
Race Frequency
I believe it is a good idea to find a good balance between training and racing during our training cycles.  We want to ensure enough training time to work through progression in fitness between our races.  But we also want to race on a regular basis to measure and cement the gains we have made in fitness, and to stay familiar with executing our racing strategy and giving all out race level efforts. 
For longer distance runners, who focus on the 15k to marathon distance, I recommend racing once every 4 to 6 weeks, with 2 to 3 goal races per year. 
There you have it, how I believe we should go about racing in order to achieve our best and most consistent results.  This should take much of the guess work out of race strategies, and the more variable we can eliminate on race day the better and more consistently we are likely to perform. 

1 comment:

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