There appears to be a popular misconception that to run means to move fast at all times.
There’s a popular misconception that a race plan is a short cut to success. To choose the race plan of an elite athlete for example, might be the way to untap the secrets of that runner’s success.
Online (in particular), the accumulation of misinformation and bogus pseudo-science continues at an alarming rate.
So where many are sharing tips for success, based entirely upon what the elite might be doing – it’s important to understand the principles by which all runners ought to operate in order to remain healthy, injury free and where possible, keep improving. Elite or otherwise.
Run to get strong, or get strong to run?
Firstly, it’s impossible to run fast from day one and keep getting quicker. Nobody ever just ran like the clappers everywhere they went at all times, without getting too tired way too soon. In fact, the more they ran, the more they hurt. Slower and slower, more and more tired until – injured and out of running for long enough to lose all the fitness they’d earned.
And so, long before racing at any level, runners should prepare a base of fitness. This is best done by running slowly. Very very slowly.
Only while moving slow and steady can we engage all of the important supportive tissue around the joints. The slow gradual movements through each and every stage in the running gait, force the separate parts of the body to do their job in sequence. If you launch into a fast run, you often if not always default all of the hard work to the bigger, already stronger muscles. Until the foundations collapse, form goes out the window.
Further to this – there’s your circulatory system. It’s a series of channels. You rely on your body’s ability to transport vital energy via your bloodstream, filled with nutrients and oxygen. No good filling your belly with the right food and breathing like a madman if the channels are so limited, that you’re immediately overwhelmed. The slow running – frustrating as it might seem at first, allows your body to build more channels. A better, more capable system. Efficient. Less chance of injury or fatigue.
And fatigue……..that’s what race planning centres around.
How far can I go without fatigue? How fast can I run before fatigue sets in? What environment am I suited to and what will a change in environment do to increase the workload, therefore the fatigue I’m likely to experience? Fatigue can and will lead to injury. It will also cause you to slow down, which you don’t necessarily need in a race. So let’s avoid too much fatigue if we can.
And we can. By building. Slowly.
So back to that elite athlete and his/her plan. It isn’t, despite what people think, a system for cheating the field out of first place. It isn’t a secret recipe.
It’s a combination of early start (in life), hard work and training, which means building, developing skills, identifying a skill set, exploiting the potential in a suitable environment, more hard work, rest, recovery, support, analysis, failure, reappraisal, hard work, even more hard work and the entire time, recording the evidence of what’s successful and only then – putting it into a race plan and squeezing every last piece of potential from an individual’s ability to run.
Look at the Couch to 5K (C25K), itself a predetermined training schedule – allowing the slow build from walker, to runner. After this amazing success, having reached a slow steady 5K run, many people make the mistake of entering the local Park Run and trying to run flat out from start to finish before they’ve even tested their ability at the distance. But with a little practice and perhaps a recce of the course (always available on non-race days), they can work out a strategy that works and feels comfortable.
Race planning should be what transforms that run into a successful stab at a personal best. Perhaps time and again.
The way that’s done is easy. Take the evidence you’ve collected during training. Apply it to the task in hand. Ask questions of yourself. Do I run 5K well, or is it still hard work? Am I more comfortable on road or off? Do I like hills? Am I better suited to hills, even if they’re hard work? What time does it take me to run 5K and is it quicker overall if I start slow and speed up toward the end, or can I efficiently maintain a ‘race pace’ from the go without lapsing into poor form and fatigue by the end?
When you know the answers, you can pick out a race that’s exactly the right combination of distance, terrain and elevation. You can make a plan to attempt whichever strategy seems realistic by your own standards – based entirely upon what you’ve already achieved in training, then try and make a really good job of it on race day. It may not always be 100% successful, but even a disappointing race day performance will contribute to the next round of analysis and training. You’ll come out wiser, more confident and truly a better runner.
If running to their full potential, there’s no difference between an elite athlete and a total beginner in terms of effort level. Remember that.
It’s just that while making all that effort, they’ll produce greater results than people who’ve yet to develop. It’ll take time.
There are a few exceptions, there always will be. Steve Prefontaine counts as one example, but he too raced according to what he’d come to know as his preferred and most effective method. Tried and tested.
So – slow building increases strength. Strength increases balance. Balance aids coordination. Coordination while strong generates speed. While you slowly build all of these systems, you get more efficient (fitter). Once fit and able to generate speed with good form, you’ll achieve success.
There are many variations to race planning, which I have deliberately omitted from this blog. Too many cunning tactics, that in competition can undermine other runner’s plans. Slip-streaming and early bursts to ruin the rhythm are common, but there are too many little tricks to mention.
The one that most people have heard of is the ‘negative split’, where a runner will complete the first half (or portion) of their race at an easier pace than the remainder. This allows them to surprise the field with a sudden well timed break, but also saves the body from overload too early on. The feeling when you’ve gone off too quickly can be like Hell on Earth. The trick is gradually speeding up and timing that burst so that you can finish the race as quickly as possible without doing yourself damage or having to slow down until you cross the line. Finish with too much left in the tank and you’ll regret not doing a better job, but run out of steam too early and you can watch all that hard work and training going to waste.
Sometimes tactics play a part, with competitors researching and recording each other’s performances in order to spot and exploit weaknesses or to be sure the training is tailored toward beating the individual, rather than the course or distance. It probably happens a lot more than people care to admit…
Not all plans are about refining the same action until you reach the ideal method of execution. Sometimes, in the case of a challenge event where the aim is just to finish in one piece, you might try and break the challenge down into manageable chunks.
When I ran my second attempt at the Iceland Ultra back in 2009, I knew the objective was a PB, but the dream was to finish in under 6hr 30min (beating the best UK finisher from my group on my first visit, in 2008). I divided the race into four sections, each of which ended at one of the four main checkpoints. I allowed myself a specific amount of time to reach each checkpoint, based on what I remembered were the more challenging aspects in each section and made sure that the total combined time would still be on or under the 6:30:00. Every time I squeaked in under the allotted amount, I remained calm – knowing that I was accruing ‘minutes in the bank’. By the end of the race and with energy to spare, I turned on that final burst and came in at 6hrs 16min and was first Brit overall for 2009! I think a large part of that success was psychological, made easier thanks to an effective race plan and more importantly, sticking to it!
The only other things that might still be considered part of race planning are things that almost everybody should already be doing. Selecting the correct footwear, clothing and equipment. Feeding ourselves the correct food, allowing ourselves the right amount of sleep. Sacrificing the social runs that conflict with the training we need, or the recovery. Never over training or over racing, however tempting the event.
This is what we mean by training smart. This is how we get strong to run.
The difference is some people have the sense to train smart – race easy, others will put themselves through hell in order to achieve short term gain, but with a great deal of injury and discomfort thrown in.
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