Wednesday, August 24, 2011

0 Race Training Strategies: Why Basic Readiness is Only the Beginning


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When it comes to race training, I believe that a runner can never be too well-prepared. :) To race your best, your body and mind need to be in peak condition, and that takes a carefully constructed, well thought-out, long-range plan. Conversely, a person who races without proper preparation, no matter what the distance, is simply courting folly. Underprepare and you're just asking for it. It's almost as if karma's just winding up its baseball bat to smack you right in the tush. :) You can't hurry along your race training either, or you're bound to find injury along the way.

Even if you are going to race a 5K distance, you still need to put in the adequate time to prepare. Sure, if you've already racked up a significant amount of weekly and daily mileage that well exceeds the 5K distance and includes regular speedwork sessions, then sure, a 5K race will clearly require less prep time because you've already been continuously preparing. :)

Sure, we've all heard people say, "Yeah, but it's only a 5K. It'll be a piece of cake." Yeah, sure you might be able to easily cover the distance, but is that your only goal? ;) Underestimation and ego are the two prideful underminers that'll getcha every time. So if you want to do your best, please kindly tell them to take a hike. :) In terms of pacing, a 5K is nothing to sniff at. Since it's such a quick race, it can actually be one of the more challenging distances to pace, believe it or not.

Also, I don't subscribe to the philosophy that it's somehow OK to barely give oneself enough time to get up to the racing distance before entering a race. Is that really wise?! I don't know about you, but I want to be able to comfortably cover the distance (or get very near to it, if it's a marathon distance) before racing it. Plus, as all experienced runners surely already know, it takes time to build stamina and speed, and this means you've got to have enough time to fit in runs of varying lengths and types -- speedwork intervals on the track, hillwork, tempo runs, long slow distance (i.e., recovery runs), etc. --  into your regular training regimen. Bluntly put, the level of focus and effort that runners put into maintaining a diverse and comprehensive training regimen is the difference between casual runners and those who take their training more seriously. :)

Regardless of one's attitude towards one's training, why add unnecessary time pressure? Isn't it better to give yourself some options and breathing room in case things don't go as planned? You never know what's going to happen in the several weeks of training leading up to the race. So, if you need to regroup or change course, it's good to have the extra time to do so. If you keep your race training timeline realistic and give yourself this extra wiggle room, it's basically the equivalent of building "release valves" into your training. This way, you'll be more likely to avoid overtraining, not to mention that it'll also be a heck of a lot easier to stay motivated and on track with your training program. As runners, our minds and bodies generally tend to respond better (and adapt more readily) to a training program's long-term parameters when we've set a challenging but flexible course.

Want to prime your body for optimal racing performance? Then stack the cards in your favor by doing all of the obvious things that you know will lead to success: For starters, fuel and hydrate properly at the correct times and in the proper amounts and ratios. Get enough sleep and give your body adequate time for rest and recovery. Diversify your training runs and cross-train (i.e., cycling, swimming, hiking, yoga, strength training), etc., etc. Keep up on the latest news and research to stay in the loop, learn new tips and techniques, and get the most out of your training. And when it comes to planning your "training timeline," give yourself adequate time to train, not only to reach the racing distance, but to exceed it. Of course, I'm not suggesting that you run 26.2+ miles as your long run in order to prepare for a marathon. Unless you're an ultrarunner who regularly runs 26.2 miles as a training distance for 50Ks and up, I wouldn't recommend this tactic for racing distances over 13.1 miles. :)

However, for 5K and 10K races, this "double-distance" training methodology for your long runs is certainly a feasible strategy. Of course, this mileage building is done gradually, over an extended period of time. For 5K and 10K races, I'll typically make sure that I can run twice that distance before I race it. And when I do 10-milers and half marathons, I've been known to prepare by running up to 16 miles for my long runs. When I've done these types of long runs in combination with other kinds of workouts (hillwork, speedwork, tempo runs, lifting, core work, etc.), it really makes a HUGE difference in my performance. Of course, none of this is really all that surprising. A runner who works out in a more comprehensive fashion --  i.e., in a way that specifically addresses both stamina and speed and also simulates racing conditions (weather acclimation, etc.) -- is clearly going to be better prepared when race day rolls around.

I know there are a few coaches who might think that it's unnecessary to exceed the racing distance in one's training (within reason), but based on my findings, (which include discussions with other running coaches on this topic), it seems there are many more running coaches who agree with my approach/training philosophy than disagree with it. And to be honest, I'm not so concerned about consensus because the results speak for themselves. :)

It's fairly logical reasoning if you think about it: If you get to the point where you can run a 10K at a decent clip, then you should be able to run a 5K a whole lot faster. Pace prediction calculators follow the same exact logic. Of course, the actual results also depend greatly upon the diversity of one's training. When the body is continually tested with varied workouts, so that the muscles, heart, and mind don't have time to get too comfortable (i.e., complacent), the body's physical conditioning is bound to improve. :) Of course rest and recovery are essential to this process as well, and alternating effort with rest is really the only way to go if you want to proceed safely and still improve.

There's also an often overlooked psychological benefit to this approach as well; when we're well prepared, we feel more confident about our racing capabilities and that lends itself to the same mental outlook on race day as well. After all, our racing day mindset is heavily influenced by everything we've done to prepare up until the moment the starting gun goes off.

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