Racing well is a matter of picking your spots.
Previously I presented a basic list of factors that determine how often we can do something we’re all interested in: racing well. Before I get into the absolute determinants of this – your body’s physiological limits – I’ll discuss the relative nature of the term “racing well.”
Most of us know we can’t go to the well as often as the schedules of races we choose our battles from invite us to. We’re aware that we can really only be in top form a limited number of times a year. But people are not machines, and we all strike a balance between racing too infrequently to take advantage of the work we put in and racing too often to leave ourselves truly fresh for any one effort. Most of us lean toward the latter, and knowingly so.
The Grand Design
Virtually everyone who’s serious about the sport becomes involved with a club at some point. This carries certain obligations, some of them explicit and some of them implied or assumed. If, for example, we belong to a team that takes part in a local grand prix-style race series, most of which begin in the spring and wind down in the fall, we commit ourselves to a minimum of five to seven events spread out over three to six months. You most likely don’t want to half-ass any of these, but you also most likely have a few race targets of your own that fall outside the series, and may lay at the tail end of the affair (most people tend to aim for fall goal events, especially marathoners).
Understand that if you are one of these warriors, you’re probably going to have to train through a good many of the series races in anticipation of being at your best in October or November. I’ll get into the physiology behind this next week, but a number of axiomatic principles imply that you have to train specifically for a minimum of ten or so weeks before you can race to potential, that you have a fairly short window in which to take advantage of your specific preparation, and that you can expect to complete this cycle successfully twice – and in special cases three times – in a year. The upshot is that if the club scene is more important to you than other goals you may have, and there’s no shame in taking this approach, then you are better off deciding which distances you want to aim for and which are secondary and arrange your training so that you get a break from dedicated racing. Expecting to PR at the whole slate of races is unrealistic unless you’re new enough to whatever level you’ve reached that your personal bests are all still relatively easy pickings.
As an example, if you want to tackle longer distances this year, and a couple of target events happen to lie several months apart, then you should prepare specifically for a race early in the season, scale back your racing expectations and dig into serious training for the summer, and hit the races hard again in the fall. If you live in New England, you could train through the winter in the hope of racing a fast grand prix half marathon in the spring, with or without a following marathon, then take a short break, train through the summer races, and take aim at the marathon that always arrives in October. This doesn’t eliminate the chances of doing well at “tune-up” races for your goal event in the fall, but I’ve worked with enough runners to know that most of them, understandably, want it all, and that train through races they head into with the stated expectation of not being rested for turn out nonetheless to be disappointments once the results are in. It’s difficult facing the same group of rivals over and over and finding your chances of beating them varying markedly from event to event. Mature runners realize that their focus is what matters and that they can show up, perform “creditably” if not spectacularly, and not feel the need to make excuses to others or – more importantly – to themselves.
Wax On, Wax Off
Finally, there’s the seasonal nature of the sport to in peak to consider. High-school and college athletes are typically expected to be in peak form in June and December, and to a lesser extent in March for indoor track athletes. Most readers of this article are beyond prep and NCAA competition, but the ebb and flow of the adult scene still tends to meander along in the wake of what the kids are doing. But just as a seven-day training cycle only makes sense in light of how our calendar is set up, a racing plan based only on the rate at which the earth circles the sun is fraught with problems.
So decide what it is you really want to do with your running year based on what’s most important, write it down, and next week I’ll describe, with the help of folks who know a lot more than I do, just how to put the plan into action.