Developing Your Racing Skills
Unconsciously, the body’s number one priority is survival. That means it fights and develops natural mechanisms to prevent situations and events that threaten our physical well-being. For example, when you put your hand on a hot stove, you’ll instinctively pull your hand back before it can be burned.
In many ways, running a race goes against all the survival instincts we’ve developed as humans. In the final few miles of a race, your legs burn (signaling to your brain that they don’t have enough oxygen) and your stomach turns as blood is diverted to the working muscles. Your body is screaming at you to stop but in your mind you want to keep going so you can achieve a new personal best. It’s the ultimate battle of Body vs. Mind and one of the major appeals of distance running – pushing the body beyond its limits and testing one’s self by doing so.
Preparing for this battle isn’t merely about increasing your tolerance for pain, however. Rather, it’s about training your body for the specific challenges it will face during the race.
Skill 1: Increasing Your Level Of Effort
As a race wears on, the effort required to maintain your goal pace will get increasingly more difficult, meaning if your goal pace for a half marathon is 7:00 per mile, it’s going to be pretty easy to run that pace for the first three miles, but not-so-easy over the last three.
While many runners understand this concept, it’s not something we consciously train to overcome. Most traditional interval workouts, say 6 x 800 meters at 5K race pace, are run at a consistent clip. The recovery between those intervals allows the athlete to recover to a state that is very unlike the corresponding point in a race. To best illustrate this, reference the chart above. As you progress through the workout, your overall levels of effort and fatigue increase slightly, but you never get to a point where it becomes significantly harder to complete each interval at the same pace. During a race, however, you will always reach a point where you’ll need to significantly increase your effort level in order to maintain goal pace. As you can see then, it’s absolutely critical that in some workouts you teach yourself the skill of increasing your effort and pushing beyond that juncture of discomfort and fatigue.
Skill 2: Realizing You Won’t Die
This sounds grim, but it’s not. Consider one of my favorite quotes from Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’s not a runner, but his ability to push himself in training and competition is legendary.
“Experiencing this pain in my muscles and aching and going on is my challenge. This area of pain divides a champion from someone who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain no matter what happens. I have no fear of fainting. I do squats until I fall over and pass out. So what? It’s not going to kill me. I wake up five minutes later and I’m OK. A lot of other athletes are afraid of this. So they don’t pass out. They don’t go on.”
How can you teach yourself this skill?
Experienced runners know the feeling that comes toward the middle of a tough track session or tempo run. You begin to dread the last third of the workout, knowing that you’re going to be very uncomfortable. Unless you’re having a bad day, however, you usually get through the session.
But, what if your coach told you to run the second to last repeat as fast as you could, or he instructed you to pick it up in the middle of a tempo run when you’re already struggling to maintain pace?
Most runners respond, “I can’t. I am already running as hard as I can.” They’re fearful of running any faster because they’re worried they won’t be able to finish the workout.
How will you respond to that same question during a race? What are you going to do when you hit the 1.75-mile mark of a 5K and you don’t think that you can go any faster? Most will slow down, of course.
Teaching yourself in training that you can go faster is an essential skill to hone. On the next page we’ll outline two workouts that will help you break through the mental and physical barriers of wanting to slow down or stop when things get hard in a race.