What Does it Take to Race Well: Part I – Training

Racing well is a goal that many of us have. Whether you want to place in your age group or finally hit that PR in your favorite, local half marathon, racing well is one of the things that many of us are working towards. Today and in the next few posts,  I’m going to talk about what it takes to race well.

There are three main elements to racing well: training, race day logistics, and having a  race plan. Now a lot of us are training and some training is more structured and tailored than others. To race well your training needs to be consistent, specific, and periodized. Race day logistics is all about reducing unnecessary stress come race day. This involves minimizing race day decisions and removing any possible variability out of the day so  you can focus on performing at your best. A race plan is something that many of us neglect but can pay huge dividends come race day. If you are not sure when you are going to surge or how you are going to treat the hills, you will be wasting mental energy figuring these things out come race day.

Let’s take a deep dive into training.

The first element in a great race is a solid training plan that is tailored to you and specific to your race distance. Racing well also means that the training has been executed. This means that the cookie cutter plan you downloaded from a website or copied from a magazine is probably not your best bet. A training schedule from a coach who knows your strengths, weaknesses, limitations, and life circumstances, is more likely  to give you success. I’m not saying that just because I write and sell training plans. I’d gladly you get a solid plan from Jay Johnson, Greg Macmillan, Runners Connect, or Jason Fitzgerald, than download a list of distances and dates from a website. Every runner is different and if you go with a generic plan, you may have a good race, but I can guarantee you that you have left some potential untapped. Another factor that we tend to overlook is how to adjust your training when life gets in the way. We all have things that come up that interfere with our running. Whether it is a last minute business trip, a family emergency, or an illness, if you run for any significant length of time, life events will eventually throw a monkey wrench into your training. Having a coach to contact to adjust your training is invaluable in this situation. Admittedly you could learn how do it it yourself but having a professional coach who can be objective (and more importantly not stressed out from the life event that you are also dealing with) is invaluable. If you want to maximize your potential and increase your chances of racing at your best, do yourself a favor and get a customized training plan.

Consistency is the hallmark building fitness. The training needs to be executed And not just a paces and distances on the calendar. A training plan is no good if you never do it. You need to keep at it. Running when you’d don’t feel like it. Getting in your strength work each and every day. Actually resting on a rest day instead of pulling weeds in the yard. You need to be able to avoid significant down time from injuries. This means that if you are not incorporating strength work into your training you are greatly increasing your injury risk and more likely to lose time from injury. For the record I have yet to see a training plan from a magazine that incorporates running specific strength work.  Create some habits for yourself to get into the rhythm of training. There is no more powerful force in your life than inertia; once you get things going, keep them going. A good race is going to take a lot of consistent work in training.

Specificity in your training comes in two flavors; (1) tailored to your unique physical abilities and life situation (see above) and (2) targeted to your race distance.  It does little good to train for a half marathon with a 5k plan. If you are running a 5k and never do any speed work you are setting yourself up for disappointment. If your race has a ton of hills and your training doesn’t include hills you are asking for a painful race day. If your race is going to be in hot conditions and you don’t do any hot weather runs (or at least simulate it) you are asking for trouble. The distances, paces, and workouts need to be geared toward maximizing your success at a specific distance. The training plan needs to include a good amount of work at your target race pace. If you never run your race pace in training you have very little chance of running it on race day. You need to feel what that pace feels like and engrave it into your body’s muscle memory. When you’re at a point in the race where you’re tired and it’s getting increasingly difficult to focus, your body needs to be able to simply fall into race pace to keep you going. Considerable work at race pace will make this much easier to do. Training needs t be finely tuned to you and your life and laser focused on the race distance and conditions for you to have a great race day.

Periodization is the final key to solid training. You don’t start a marathon training cycle with a 22 mile long run. A good training plan will build foundational fitness, from both an aerobic and neuromuscular perspective. This means gradually increasing the length of long runs and keeping them easy, to build the aerobic metabolism. It also means incorporating running specific strength work and strides to ensure that your running economy and mechanics are improving along with your cardiovascular fitness. Back in the Marines we would call this the crawl, walk, run method for training. Each block of training builds on the last. First you do a foundation, then move on to some race specific work, and finish with a taper or sharpening period. For a my full take on periodization see this earlier post.

Next time we’ll tackle the second element of a good race day: race day logistics.

Enjoy the run.

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  1. […] racing well is one of the things that many of us are working towards. Previously I talked about training and race day logistics. Today I will discuss having and executing a race plan […]

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