Recently, I wrote about the benefits of bad workouts and races. I suggested that instead of dwelling on them, why not learn from them? But what about good races? Can you learn from them too? You can, but maybe in ways that are slightly less obvious than you think.
In more than 20 years of coaching (and in my own running), I’ve noticed that when a runner has a successful workout or race, she nearly always starts talking about what she could have done better to run even faster. Despite running faster than she ever has–pushing herself to new “limits”–she’s talking about reaching the next level. And the ways she could have done that are usually quite simple: shoulda gone with that guy at mile 2, shoulda pushed a little harder on that hill at mile 12, needed to start my sprint earlier.
When you work with athletes long enough, you quickly see that the “perfect race” has little to do with the time on the clock or even the place among the field. It really is about perfect execution during the race. Now, what perfect execution means can vary from runner to runner and usually comes down to learning from your good races–all those things you start talking about that you could have done to have gone even faster. These often simply come down to “risk.”
Here are five steps I’ve found to help you learn from a good performance, manage the risk better and lay it on the line for an even more amazing race the next time.
#1 EXPECT THE VOICE
Nearly all runners know the voice in their heads that tells them to back off when the going gets tough. Part of training is to help you get better at ignoring this voice and continuing to push even though the voice gets louder and louder as you get more and more fatigued–this will happen in good races as well as in “bad” races.
Step one in perfect race execution is to recognize that even in great performances, the voice will be there. As my sports psychologist friend, Dr. Stan Beecham, says in his new video, Run with your Body Race with your Mind, “You ain’t gonna get out of the race pain-free so you gotta pick the pain–the pain of the race or the pain of regret.” Sitting here evaluating, I think we’d all pick the few minutes of pain in the race over the regret that lives with you for days from a poorly executed effort. In the throes of a race, it’s never so easy. So don’t hope that the race feels easy. Expect it to be hard and know that you’re going to have to repeatedly challenge yourself to ignore the voice in your head that wants you to slow down.
#2 WHEN IN DOUBT: GO FOR IT
Step two is to recognize the split-second decisions that occur in every race and the choices you make that you often regret after the race. Remember our runner above who began naming all those ways she could have gone even faster? These split-second decisions are almost always whether to push faster or not. Important note: This is different from a larger pacing decision–for instance, running too fast at the start of a race. These decisions are more instantaneous. Like when you’re getting passed–do you latch on to the person or let him go? Should you push hard to try to catch the pack in front of you by the 10K mark in your half marathon or do you stay conservative? Do you pass her now or wait till the next mile? You’d be hard-pressed to find times when the more aggressive approach isn’t the best one, because these are the decisions that leave seconds on the table, even in good races. The key to a better race is to be more open to “going for it” when these split-second race decisions come up.
#3 KNOW YOURSELF
Step three is to think back across your races and make a list of all the “mistakes” or missed opportunities. This list will become your guide to better execution in your next race (and will likely match what you found in steps one and two). After all, we mostly repeat the same “mistakes” in each race, which is why the discussion after each race usually comes down to the same old, “I shoulda . . . ”
Step four is to sprint! There is no reason for you not to have a good sprint (whatever that means to you) at the end of races. To a certain extent, sprinting uses a different energy system and often simply comes down to your motivation to really go hard at the end of a race. My high school coach always told us that there was no reason, no matter how tired we were, that we couldn’t sprint the last 200 meters of every race. Why not lay it out there so when you finish, you’ll have no regrets?
#5 RISK EVERYTHING
Step five is to accept the risk. To be honest, very few people really care if you hit your goal or not and it’s not likely that your mortgage payment depends on how fast you run your next race. So, what’s the harm in putting yourself on the ragged edge? Could you fail? You bet. Could you break through and learn something even more? Absolutely. Races are a chance to explore your limits. Be smart but don’t always play it safe. Pick where you want to challenge yourself and make this your focus in your next race. Make it your best race. Then learn from it to make the next one even better.
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