Tired of slowing down at the end of races? Never again!
Using physiology, psychology, sports nutrition and neuroscience, you can fix the fade forever. In this article, you’ll learn techniques to apply to your training so you have more power late in your races and you’ll also learn techniques to use within the race itself to give you the lift you need to power to the finish line.
Training for More Power
First, let’s look at strategies you can use in training to build more late-race power. After all, you spend a lot of time training for your races, so this provides a great opportunity for your training to be specially designed to address the loss of power late in races.
Strategy #1: Consistency is King
Every coach will tell you that consistency in training is king. Stack successful week on top of successful week and your mind and body will jump to new heights of fitness (and your musculoskeletal system gets more injury resistant). You’ll soon find you have a deep well of strength that you can rely on when the going gets tough and this is precisely the strength you need for more late-race power.
Here’s the trick to consistency though: Add some wiggle room for when life happens (and it will!). Too often, I see racers training at their absolute maximum (maxing out their time availability, squeezing in workouts and runs, burning the candle at both ends – working hard, training hard). This usually leads to injuries (runner enemy #1) and/or to ill-timed “bad” workouts, which eat away at confidence and make you doubt your abilities.
Instead, find a training load that fits within your life even when “life” happens. I know. You feel that if you aren’t training at 100%, you’re doing yourself a disservice. However, the injury rate in running is so high that I prefer for athletes to be slightly undertrained, healthy and coming off of consecutive positive training weeks as they head into races. It does you no good to be the fittest spectator at your goal race or to be standing on the starting line worried about an injury that has hampered your training. Instead, focus on consecutive weeks of solid training and never risk interrupting your training momentum.
Coach’s Tip: Start a running week streak. How many positive training weeks can you string together? Each week, think about keeping your training under control to ensure you can have a great next week. Never, ever risk the streak. (Feel free to try my training plans. I provide an easy way to modulate your training load based on how you are feeling.)
Strategy #2: Go Low
A second great training strategy that leads to more power late in long races like the marathon and half-marathon is occasional training on low or no carbohydrates. If you haven’t heard of this concept, read my article Carbohydrate Manipulation for Better Performance for full details.
The gist is that if you are always fully fueled on your runs, you never experience the low glycogen/low blood sugar suffering that you will feel in the final portion of long races. So, when it occurs, the brain freaks out and when the brain freaks out, it reduces the power to the muscles and your pace slows.
On 4-6 long runs across your training program, instead of fueling to the max, begin to fuel less. See how little fuel you can use to complete your run. Will you feel as good as when you fuel? Of course not. But, your mind will get a heavy dose of race-like suffering (and that’s a big part of this strategy to fix the fade). And, your body will be challenged to burn more fat and spare carbohydrates during the run and to expand your carbohydrate storage tank (a big benefit for race day) after the run.
Coach Tip: Start by spreading out your feedings during the run then begin to reduce the carbohydrates in each feeding till you can get in two hours of running without any carbohydrate supplementation.
Strategy #3: Board the Pain Train
All aboard! It’s time to get on the pain train. One of the most intriguing ideas about why we fatigue is the central governor model – a complex, subconscious system that controls performance much like your car’s computer controls traction and stability. If the computer senses that the car is losing control, it (without your input) reduces power from the engine, changes which wheels receive power and can even apply the brakes till it senses everything is under control again.
The central governor model suggests the same thing happens in your mind/body. Your brain (the computer) is constantly monitoring the state of the body and if it perceives that things are all not all right, then it will begin adjusting power output (literally cutting the power output of the muscles and creating more and more feelings of fatigue in the mind) till it feels things are all right. (Remember when you thought you were going to die on your first run around the block? That was your central governor freaking out because it wasn’t used to what happens when you run.)
Strategy #3 requires that you do some workouts that are really, really difficult to reset your central governor. These runs push back the threshold of what your central governor perceives as hard so that what was once abnormal and threatening is now normal and nothing to worry about. Happy brain. No fade.
Runners training for shorter races like the 5K or 10K can do “gut check repeats.” These workouts are usually short repetitions at faster than race pace and you do them until you are really, really tired. A “fun” gut check workout is to go to the track or a marked course and run 800 meter repeats (usually 6-8 will do). Take 200-400 meter recovery jogs between each. Start at your 10K race pace and try to run faster and faster on each successive repeat. As fatigue sets in, you will need to bring your A game to keep going and this is just the kind of workout that resets your central governor and allows you to keep going in races even when very tired.
Runners training for longer races benefit greatly from fast finish long runs. On 2-4 long runs in your training cycle (and never on back to back weekends), start at your normal long run pace for 10-20 minutes then begin to run faster and faster across the run. In the last 10-20 minutes, run as fast as you can. Yep. Go to the well. See just how much suffering you can take. Push yourself to keep going even when tired. Remember, we are trying to suffer in these workouts. We want our brains to know that suffering is okay. It is normal when trying to run your fastest.
This strategy allows you, in a controlled way, to experience the mental and physical fatigue you will experience in races. These workouts definitely have physiological benefits but we are finding more and more that these challenging workouts push your tolerance for pain and suffering to higher and higher levels. This keeps the mind (consciously and subconsciously) from freaking out when the going gets tough in races (and it always does).
Coach Tip: Mental “pain” could more accurately be called suffering. Physical pain, as in an injury, is not what you are going for. You should stop if you have physical pain/injury. But, if you are mentally suffering to keep going in these workouts, that’s exactly what you want.
Strategy #4: Groove Goal Pace
Can you find your goal pace without a GPS watch? If not, you need to do lots more goal pace running so you really groove it – mentally and physically.
Physiologically, running at goal pace improves your running economy at that specific pace and better economy results in faster races (and you won’t waste precious energy with herky jerky pacing).
Psychologically, goal pace workouts build your confidence in your goal pace. Start out with very doable volumes of goal pace running early in your plan (usually short accomplishable repeats at goal pace) and gradually progress to more and more continuous and longer goal pace sessions.
For example, a half-marathoner may start with 4-5 times 1 mile at half-marathon goal pace early in her plan but then progress to 3-4 times 2 miles in the middle of the plan. Finally, she’ll run 5-7 continuous miles at goal pace in her last few weeks before the race.
Coach Tip: Going out too fast is a sure fire way to fade late in races. In later goal pace workouts, start without looking at your watch and see just how close you get to race pace. These fun “prediction” runs are a great way to groove goal pace.
Racing for Power
After using the training strategies to build late race power, let’s look at what you can do in the race itself to give you a power surge just when you need it.
Strategy #1: Perfect Pacing
Speaking of pacing, the most important strategy for fixing the fade in races is to pace properly. Running too fast too early is the downfall of many runners. So, Racing Strategy #1 is to determine your goal pace based on your training and racing results and then stick with it. Too many runners hopethey can run a certain pace but you should knowyou can run it.
In your training plan, you probably have several goal pace workouts (see Training Strategy #4 above). Those never feel as easy as you wish they did but you must get a sense that the pace is doable in your race. If your inner coach is really doubtful of that pace, then adjust it.
The same goes with race results. When you run a tune up race during your training cycle, what time does it predict for your goal race distance? (Use my McMillan Running Calculator to predict your race times.) This, again, give you an idea of an appropriate goal pace.
Then, apply it in the race! With GPS on your wrists and GPS in your phone, there is absolutely no reason for you to start too fast in races. So, determine your goal pace through training and race results. Then, don’t start faster than that. (Here’s my video on half and full marathon pacing.)
Coach Tip: It’s clear that best performances in distance races come from “even” (first half the race in the same time as second half) or slight “negative” (first half slightly slower than the second half) pacing. Start practicing this in training with the mantra, “Last mile. Best mile” or for repetition workouts, “Last rep. Best rep.”
Strategy #2: Up the Ante
One of the first lessons I teach runners is to match increasing fatigue with increasing intensity. Simple concept. Difficult to do.
Across a race, your level of fatigue will not stay the same. Early in the race, you won’t be fatigued and as a result, your goal pace should feel fairly comfortable. However, if you are trying to run your best race, fatigue won’t stay low for the entire race. It will increase (and increase dramatically after halfway). If you’re not ready for it, this increase will catch you off guard and suddenly, you’ll notice your pace slowing.
Somewhere after halfway (and well before you would like it to), fatigue starts to rise exponentially. If you’ve been running along, enjoying the scenery and thinking about the post-race buffet, then this rise in fatigue will mean that the same effort results in a slower pace. The key here is that after halfway, you must start to engage with the race. You must ramp up your intensity to match the ramping up of fatigue. And here’s the plain truth, your ramp up in intensity will need to continue for the rest of the race. You’ll need to bring more and more mental intensity, more and more effort to combat the increasing fatigue and stay on pace.
Runners who do this – match their fatigue levels with their effort levels – always have a strong finish. They realize that they must increase their effort just to maintain the same pace. They realize that they must fight the voice in their head that wants them to just back off a little and instead, they push. They push and push and push. They expect the race to be hard and thus they bring it during the later stages. Do this and you, too, can have your best race. Just remember that after halfway, your effort will need to continually increase as fatigue increases so you don’t slow.
Coach Tip: Before each race, acknowledge that it is going to be tough over the second half but commit that you will really ramp up your intensity across the second half.
Strategy #3: Smile through the Pain
You learned about the role the brain has in helping or hurting performance. With Strategy #3, you’ll use a trick I used to win the Masters Trail Marathon National Championships when I turned 40. I was fairly fit as I entered the race but more important for my success over the challenging course was that my mantra going into it was “Smile through the pain.” Having run several marathons, I knew it was going to be tough in the later miles. But, I also knew that my mental state had a lot to do with whether I would push despite the suffering or if I would have a pity party when the race got hard.
Every time things got particularly tough, I’d force a smile. I’d tell myself that this is what I wanted – the challenge to bring out the best in me. You can use this too and you’ll be amazed at how the simple act of smiling can trick the brain into keeping going. Your mindset will switch from pity party to powerhouse performer. Your brain will stay happy, your focus will remain on the positive and you’ll have more power just when you need it.
Coach Tip: Smiling and laughing are very powerful. Use smiling in races as a way to bring out your best. Use laughing (watching a funny movie or show) between training sessions when you are feeling tired or run down from your workouts. Picks you up every time.
Strategy #4: Feed the Beast
For long races like the half-marathon and beyond, fueling is a key strategy for fixing the fade. What always surprises me is just how little runners practice race day fueling in their training, especially on goal pace workout days and those “Pain Train” workouts as described in Training Strategy #3 above.
There is no one nutritional strategy that will work for all runners. Runners are all just so unique. That said, there are some best practices that keep you fueled. (See my Marathon Fueling article.)
First, work your plan. As with pacing, you’ve learn what works in training so just follow it in the race. Drink on your schedule and let the miles roll by. Second, fuel early. If you get behind on fueling, it is nearly impossible to catch up and maintain your pace. This does not mean you gorge on fast-acting sugars at the beginning of the race. It just means that you follow your plan and be very regimented in the first half of the race so you make sure you are following your proven fueling routine.
Third, be kind to your gut. The environment in your GI system at the start of the race is much more conducive to fueling that it will be later in the race when it is dehydrated and blood is shunted away from it to your working muscles. So, that fuel you loved at mile 5 of your marathon may make you vomit at mile 20. You’ll need more dilute fuel later in the race to account for this so plan ahead. You may need more frequent feedings with smaller quantities and more fluid chasing it.
Fourth, practice, practice, practice. I cannot stress enough that your key training sessions and lead up races are perfect opportunities to experiment and refine your best race fueling plan.
Coach Tip: Fueling for endurance performance is changing. In addition to the traditional fast-acting sugars in most sports drinks and gels, there are now many other fueling options that may offer the same energy with fewer side effects. Continually experiment in training to find better and better race fueling options.
Strategy #5: Mouthing Off
One of the most interesting developments in fixing the fade has come from neuroscience. Piggy backing off the importance of the brain in performance (the central governor model, etc.) and knowing that the GI system is often rebellious late in races, researchers have shown that as long as your brain thinks things are okay in the body, then performance will be maintained. What’s interesting is that the brain just needs to think it. It doesn’t even have to be true.
For example, researchers found that if you take a sports drink containing carbohydrates and swish it around in your mouth, the receptors in the mouth tell the brain that the body is getting carbohydrates. The brain says, “Great! That’s what I need.” Here’s what’s interesting, you don’t even have to swallow the carbohydrates. You just need to stimulate the receptors in the mouth to make the brain happy. Performance is maintained. Crazy huh? A big part of fixing the fade is tricking the brain into thinking everything is all right.
So, another great way to fix the fade is to swish sports drink at every aid station, especially late in the race. While your GI system may be complaining and the thought of actually swallowing more fast-acting sugars makes you want to gag, just take it in, swish it around and spit it out. Receptors will be stimulated and your GI system will be given a break. Brain happy. No slowing.
Coach Tip: I’m a big fan of carrying your own fuel during races but since races provide so many aid stations these days, there is no reason not to try the swish and spit strategy across the second half of your race. Try it in a tune up race first, of course.
Final Thoughts: Power to the People
You can become a great second half runner. You can be the passer instead of the passee. Just follow these simple techniques (in training and racing) and you’ll find that when the going gets tough, you’ll look around and wonder where everyone went as you power your way to a breakthrough performance. Let me know how your next race goes!
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