Q: I started running a few years ago and have finished a few 5ks and even a half marathon! I love running with my girlfriends at these events, but lately I’ve had the urge to really race, to go for a personal best, to feel like a real runner! Do you have any tips on how I should approach my training or racing differently? — Lynn
You’re on the perfect track for dialing it up a notch to improve finish times, as you have the most important ingredient to do so, a foundation of miles. The miles you’ve put in over the past few years provides a solid foundation from which you can build on to achieve your faster finish time goals. The key to improving performance is to think in the long term and evolve your inner faster runner gradually. When you do, you’ll enjoy your training and racing, stay healthy and motivated and continue to improve along the way. Here are some key strategies for shifting to a race-based running plan.
Start from where you are. We live in a microwave culture where everything happens within seconds, but that is not how running works. It takes time to improve and when you invest in taking an inventory of your running routine and life schedule, you gain the information needed to progress. All too often runners jump on the latest training plan to improve performance, however if your base of mileage and life schedule don’t accommodate the plan, burn out, fatigue and injury can be the result. Knowing where you are now running wise informs you on where your starting point is. From here, you can plug yourself into a training plan that closely matches your routine and build from there. For instance, if you’re running three times per week for 3-5 miles, you’ll want to find a plan that included 3-4 runs per week and starts out at 4-6 miles per workout and builds from there. That way you start from where you are and gradually increase.
Evolve. I learned from 50K American World Record Holder Josh Cox, that the secret to running personal records is to evolve like a fine wine – in time. When asked how he trained to beat the World Record, he replied, “I started in high school and built up my miles, experience and strategies through college and my professional running career. None of it came to me overnight. I’ve been training for this race for years.” We mortal runners can be quite hard on ourselves when our times don’t improve, but just because your time doesn’t improve, doesn’t mean your running hasn’t. Allow yourself time to evolve your training, learn how to race, and base your improvement on performance rather than just finish time. As you can win a race, but not improve your times.
Create a balanced recipe that flows with your life. The number one mistake I see many runners make is to run the majority of their workouts in what I affectionately call “la la land” or the effort where you’re running too hard to be considered easy or recovery, and too easy to be considered hard. It’s no woman’s land and it feels good to run there. But if you spend all your time there, you end up at a performance plateau. Balance your running routine with a variety of ingredients including easy recovery runs, hard intervals and tempo workouts, long, slow endurance, and race effort workouts. When you ebb and flow with hard and easy workouts during the week you will recover, adapt and improve. If you push the pace of your recovery runs, you’ll delay recovery and effect the quality of your next workout. This takes patience and tenacity as it’s hard to run truly easy and easy to run hard. An easy way to accomplish this is to train with a friend that is slower than you for your easy runs and a friend that is a little faster for the harder workouts. You’ll stay motivated and get in your social time too.
Train by your body rather than your watch. The second most common training and racing mistake I see in my coaching practice is to train by a number or pace. It appeases your mind, but rarely correlates to your body. The body knows effort, not pace and therefore the secret to improved running and life performance is to tune into your body and let effort be your guide. For instance, if you estimate based on a 10K race you ran four weeks ago in the cool weather that your easy run should be a 9:30 pace. You head out for an easy recovery run on a humid day after not sleeping the night before and you end up running in the red zone (hard) which compromises your interval workout two days later. It simply doesn’t work because it’s not tied to the most important element – your body. Your over-thinking mind is happy, your body isn’t. If you went out for that same recovery run and trained by effort and feel, you might run at 10:00 minute pace, but you would be in the optimal zone for that workout and maintain your training flow and purpose. Train by your body, keep it simple and tune in. When I coach, I use three zones; yellow, orange and red. The yellow zone is for easy, recovery and long endurance runs, orange is for tempo and race effort and the red is for intervals. It’s doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. (really). Focus on your body and know the signs of each zone; yellow equals happy effort where you can talk about who’s winning America’s got Talent. The orange zone start to get your attention a little. You can hear your breath, but you’re not gasping for air. It comfortably hard, but you can still talk in words not sentences. And the red zone girlfriends – is actually the way it sounds – hard. You can hold it for minutes, your breath is labored and you can’t talk. Train by your body, in the optimal zones and with purpose and you’ll reach places you never thought you could.
Keep track. Just like Josh Cox, you are on a journey to setting personal records. Every season will lead to improved performance and learning what works for your body and life schedule. Keep a log online or old school on paper. Track your workouts, pace, mood, speed, terrain, weather, shoes, nutrition, sleep, stress levels and life schedule. All of these variables effect the flow of your training and how your body adapts along the way. As you train and track the information, you’ll begin to see patterns that can be adjusted. For instance, after training hard on Monday mornings, you notice your mood, energy levels and performance is off and so is your sleep from the weekend. You decide to shift the hard workout to Tuesdays and cross-training to Monday to accommodate your life schedule. Use the flow of information to stay in tune with how your body is adapting to the training routine and develop a recipe that is tailored to what works best for you.
Pace yourself. Go with a race day strategy that is based on effort versus pace. I know, this is a hard one so I’ll share a story. I was speaking at the Cleveland Marathon Expo about pacing by feel and effort when a nice woman named Tish told me a story about earning a personal record. She mentioned she was following my pacing strategy of Zone Racing (Yellow, Orange Red), but still used a speed distance monitor to keep track of the miles. On her way out to a race, she dropped her watch and had to race without one at all. What happened when her mind didn’t know the exact details of every inch of the course? She earned herself a 12-minute personal record! She ran by her body, by effort and raced stronger than her mind would have allowed. Let go of the devices, try to race by feel and see what you think. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use these training devices, it simply means they should be the outcome or information, rather than your guide. Take the timeless challenge and race by zone and by feel. Here’s how…break the race distance into three equal parts. Run the first part in the yellow or happy zone, the second in the moderate orange zone and finish the final third in the orangish-red zone. Personal records come from smart and patient training, conservative pacing, and on good hair days. If you walk out the door to the start line and your hair looks like Rozanne-Razanna-Danna – it’s not going to be a personal record day. If it’s a good hair day, it’s a great racing day. You can still run strong on challenging days and finish for the win.
Get specific. Train to specificity and simulate the terrain you’ll race on. If you’re racing on a rolling course, incorporate hills in your training. If you’re racing on a trail, invest at least 50% of your time off road. The more you tailor your training to the specifics of the race terrain and elements, the more familiar these conditions will feel as you race.
Train with a group. Research has shown that when runners train within a group they can both run harder and longer. This is important for the long endurance runs as well as the harder speed workouts. Training with a group can help support your efforts and improve your performance. Plus, it’s a great way to meet new faster friends!
Hire a coach. Working with a coach can speed the rate of your improvement two-fold as they can evaluate your training regimen and create a plan based on your fitness and goals and plug it into your busy life schedule. Look for coaches that are certified and experienced. I offer a personal coaching program to a limited number of runners. Learn more about my Personal Coaching Plan by emailing me here.
And finally, share your goals with your running friends as it may be that you’ll need to shift your workouts, run alone on race day and modify your routine together. Communicating your goals will avoid hurt feelings and sticky race situations and build a support system for achieving your goals. Who knows, it may even inspire them to train to race too!