Racing to Train
I remember Arthur Lydiard saying that his athletes took every opportunity to race. He said that, if they were flying over Ethiopia and were able to land and take on the best of the world at the time, they would be all for it without hesitation. There was no fear of competition. His athletes were race-hardened, despite living in 1960's New Zealand, very much isolated from the rest of the world. Yes, they were race-hardened and I'll explain why.
Back in the Good Old Days
As a young runner during the late '60s and '70s, I raced in many club and provincial events. The winter season began with weekly cross-country running, either a club run over the undulating paddocks of the South Waikato or else a short and sharp race, never longer than about 5 km for us as juniors. There was always something of this nature every Saturday. Then, on Sunday, everyone did a long, slow run, usually over rocky and undulating forest roads.
It was a weekend consisting of a short and intense workout one day followed by a long, slow run the morning after.
When I think about it, the best of the best were always there. John Walker, Dick Quax, the Dixon Brothers, Allison Roe, Barbara Moore, Peter Snell, Mike Ryan, John Robinson, Sue Haden, John Davies, Barry Magee, Glenys Quick, Heather Carmichael, Heather Thompson and more. If we went to a club event anywhere in the country, the best would be there for the run and then the scones, cake and tea afterwards. The list of great runners of New Zealand who turned up to local and provincial runs and races was endless. Oh, and my sister, Lorraine.
Racing was part of the training
Building endurance and doing all kinds of drills to improve form, power and speed are essential components for athletic performance but nothing beats perfecting the art of racing itself.
Perhaps the biggest mistake a coach makes these days is to have an athlete target a single event such as an Iron Man (or Woman?) race a year away and not have anything other than a handful of races between now and then. Month-after-month of daily grind only to blow on the day. It might be more of a problem today because a lot of coaching is done remotely online with limited knowledge of local clubs and events.
Blowing up on the day
It is not uncommon for an athlete to come seeking my help for a typical problem.
"Gary, I trained like I have never trained before for this marathon and even ran the distance (42 km) several times in training. I felt great on the day but by the 5 km mark, I was starting to cramp and ended up walking most of the last 10. I was devastated. Why did this happen to me?"
I ran 13 marathons during my 20s, all in less than 2 hr 50 min and with a PB of 2 hr 34 min and I never ran the distance in training. I do not have a half marathon time because I never ran one. The longest I ever raced back then, other than the marathon, After a decade of training, by the way, was 10 km on the road or 12 km cross-country. My longest training runs were less than 25 km. I always saved my legs for the BIG race.
When it came to racing the marathon I was running the distance at a pace much slower than I was accustomed to, so it was relatively easy. And those long Sunday morning runs the day after those short races and club runs meant I had the stamina to go the distance, hence the fast times. I was race-hardened and pretty familiar with the pressures and everything else that come with races, including having practised many times what to eat and drink, going to the toilet and all the other detail. My first marathon time was 2 hrs 37 min.
The problem with doing long, slow grinding training is exactly that - grinding oneself into the dirt such that there is nothing left by race day. Perhaps the biggest problem is the fact that nothing in training can fully replicate Race Day, let alone the race itself other than an actual race.
Why did the runner quoted start cramping so early into the marathon despite all of her preparation? Well, there is one very obvious reason.
Going out faster than you are used to
When the gun goes everyone takes off because they feel fresh and fast and, besides, everyone around them is taking off quicker than usual. Hey, it is so exciting to be in a big race and the crowd is cheering and clapping. The urge to go faster is irresistible. Especially if you, in your flash lycra gears, have just been passed by Granny and a rather large guy wearing rugby shorts and socks!
Unless the body is familiar and conditioned to do this, rather than the usual slow buildup to a steady pace when training, trouble is coming around the corner! Unfamiliar lactate builds in the muscles and this peaks about 20-30 minutes after the gun has fired. Cramp sets in and, later, muscle glycogen is exhausted and any chance of a PB is well and truly trashed.
Racing for training is a great strategy so long as...
I have always included racing in my training, more than ever nowadays, but with some important provisos.
Racing is preceded by a period of 6-12 weeks - not more - of steadily building stamina and power as well as refining key skills. In cyclocross, for example, these include running with the bike, mounting and dismounting, cornering and braking.
When racing during training it must be short and sharp and generally no longer than about 1.5 hours. If longer, then backing off on the intensity.
Regardless of the distance or the time, it must not be "wasting", or injury-inducing. It can and should be intense and exhilarating but not wasting and exhausting.
If it is not enjoyable then what are you doing! Find a better event or go for a run on your own.
If recovery post-race is longer than 1-2 days before "normal" training can be resumed then that kind of racing is best avoided.
Every 2-6 weeks doing no racing but going back to basics with some longer and more leisurely workouts for 1-2 weeks at the most then back into it!
I could not tell you how many times I have screwed up a race
I might have practised to perfection in training the transition from bike to canoe in a multisport race only to balls it up completely during the race itself, such as discovering that the race number vest does not easily fit over the life vest! Yes, I have turned up to races without the right shoes or no helmet! The only way to get these things dead right is to practice them during races that do not count for much.
I used to get really nervous before races, even the local ones. I could not sleep a few nights before. I'd lie in bed with my heart thumping away and my feet sweating, such that I was wasted by race day. Nothing I ate during the hours before the gun firing seemed to digest properly and the nervous pees sure were very nervous ones. I still get nervous but not nearly as much as even a few years ago. The prerace meals are not an issue now. I have done so many races that, even prior to the Big One, the nerves are now more than manageable.
Plan A, Plan B, Plan C Plan...
Frequent local racing allows you to plan and try out all kinds of race strategies. What will you do if you fall off during the first lap of the race (I fell off three times in the first lap of the first cyclocross race this season!)? What is your plan if you miss your drink stop or start to cramp? What do you do if your opponents do an unexpected surge? How do you strategise racing in hot, cold, windy, wet, hilly, flat conditions?
When things do not go according to plan (they never go to plan, by the way!) how do you respond? If you have not worked through every possible scenario in your head and then put many of them into practice during races, what will happen during the Big Race? You will go to pieces.
So you won - who cares?
Other than the BIG ONE I never put any importance on where I place. The buildup races are not the end goal but the means to the end, which is to perform to your expectations on the day of the big race that you have been targeting. Nothing else really matters. Doing well and even winning a build-up event is nice, it is motivating but that is about all.
Are you a Strava Athlete?
I've stopped using Strava and similar programmes. It is too tempting to try to beat your PB of a previous session or to regain that KOM glory some stranger has just stolen off you. The risk with programmes like Strava is you may lose sight of what you are setting out to achieve within a session and of the End Goal. Every time you are doing a workout you need to be asking what you are setting out to achieve with this session of training? Is it to build your stamina, your power, your skills, is it to run at an even pace? What I found with Strava is there was always the temptation to go harder here and there when it is either unnecessary or even counterproductive to be doing so.
I do monitor my workouts with technology but it is several months since I last compared my training performances with those of other athletes. The moment you start trying to better others in your training, including build-up races, you risk heading into burnout.
The only comparison that counts is what happens during the Big Race!
Hey, Gary, I'm too old to race!
I'm 67 in a few months time and I'm still working on getting faster. "Slow" is a swear word, unless it is in the training schedule.
As we get older it seems that training and racing get longer and slower. The 10 km races become half marathons, then marathons then ultra-marathons. By about then the knees become plastic and the hips titanium, the heart begins to beat weakly and inconsistently and people start suggesting that it is time for you to stop competing and join the club's committee. It is hardly any surprise that the pace slows with age!
I've done a lot of the opposite. My last marathon was when I was 29 years of age. I never raced the Coast-to-Coast despite being in the top three multisport athletes in NZ during the early '80s. As I've gotten older I've focused more and more on the shorter, high-octane events. Speed is King!
If recovery from a race is anticipated to take more than a few days or if I consider the wear on joints like my knees might be excessive, I probably won't do it.
I'm so thankful that I never allowed myself to be sucked into events that are drawn-out painful grinds. If I did get sucked in I'm certain that I would not be so mobile and as healthy as I am today.
"Gary, will you team up with me for a 1,000 kilometer race this summer?"
Yes, I have been asked that.
Why do we adulate and celebrate the old people who, for the fight against arthritis, or some other health cause, ruin their bodies by running 40 marathons in 40 days or riding 20 times non-stop around Lake Taupo? Hey, I could probably do any of those but at what cost to my health and mobility? It's a modern incarnation of medieval asceticism and not something I want to encourage or even witness.
Love yourself: love your body!
And, in case you are wondering: I do love my body. I do not hate it. It is not to be abused. It is not a foul and empty vessel to be despised and punished as it carries my poor soul through this miserable and pathetic existence that we call life, the shorter we can make it the better. We are still being subconsciously conditioned to believe that a life of suffering is something to be admired. I'm well and truly over that.