Found on RunnersWorld.com and written by Jenny Hadfield
Consider your training and the day’s conditions, but always run by feel.
I’m running my fourth half marathon this weekend, and I’m not sure how I should go about it. I had a decent training season, but I got in considerably fewer quality workouts (like tempo and intervals) than I normally do. I also got sick halfway through my cycle and ran many long runs on a treadmill due to winter weather. How do you plan a race day strategy when your training hasn’t been up to par? Thanks. —Mindy
You’re smart to be thinking about this, Mindy. In order to perform the best you can on a given day, you need to look honestly at your preparation and make a plan.
Please note that this is not the same as setting a time goal. Your goal in a race should always be to run strong. Your finishing time is merely an outcome. And an appropriate race-day strategy can ensure you run the strongest you can given your current fitness and circumstances.
Here are three steps to help you develop a race-day strategy.
Assess Your Training. In order to plan for your race, you first must evaluate your race readiness. One way to do this is by racing a shorter event, like a 10K, in the weeks leading up to the race. If that’s not an option, look back and see which of these describes your training best.
Optimal: You got in all your workouts as planned. You were healthy, ate well, slept well, and ran and raced strong. Your race readiness is at its highest.
Sub-Optimal: You got in most (not all) of your workouts. You missed some long runs. You may have gotten a cold, but you could train through it. You ate okay, slept well much of the time, and are feeling somewhat strong going into the race. You have the base to race, but it may feel more challenging than normal.
Not Even Close to Optimal: You got in some of your workouts. Maybe you got the flu and missed two weeks of training, or you had another setback that caused a long break. It’s time to adjust your goal—to run the race easy and for fun. If your training was poor because of injury, skip the race and focus on getting better.
Identify Three Race Day Plans. Even after your training assessment, you may need to change your race-day strategy in the days or hours before the race. Plan for these three scenarios, adapted from my book, Marathoning for Mortals.
1. The “touched by the race gods” strategy, in which everything goes perfectly: You sleep well the night before the race, your breakfast settles well, and you are able to do all the things you need to do before you leave the hotel room (ahem). It’s overcast, about 48 degrees at the start, with no wind. You wore the right clothes and you tied your shoes just right the first time. None of us gets very many of these days, but it’s fun to think about them.
2. The “most likely to happen” strategy, in which you show up with most of what you need and you manage to get in a few hours of restless sleep. You barely manage to keep breakfast down. Your bowels decide to move three minutes after you leave the room. The weather is iffy. You’ve tied your shoes five times, and they still don’t feel right. For most of us, this is the way most race days feel. They aren’t what you want them to be, but you can deal with what they are.
3. The “doomsday scenario” strategy, in which the airline loses your luggage. You didn’t sleep a wink. You can’t even think about eating. Your bowels decide to move three minutes after the gun goes off. The weather is miserable. The race starts an hour and a half late. The guy next to you stomps on your foot as he yells, “God bless America,” after the playing of the national anthem.
You’ll see each of these scenarios if you run enough races, but the second is most common. If you had a sub-optimal season but have a “touched by the race gods” day, things can go very well. If, however, you had an optimal season but end up with a race doomsday, you need to adjust your expectations and go with what the day brings. This is especially important during the change of seasons, when extreme temperatures can squash your race day plans.
Pace Yourself. The single greatest variable that affects your race performance is one you have the most control over: your pacing strategy. If you don’t pace yourself wisely, you will suffer in the later stages of the race.
Predicting what pace will be appropriate is like predicting the winning Mega Lottery ticket numbers. It’s not likely to work because there are so many variables that can affect your pace. For example, if you plan to race at a 10-minute pace based on a 10K race you ran three weeks ago, that can backfire if the weather is bad or you’re not feeling well. Or, if you get to the starting line with optimal training, perfect conditions, and a tailwind, running a pre-planned pace may hold you back.
Let go of the numbers you see on your watch, tune into your body, and race by effort. Learn more about how to do that in this column.
To have a successful race, it’s important to have a strategy going into it, but it’s also important to go with the flow and modify your strategy if need be in order to finish strong. By running by effort instead of pace, great racing moments can take place on not-ideal days after not-ideal training