Fitness: Race execution like pacing strategy, fuelling and mindset key to a good run
Several years ago, I was coaching two experienced runners who were heading to the New York Marathon with hopes of breaking their personal bests (PBs) and getting close to the magical three-hour mark.
A week or so before the race, we had them in the Coached Lab for pre-race testing. We do testing to measure fitness improvements, refine zones and calculate race strategy. Both guys were in a similar condition, although the younger of the two (in his mid-40s) was slightly fitter and I expected him to run one to two minutes faster than his friend.
Race day came and went and the results surprised me. The younger man clocked 3hr 18min, while his buddy ran much faster in 3:00 flat.
After a post-race debrief with each athlete, looking at the race splits and dissecting a few other important areas of the race, it became clear that this difference in time had little to do with fitness and everything to do with how each athlete ran his race - their race execution.
Race execution is a crucial skill that every athlete must develop. It is not enough to get fit, you have to develop the skill to express that fitness in a way that gives you the best result.
With only a few weeks left to The Straits Times Run on Sept 29, the benefits you are going to get in fitness are limited. Your attention should now be transitioning from getting fit to maximising that fitness (good or bad) on race day, so that you achieve your best possible result.
On race day, there are things you can control, things you can't and things you can influence.
You can influence fellow participants and volunteers but you cannot control them or the weather and several other things. You need to focus on the things within your control.
The four that are most important are pacing, fuelling, running form and mindset, so let us discuss each of these.
Your pacing is the single most important thing to get right on race day. It affects how quickly your muscles fatigue, along with how fast you dehydrate and burn fuel.
Most runners use the wrong pacing strategy in a race. They either want to "bank time" in the early stages of the race or like most runners, unintentionally start too fast and blow up.
If you want to run at your best and maximise fitness, you need to run conservatively and run at an even pace throughout the entire race.
When you race, your body loses sweat and energy at a higher rate than it can replace them, so fuelling properly is very important to having "gas in the tank" and maximising fitness.
Think of fuelling in two parts:
When you run, especially in Singapore's hot and humid climate, you lose sweat and with it, sodium (salt).
To hydrate properly, you need to be drinking water to replace the volume of fluid you are losing and salt. Salt helps your body retain water and is essential to remaining well-hydrated and keeping your heart rate down.
Your muscles and liver store carbohydrates as glycogen. These stores are limited and need to be replaced as you run.
For this, energy gels are the best strategy. Because gels are incredibly concentrated, you should practise using them in training to avoid unnecessary stomach problems on race day.
When fatigue sets in, it is common for your running technique to fall apart.
Be mindful of this and review your form constantly. Is your chin up? Are you driving your arms without rocking your shoulders? Are you taking deep, relaxed breaths? Are you maintaining a nice, tall posture?
By being conscious of these things, you'll delay the rate at which your form breaks down and you will slow down less.
Maintaining a positive frame of mind will not only help you run faster, but it will also make the entire race experience more pleasant.
In my experience, mindset is linked with pacing. If you start too fast and blow up, your level of suffering will increase as people begin to pass you, pushing you into a negative frame of mind.
To combat this, start conservatively and be the person passing everyone in the later stages. It gives you energy and fuels motivation right to the finish line.
As you can see, it is not enough to be fit. You must be fit and execute your race plan with great control to maximise fitness on race day and achieve your best result.
Ben Pulham, the official coach for the 2019 ST Run, is a former professional triathlete and the founder of Coached, a heart-rate training programme that helps you to optimise, track and enjoy your training.