So you trained harder and faster and smarter this winter than ever before and you put yourself through the wringer because you got tired of the same old zone 2 training with the same old results.
First of all, I congratulate you for your effort. Secondly however, I am going to warn you that just because you trained your VO2 and your threshold paces all winter, it doesn’t mean that you can race there for any significant amount of time in an endurance event.
With racing season just over the horizon, this post is dedicated to pacing strategy for your racing and training. Even in preparation for your races, this can be a relevant aspect of your training.
You’ve heard it time and time again after races; “I felt real good for the first couple of miles and was on record pace until I blew up…I don’t know what happened!” Or, “I had the fastest bike split of the day but fell apart on the run.”
I’ve been a victim of it myself…pushing the pace in the first couple of miles in a marathon or blasting out of T2 to “put time and miles in the bank”. More often than not however, this strategy will come back to haunt you come mile 20. Why do we do this to ourselves? It’s pretty simple, really. First of all, we’re tapered, we feel strong and invincible. The crowd is yelling, there is music playing, everyone around you is giving high fives to the crowd. Your brain and body are in sensory overload and you stop being able to have a rational thought when it comes to how fast you’re going. So you went through that first mile 15 seconds faster than you projected? Sweet! I’m on my way to a PR because I feel GREAT!
What you’re doing to yourself however, is burning through valuable energy resources and going faster than you’ve trained yourself to go for the long haul. There isn’t a magic switch on race day that turns on that allows you to go significantly faster than you’ve trained just because you’re tapered and your fuel tank is topped off.
Don’t get me wrong…you are a stronger, faster and more fit athlete. What you have to be able to do is realize that a couple of seconds faster per 100 in the water or several watts over the course of 56 miles on the bike or a few seconds per mile faster on the run will make a HUGE difference once you cross the finish line.
With any luck, you’ve practiced your pacing during training. Even something as short as a 3-minute power test, 1K run or 200M swim can show you what going out too hard and too fast can do. You feel great for the first 30-60 seconds and then reality hits…the burning, the screaming legs, the pain, the gasping for air and inevitably, a dramatic loss of speed or power. These are great opportunities to find out what going out too hard will do to you at the end of a race…what’s great about screwing up a field test like this in training is that you can learn from your mistakes and apply it to your races.
What’s the best way to execute a well-paced race? Let’s take a marathon as an example. With Boston being about a month away, I’ll use that as a specific example. First of all, you probably have a goal time in mind that you’d like to meet or beat when you cross the finish line. Rule #1 should be to go at, or better yet, a little slower than your projected average pace for the first half – yes HALF! – of the race. This is a great time to settle into a rhythm for the rest of the day. You may feel like you’re going slow because everyone around you is screaming by with excitement…but remain calm and patient and save your energy (even take on some fuel) and concentration for later in the race to make your push to the finish. If you see you’re going faster than your goal pace, SLOW DOWN! Especially for a course like Boston where the first couple of miles are downhill, you can easily get sucked into a pace that is way too fast for the full 26.2 miles. Trust me, putting time in the bank here will only result in HUGE withdrawals once you reach the backside of Heartbreak Hill. Even near the half way point when running past Wellesley College can ruin your day if you let the throngs of screaming college women get you running faster than your desired pace for any extended period of time.
If you’ve been able to stay in control for the first 13.1 miles, the half way point is a time you can start to make a small surge in pace…nothing drastic mind you, but maybe just a couple of seconds per mile faster than you ran for the first half. You’ll start to pull back those seconds you “lost” in the first half faster than you know it. What happens next is a boost of confidence. Not only are you getting faster, but you’re also feeling stronger as the miles tick by. There is no better feeling than running a race and knowing you’re picking up the pace and feeling better and better as you get closer to the finish line. Just think of those people you’re passing you blew ahead of you in the first five miles! They’re having just the opposite experience: negative thoughts, trying to hold on for dear life, doing the math in their heads to figure out just how much they can slow down before their dreams of a PR come crashing down. As you make the turn at the fire station towards the Newton hills, you’re gaining confidence while everyone else is second guessing their execution of the first 17 miles of the day.
Once you get to within striking distance of the finish (maybe a couple of miles), you can really start to empty the tank and make up even larger amounts of time with each mile. Before you know it, you’ve crossed the finish line ahead of your projected pace and feel like you’ve executed the perfect race.
Training for and racing endurance events, like many things in life, take patience. “Slow” and steady usually does get you there faster than most people of equal or slightly greater ability than you. It’s a question of planning and execution that will determine whether or not you have a good day or a great day…and yes even a bad day.
*Have a race plan in mind *during* your training so you can practice it.
*Stick to the plan come race day. Know what you’re capable of from your training and stay within your limits, especially at the beginning of your race.
*Be patient at the start of a race. If you’re going faster than planned, slow down.
*Gradually start to pick up the pace around the half-way point. Find your new rhythm and build confidence heading into the home stretch.
*Above all, enjoy yourself and learn from your experience.
Until next time, happy training (and pacing)!
Steve Johnson – Dark Horse Multisport Coaching