Building a purposeful race schedule in preparation for your annual A race
As March is upon us and spring is starting to show itself, most of you start thinking of putting an A race on the calendar. It's possible some of you have already paid for at least one or two races. But, with the year looking more like a pre-pandemic year in terms of racing, travel, and life in general, it's time to plan a bit differently than the last few years, too.
One big key to having a great A race is not only having a good base fitness and excellent intervals leading to the event, but also having the right dose of competitive racing built into your schedule to ensure race day is a confident pinnacle event. We can train well and get the body ready for racing, but even "practice" races don't allow us to be completely sharp and ready to race our A race to its maximum potential. To have a great A event, you need to be comfortable and experienced in real racing as well. This means signing up for an event and competing. Regardless of your desired outcome for the race-- be it crossing the finish line, meeting a certain time goal, or finishing on the podium--you must be well rehearsed.
I often speak about treating races like performances in the arts (such as choir concerts or musicals, etc.) because the anxiety, or the excitement, you can feel before those events is also what you can experience while racing. Those feelings signify how much you care and can help push you to perform better. However, if your anxiety arises from having unrealistic goals or not being prepared, it may actually hinder your performance.
So what do nerves and negative and positive energy have to do with racing? I'd argue everything. In the arts, people practice over and over; they learn to roll with a missed line or note and just keep going. Finally, they get to the performance day, and mostly they want to show everyone and, most importantly themselves, what they are capable of. That desire can help them tap deeper into their efforts and enhance their performance.
But how do you get there in racing? Well, you can use smaller races to build up to the larger race goal. Racing is a skill, and you can only get better with practice. That includes practicing the before-race part (what you do the week before, the day before, and the morning of) and then the race itself. Also, other important considerations of racing you can practice are your mindset, establishing smaller goals within the race, pacing, and the confidence you build from having good race outcomes. Then the last part is recognizing lessons learned, key takeaways, and how you use this as a motivation to move forward.
So let's explore how to pick smaller races to build up to the bigger race goal. First, once you select your A race, it's essential to list the things that are potentially new or obstacles to success, such as hills, heat, crowd size, or new terrain. There are also other factors to consider, such as proximity to your home or travel logistics. Will your family be with you? Do you have to get to the race venue way early, and is there a place to warm up and stay warm? Do you need to gear drop, or will the car be close by? How much nutrition will you need pre-race? What about porta-potties, etc.?
So many of these things seem normal and obvious, but when you start thinking it's all routine and don't think it through and practice, you can undermine your success. I see this every year leading up to the Chicago marathon for locals (who live in the suburbs). They often think, "Oh, Chicago is easy; I get to sleep in my own bed, then get up a bit earlier in the morning, and drive downtown and race." However, the routine for that race is drastically different from a regular morning long run training day. So if you don't pick 3-5 races where you do the same thing (and ideally a few where you go downtown for a bigger race like the Shamrock Shuffle, Soldier Field 10-miler, or the Hard Rock Half), you won't necessarily have the parking, breakfast, potty stop, what to bring from the car, etc. all ironed out. If you end up rushed due to parking or don't eat right, the race performance is going to be challenged before you even start. There is also the potential for forgetting stuff in your car or not knowing where your keys and cell phone go, not having a warm-up jacket etc. Now, I can help you figure out many ways to deal with each of these issues, but the key is that you figure out what works for you. You need to get it all dialed in before the big race so you can perform on race day.
I also mentioned considering the week before and the day before a race. Practicing those routines will also make a big difference. It can be as simple as planning an easier week at work and some extra sleep, or learning not to try to do too much the night before at home. Or you might also find out that some modest distractions at work or with family and social events in the week leading up to the race can help your performance. You also might realize you should not attend a friend's party the night before, even if you leave early.
Some things that we may learn in the race itself are pacing in a crowd or running on an empty course. (Ask yourself which one works best for you and your needs?). Deciding on the fuel and the fuel timing also takes race day practice, and practicing with the run belt and race clothes can make a huge difference. Many people never practice racing with the run belt and fueling on the go. With group runs, you stop and fill up and chat, but in a race, the clock never stops, so how do you do this on race day efficiently? Does your race top chafe, or maybe the race pictures don't look like you'd like them to in a particular race outfit? What on-course nutrition is not good for you? Can you carry your own? If you have a course where it's going to be hot, have you practiced running hot races? If the start is cold, have you practiced wearing too little or too much in a shorter race and then learned how to adjust for a longer race? Did you end up feeling like you had too much in the tank, so the next time, you could work on pushing the middle or the start a bit more? Or did you push too hard early on and need to back off more in the beginning for your best race results?
All those questions are great to think about and reflect upon after the race. It's important to take the lessons from the race's successes and failures and consider making minor changes to the training plan so that the next time, you can do better and continue to exploit the positives. After you build more and more successful races and slowly extend your distance, you should be better prepared for your A race. If this is done correctly, you should enter the A race feeling excited and likely nervous but more a positive energy nervousness. You will hopefully be of the mindset that you can do this, and now you just can't wait to put it all together and prove to yourself and others what you believed you were capable of when you set your goal. This should be a positive building experience.
As you go through this process, a few other things can happen. I've seen people realize that they need to reset their goals for the race, and go either faster or slower. Many times people just change their expectations or timelines. For instance, I've seen athletes realize they do better in cooler temps (or warmer temps). I've seen athletes realize that a big race is too complicated in terms of logistics to qualify for Boston. Other times, I've found that athletes find it's easier to hit a goal time or qualify for Boston in bigger fields where there are more people to run with. The bottom line is each person--and each goal is different--and you need to figure out what works for you. So, if you have big A race goals, I encourage you to plan a build-up of races through the season where you can get better at all the things that go into a great A race performance. Set yourself up for success and build a bunch of positives.
I wish each and every one of you a great year of fitness, running, and accomplishing your goals.
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