One of the worst feelings in running is finishing a race wondering why you raced so poorly when you had such an amazing workout a week or two before. Far too many people run their best races in training and then have nothing left when race day finally arrives.
While training should challenge you, it is not meant to test you in all of the same ways that racing does.
If you race or push too hard too often in training eventually you will plateau and won’t be able to match or best your best practice performances on race day. Make racing special by saving your best efforts for race day.
The only sport I ever played as a kid was basketball so when I started running the cross country I wasn’t aerobically fit. I could sprint with short breaks between bursts, but I wasn’t very good at pacing myself or sustaining a hard effort for extended periods of time. As a prepubescent teenager from a blue-collar town in rural Oregon, all I knew how to do was push myself to the limit day-in and day-out.
After a few months, I was finally able to run an entire 3K cross country race without stopping.
After a year of daily hard efforts, I finally earned a spot on my high school junior varsity cross country team.
I continued to train hard (race) every day in practice throughout high school, but ended most seasons sick, fatigued, and unable to accomplish the goals I set out for myself at the beginning of the season. The most frustrating part is that the goals weren’t unrealistic given my practice performances. All I really wanted to do was qualify for the Oregon State Cross Country or Track Championships, but when it came time to perform at the end of the season I was too worn down to place top two in our competitive conference.
After high school, I tried to walk-on to a successful collegiate cross country team. Nine guys on the team were on athletic scholarships. I was not one of them. In order to travel with the team, I had to be top 7. I did everything in my power to prove to my coach that I was worthy of traveling and earning a scholarship so I continued my high school training tactics and turned every run and workout into a race.
Eventually, I earned a spot on the traveling squad of the cross country team and after a year on the team, I earned a scholarship. However, most of the teammates I beat throughout the week usually beat me in races on the weekends. In frustration, I began observing my teammates and realized that they did the necessary work in practice to be ready to race without digging themselves into a hole throughout the week.
I decided to change my ways and tried to contribute more to the team by focusing less on hammering every day’s run and more on being ready on race day. For the first time since I began running, I was actually healthy at the end of a season and able to compete and help my team win two national cross country titles.
Since that time, I have learned that training is less about racing and more about finding the optimum balance of stress and rest so that when it does come time to compete I am ready.
In fact, the best runners I have trained with take their easy days even easier than most so that they are able to push the harder days.
My experience as an underperforming athlete falling short of reaching my potential for years has helped me identify the tendency of overtraining in athletes that I coach and help them to fix it.
When the average pace of each run is the same pace day after day it means that the athlete is usually running too hard on the easy days and not hard enough on the hard days. By backing off on easy days and gearing up for hard days the body and mind are able to better prepare for the demands of racing when the time comes. Conversely, when every day is a race it is rare that one can muster up any additional energy or will power to take one’s racing to the next level.
Save racing for race day and you will find greater satisfaction with your race results.
Jacob Puzey is a multiple time national champion and world record holder who coaches runners from all over the world, of all ages and abilities – from newbies to national champions – to reach their running potential on all surfaces and distances through www.peakrunperformance.com.