Friday, September 28, 2012

Creating A Confident Athlete

It's about this time in many runner's training that you're gearing up for the Fall racing season. Whether you are training for Marine Corps Marathon, New York City Marathon, or a local 5k down the road from your house, you are bound to reach a point where you start asking the question - "Did I do enough?". And in 99% of the cases, my recommendation for an answer is always YES.  Why?  Because contemplating that answer will not only drive you crazy, but also make you do stoopid things.  What kinds of stoopid things?  Well, I'll get to some of those in a second, but suffice to say, it isn't something written in your plan - you know, the one you follow to achieve your goal.  

 It always amazes me how much time people invest in going through the motions of doing their workouts, hitting their mileage goals, etc. but then something happens and all that goes out the window for chance to "test" yourself.  While testing oneself can be beneficial, and should be part of a regular training program, it shouldn't come as a result of changing your schedule.  While you need to be able to make it to the starting line confident, once you start questioning your training, that confidence goes out the window and you go down a slippery slope of modifying your training to achieve short term goals of seeing instant gratification of your fitness.  So I'm here to tell you to step back from the ledge, take a breath, and listen to what I have to say.  Because hopefully this post will prevent you from ruining your hard earned fitness and potential for achieving race day success, for short term gains.

Let me share with you my top three reasons for why you should stop letting that question dictate your actions:

1) Success is most defined by your ability to execute on race day

As you hopefully know by now, race day success is not so much a factor of your fitness on race day, but really more about how you execute your race plan.  Your fitness will dictate what paces you might run on race day, but you can be the most fit person and have a terrible race if you fail to execute to your ability.  So with that said, no amount of last minute cramming of workouts or changing workouts to "test yourself" will have a significant impact on your race.  You are always better off taking the conservative route and either running your workout as planned, or if something comes up, taking the day off.  Why?  Because both results won't risk injury like a spontaneous workout change might.  Your training plan was designed with your race in mind, so why modify that?  Your fitness on race day is what it is, and as long as you stick to your plan of executing to that fitness, race day will be a success.

2) You can improve your confidence by nailing race paced workouts
One of the most common reasons why people start questioning if they did enough is simply because they reach a point in their training when they lack confidence.  This could be due to chronic fatigue that has set in (those of you in the thick of marathon training know what I am talking about) or it simply could be because you don't have workouts embedded within your training plan that let you "prove" to yourself of your fitness.  These could be something as simple as race paced workouts that progressively get longer as you get closer toward race day.  For a marathon, it might be a gradual build up toward 10+ miles of marathon paced running within one of your long runs.  These workouts serve 2 purposes:

1) They allow your body to get used to what race pace feels like, so it become more economical at that pace
2) Gives you a mental boost by showing you how "easy" it is to maintain that pace. 

While shorter than the actual race will be, those race paced workouts always leave you more confident.  If you are running paces that are in line with your fitness, these workouts are huge confidence builders.  They also let you know very quickly if your goal paces are off.  Specifically, if your goal paces are too fast.  No race paced workout should leave you wiped.  If they do, its time to adjust to slower paces.  And if it goes perfectly and you end the workout feeling great, well you just had a successful workout and built confidence.

3) Simply trust in your training
Hopefully, before you entered your training cycle, you found a training plan that fit your needs.  Whether through an online or a locally coached program, you made a decision many months ago to base your training on a specific system.  And I can tell you from experience, these plans are designed specifically to get you to the starting line.  The workouts are programmed to build your fitness and peak for your goal race.  So why then would you want to throw a wrench into the middle of that plan by adding in workouts that probably will not achieve the same goal of the workout you are replacing?  Common sense advice here is to trust in your training and leave all the testing new things for after the race when you don't have anything large looming on the horizon.  I like to make a list a all these kinds of things so that I can try them at another time.  This list grows (especially during taper) and gives me the motivation to keep me on track as a nice reward for after my key race.  So do me a favor, and just trust your training, because that is what will serve you best on race day, not some random workout that has the potential to cost you your race.

So going back to stoopid things people do - I'm pretty sure I've seen it all.  Here are just a few examples and why they should be avoided:

- Easy runs turned race paced - If your plan said to run easy, it probably means you had a hard workout the day before or you are not at the appropriate time to add race paced miles into your training.  Most plans should contain about 70% of your runs to be done at an easy pace, so get to know this pace, because you do a lot of it.  So many people just start a run and "feel good" and before you know it, boom, race paced miles.  Unfortunately, these will prevent you from the adaptations you were supposed to have as a result of the easy day and may impact your ability to nail your next hard workout.

- Race paced runs turned faster than race paced - Often times during race paced workouts, the pace feels so easy that one ends up running the workout significantly faster than race pace.  Any time you run a race paced workout, you SHOULD be able to run faster.  But that's not the point.  You are trying to teach your body what race pace feels like to become more economical.  Running faster simply changes the purpose of the workout.

- Time trials shorter than 5k - This is primarily for people training for longer distances (ie half/full marathons), but running an all out time trial of shorter than a 5k in the midst of long distance training serves no purpose other than your head.  No training you do prepares you to run a hard shorter time trial, so whatever results simply is what it is, but isn't much of an indication of fitness for a long distance runner.  It also forces you to run much faster than your body typically pushes, increasing the chance of tweaking muscles.  I find that a 5k ensures the pace is restrained enough to minimize risk and also translates more to being indicative of fitness for a distance runner.

- Adding in bonus workouts - If following the plan is good, then doing more than the plan is better, right?  Well, your training plan was designed the way it was for a reason.  And any reasonable plan should have enough flexibility to accommodate your abilities and running schedule.  So when you start adding in bonus workouts, you not only introduce risk of injury, but change the intent of a workout depending on what you add.  While simply adding in a few easy miles might not compromise a schedule, adding hills, tempo, or long runs does.  So if you are considering doing this, be sure to talk to your coach or a trusted resource first.
At the end of the day, your mind is an important muscle and you need to build it too.  But they key is doing it in a more risk averse way than many of these types of methods.  A confident athlete is what I ultimately want to see on the starting line of any race.  But I also want to make sure the person gets to that starting line first.  Because without making it to the actual race, you will never achieve the goals you set out to achieve when you started this journey.

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