I recently accepted a position as the Varsity Volleyball Coach at the high school in the district where I teach. During the interview, my athletic director asked me whether I could coach a winning team. The high school in unfortunately not known for stellar athletics. My answer? And enthusiastic, “OF COURSE!” I mean, my girls definitely have the talent to be a winning team. Do I think we can win a championship? I’d like to think so! Do I know how to coach my girls to actually win a championship? Um, not exactly.
I might not know how to win a state title in volleyball, but I sure can learn. I’ve been spending most of my summer reading up on various volleyball strategies and trying to figure out which defense and offensive scheme will work best to produce a winning volleyball team.
So, what does any of this have to do with racing? More than you think. While I don’t know what it feels like to win a championship, I do know what it feels like to win a race. Yes, winning a race has a lot to do with speed, there’s no denying that. But, there are also a lot of strategies involved as well in order to run your fastest race – whether you are wanting to win a race or just to set a new PR. After recently PRing in 2 different distances (half marathon and 5K), I can tell you that I had strategies in place that helped me run those fast races (neither of which I won, BTW). The secret to racing success is not just about good training (don’t get me wrong, I never would have PRed had I not trained to PR) – it’s about being able to run a smart, fast race.
1. Know the course. Most race organizers put a link to the course map on their website. I highly suggest that you study the map so that you know exactly where you are going and where the turns are. This of course is much more difficult with longer races, but it can really help ease your mind on race day. Even better, RUN the course if you have a chance to prior to the race. When I first broke 20 minutes in the 5K, Matt and I went out the day before I ran the entire course. My last 2 races, I ran a part of the course as my warm up. Knowing what the course was like – the turns, the hills, and especially the last mile – really helped keep me mentally in the race since I knew exactly where I was going. And speaking of warming up…
2. Get in a good warm-up prior to the race. I break a lot of rules as someone who has a degree in Exercise Science and is a “hardcore” runner. I never stretch, like ever, and I also never warm-up before a run. I usually use the first mile to shake out my legs and warm-up. However, during a race, I definitely DO NOT want to use that first mile as a warm-up, especially in shorter races. I usually try to get a good 10 minutes of easy running (I mean, as slow as I can go) before heading to the start line. And like I said above, it’s a great chance to get to know the course a little bit.
3. Start with people who will run your pace. In half marathons and marathons (and in some shorter races), they will have pace groups set (usually 8-minute miles, 9-minute miles, etc.) for you. I HIGHLY recommended starting with a pace group. If you know what pace you can and want to run, find that group and try to stick with them. Shorter races don’t normally have pace groups, so you really just have to judge for yourself. I know I’m usually with the faster group (at the start line), but I try to position myself behind some of the faster guys and in front of some people I am positive I am faster than. I absolutely do not want to waste my time trying to get around people at the beginning!
4. Don’t sprint at the beginning. I absolutely cannot stress this enough! It took me a really long time to learn this, but you cannot take off in a full sprint as soon as the gun goes off or you cross the start line. This is a sure fire way to totally die at the end of your race (believe me, I have plenty of experience doing this). And it’s really difficult not to because EVERYONE is going out as fast as they possibly can. But really, start at a comfortably fast pace – something that you can hold for a little while. A little harder than an easy run, but not quite up to full speed, yet.
5. Try to run each mile faster than the last one. By starting out slow, you are ensuring that you will continue to get faster as the race goes on (called a negative split). This is much harder at longer distances. My goal is always for my first mile to be my slowest and my last mile to be my fastest. Practice it on your runs so you know exactly what it feels like to negative split your race!
6. Play rabbit. What I mean by this is to try to pick someone out in front of you and try to catch them (aka catch me if you can). I always try to keep some people in front of me so I have people to chase! I want to pass more people than pass me. And it’s a great feeling of accomplishment when I catch – and pass! – that person! And then I pick out the next person to catch and pass. It’s a fun little way to keep me focused and keep me ramping up my pace to the end.
7. Avoid wearing a watch. This is my personal preference, so I understand if you absolutely cannot go without a watch. But, on shorter races, I avoid it at all costs. My problem is that I am constantly checking my splits and if I am not fast enough, I beat myself up, get into my head, and end up running a terrible race. When I don’t wear a watch, I listen more to my body and run my race based on feel. If I have a bad race, I don’t have to think about it my entire run – only after I cross the finish line (ha!).
These strategies are always the ones I use and so far I have had a lot of success with them. Knowing exactly how I’m going to attack each race helps me run the best race I possible can. And I have the PRs and plaques to prove it! ;)