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Analyzing Performance In Unideal Conditions

Put your race in perspective when weather, wind, or terrain throws off the end result.

Put your race in perspective when weather, wind, or terrain throws off the end result. 

As the spring racing season quickly approaches, the fear of another hotter-than-normal stretch of weather is on the minds of many runners. Last year, many of the largest and most prestigious races in the U.S. were crippled by unseasonably warm temperatures.

Who can forget the near-record temperatures at the Boston Marathon in 2012 that forced nearly 2,000 runners to seek medical attention? Or the Green Bay Marathon, where the race organizers saw so many runners suffering heat-related issues, they closed the race down before it finished. Worse yet, a week later, the Madison Marathon was cancelled just 36 hours before the start of the race due to a record-setting forecast.

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Perhaps this year will be different, but there’s still a good chance you’ll face less-than-ideal conditions on race day. And, temperatures don’t have to be record-setting to impact your performance. Research shows that for runners who aren’t heat adapted, racing in temperatures at 70 degrees Fahrenheit can reduce performance by as much as five percent. Over the course of a marathon, that small percentage can add up 3 to 5 minutes. Furthermore, heat isn’t the only culprit. Racing against a headwind can also cost you valuable time. Research shows that a “substantial” headwind (i.e. one approximately equal to the pace you are running at) will set you back 12 seconds per mile.

Given the numerous weather and course conditions that can lead to a slower-than-planned-for finishing time, how do you measure your performance when conditions are not optimal? Simply looking at your finishing time isn’t a good indication of how well (or how bad) you ran, so we need some other metrics to take into consideration. Let’s examine a few ways you can analyze your performance when racing in hot, windy, hilly or otherwise difficult conditions.

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Using Familiar or Nearby Competitors

Thanks to the Internet and easily searchable results databases, it’s now pretty easy to compare your results to those who finished close to you.

Simply make a list of the 15 to 20 runners who finished just ahead and just behind you. The larger the sample size, the more likely you are to have “accurate” data. Then, search a results database such as athlinks for previous performances of those who finished around you. Find their most recent best performance at the same distance and compare how far off they were from their best.

Keep a list of how much slower each runner ran and you’ll soon start to see an average. This average is a pretty decent indication of how much faster you might have been able to run on a better day. Of course, it’s not perfect, but it’s a good approximation.

Use Previous Results

Another easy way to analyze your time is to measure it against previous years’ results. You can do a simple comparison between what you (or a familiar competitor) ran on the same course in better conditions. You can also compare what place your time garnered and what it would have earned you the previous year.

Simply find where you would have placed with the same time in better conditions and calculate the number of positions you lost. Now, subtract that same number of positions from your current place and note the time. This will be a roughly comparable finishing time on an ideal day. This isn’t a fool-proof method, but it’s another simple way to calculate potential performance.

You can narrow your place comparison to age groups and gender as well. The same instructions apply, but comparing performances with other athletes who may have more in common will help make the final figure more accurate.

Calculators and Formulas

The final comparison tool is to use temperature, hill or wind calculators to estimate what you might have run in more ideal conditions. They’re simple to use, but like the previous three methods, they aren’t 100 percent accurate. All calculators use a formula based on researching the “average” runner. If you’re a heat adapted runner, a temperature calculator might not provide an accurate estimate for you. Likewise, the calculators assume conditions are the same throughout the entire race. Even running a point- to-point course like Boston, you’re not going to face the same temperatures, or even the wind hitting you from the same direction, the entire way.

Putting It All Together

On their own, each one of these methods isn’t very accurate. However, when used in conjunction, you can calculate an average comparable performance that will provide a basis for what type of time and performance you would have earned in perfect conditions. Sure, it’s a bit of work to enter names into a results database, compare previous years’ results, and find the right calculators for your “average,” but it can help you feel better about your performance when factors outside of your control affected it.