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Teaching Yourself How To Race

Oftentimes we forget that running, at its core, is about you versus yourself.

Oftentimes we forget that running, at its core, is about you versus yourself.

It’s easy to get so caught up in the numbers on your GPS watch, the readings from a heart-rate monitor, and physiological concepts like VO2max and lactate threshold. Oftentimes, however, we forget that running, at its core, is about you versus yourself. When the starter’s gun goes off at a race, all that matters is your ability to execute your race plan and continue pushing when your body and mind are screaming at you to stop.

Many runners don’t realize that the ability to push during a race is actually a skill. Like all skills, some athletes are born with an inherent ability to push themselves, while others need to work on it more in training.

Over the following pages we’ll explore the skill of pushing yourself during a race and identify two workouts that will help you hone this ability. Next time you take to the starting line, you’ll be in a better position to push yourself further than ever before.

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Developing Your Racing Skills

Unconsciously, the body’s number one priority is survival. That means it fights and develops natural mechanisms to prevent situations and events that threaten our physical well-being. For example, when you put your hand on a hot stove, you’ll instinctively pull your hand back before it can be burned.

In many ways, running a race goes against all the survival instincts we’ve developed as humans. In the final few miles of a race, your legs burn (signaling to your brain that they don’t have enough oxygen) and your stomach turns as blood is diverted to the working muscles. Your body is screaming at you to stop but in your mind you want to keep going so you can achieve a new personal best. It’s the ultimate battle of Body vs. Mind and one of the major appeals of distance running – pushing the body beyond its limits and testing one’s self by doing so.

Preparing for this battle isn’t merely about increasing your tolerance for pain, however. Rather, it’s about training your body for the specific challenges it will face during the race.

Skill 1: Increasing Your Level Of Effort

As a race wears on, the effort required to maintain your goal pace will get increasingly more difficult, meaning if your goal pace for a half marathon is 7:00 per mile, it’s going to be pretty easy to run that pace for the first three miles, but not-so-easy over the last three.

While many runners understand this concept, it’s not something we consciously train to overcome. Most traditional interval workouts, say 6 x 800 meters at 5K race pace, are run at a consistent clip. The recovery between those intervals allows the athlete to recover to a state that is very unlike the corresponding point in a race. To best illustrate this, reference the chart above. As you progress through the workout, your overall levels of effort and fatigue increase slightly, but you never get to a point where it becomes significantly harder to complete each interval at the same pace. During a race, however, you will always reach a point where you’ll need to significantly increase your effort level in order to maintain goal pace. As you can see then, it’s absolutely critical that in some workouts you teach yourself the skill of increasing your effort and pushing beyond that juncture of discomfort and fatigue.

Skill 2: Realizing You Won’t Die

This sounds grim, but it’s not. Consider one of my favorite quotes from Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’s not a runner, but his ability to push himself in training and competition is legendary.

“Experiencing this pain in my muscles and aching and going on is my challenge. This area of pain divides a champion from someone who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain no matter what happens. I have no fear of fainting. I do squats until I fall over and pass out. So what? It’s not going to kill me. I wake up five minutes later and I’m OK. A lot of other athletes are afraid of this. So they don’t pass out. They don’t go on.”

How can you teach yourself this skill?

Experienced runners know the feeling that comes toward the middle of a tough track session or tempo run. You begin to dread the last third of the workout, knowing that you’re going to be very uncomfortable. Unless you’re having a bad day, however, you usually get through the session.

But, what if your coach told you to run the second to last repeat as fast as you could, or he instructed you to pick it up in the middle of a tempo run when you’re already struggling to maintain pace?

Most runners respond, “I can’t. I am already running as hard as I can.” They’re fearful of running any faster because they’re worried they won’t be able to finish the workout.

How will you respond to that same question during a race? What are you going to do when you hit the 1.75-mile mark of a 5K and you don’t think that you can go any faster? Most will slow down, of course.

Teaching yourself in training that you can go faster is an essential skill to hone. On the next page we’ll outline two workouts that will help you break through the mental and physical barriers of wanting to slow down or stop when things get hard in a race.

Workouts That Teach You How To Race

Hammer Intervals

I first learned of hammer intervals from one of my former coaches, Scott Simmons. A “hammer” interval session is structured much like a traditional interval workout, except that on every second or third interval, or on the second-to-last interval, you break from your goal pace and try to run that repeat as hard as you can – hammering it.  You take the same amount of rest before and after the hammer interval, then continue with the workout.

An example hammer session might be: 6 x 800 meters at goal 5K pace with 2 minutes rest, “hammering” the fifth interval.

The interval you “hammer” dramatically increases your level of fatigue, just at the point in the workout where you’re feeling the most tired. Because the rest interval stays the same, you do not completely recover as you would in a typical interval session, and you start the next repeat (back at goal pace) still tired from preceding hammer interval. This type of workout teaches your body how to push when it counts the most.

Note in the accompanying chart that a hammer interval session more closely resembles the effort levels you’ll experience during a race. You’re training your body to dramatically increase the effort level as the workout goes on and will be more prepared to do so during the race.

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The “Michigan” Workout

The Michigan workout is one I learned from Coach Ron Warhurst at the University of Michigan. I’ve modified it a bit to fit the terrain and facilities typically available to runners who aren’t in college.

Here is what the workout looks like for different experience levels. Be warned, this is NOT an easy workouts. Even top college and professional athletes perceive it as one of the hardest workouts they do.

Beginner: 2-mile warmup, 2 miles at marathon pace, 1 mile at 5K pace, 1 mile at marathon pace, 800 meters as fast as you can, 2-mile cooldown. Note: This is a continuous session: NO REST INTERVALS

Intermediate: 2-mile warmup, 2 miles at marathon pace, 1 mile at 5K pace, 2 miles at marathon pace, 800m at 5K pace, 2 miles at marathon pace. Note: This is a continuous session: NO REST INTERVALS

Advanced: 2-mile warmup, 2 miles at marathon pace, 1 mile at 5K pace, 2 miles at marathon pace, 800m at 5K pace, 2 miles at marathon pace, 400 meters fast as you can, 2-mile cooldown. Note: This is a continuous session: NO REST INTERVALS

In the various versions of the Michigan workout, you’re alternating between running at marathon pace and 5K pace. The first 2 miles at marathon pace and 1 mile at 5K pace shouldn’t be terribly difficult hard. However, as the workout progresses, you’re going to have to convince yourself you can pick up the pace again.

Not only is this workout a great lactate clearance session, it also trains your mind to let go of its preconceptions about what it can do. You’ll inevitably hit that second or third pick up and think, “I can’t go any faster” — just like you would during a race. Now is the time to teach yourself how to overcome this doubt.