The following is a reposting of an article I recently wrote for "Deer Tracks", the monthly newsletter of The Woodlands Running Club in The Woodlands, TX. Given the marathon season is in full swing with triathlon soon to follow, I thought I'd share a response to a question posed in February's "Ask Adrienne" column:
Q: I was talking to my friend who when he was racing was the king of the early adjustment. What I mean is for a particular event his goal pace might be in the 6:40 range (depending on the distance and most of the time he was very close to his goal pace) but on occasion he might hit that first mile in 7:10. His first reaction would be that the mile marker was off (pre-Garmin) so he would continue through mile 2 and if that mile was in the 7:00 range he would immediately say to himself...."today this is the pace" he would adjust and finish the event at the adjusted goal pace.
The early adjustment kept him from ever having a disaster race.....he was a 2:50 marathoner who would make that early adjustment and finish an event on an off day in 3:12. He was amazingly consistent.
My question isn't about his consistency but rather the fact that he accepted all of his times as what the course and conditions gave him that day. He was always happy with his performance whether a 2:50:00 or 3:30:00 marathon or running a 17:30 or 19:30 5K. He never questioned his training, his diet, his strategy...he had fun with an event and was on to the next.
My question: How do you learn to accept and be happy with a personal performance on that "off day" ?
A: *After several attempts to shorten I decided to post this question in its entirety because it helps provide a good background to formulate an answer but more importantly provides an example for runners to follow should they choose to do so. Much of this article is a combination of author opinion and experience with opinions of other field professionals.
First and foremost, I will be honest on this one, for many of us accepting something we have in our minds originally as “sub-par” is difficult to do. So don’t sweat it if you cross the finish line upset at your time at your next race. It happens. I tell the athletes I work with (and myself) that they’re not going to thread the needle in each race he or she runs. The personality of the athlete is also a factor-it is easier for some to let things slide than others. But…can we still run well for the day and walk away with something positive-absolutely.
Let’s first take a step back as I encourage the reader to think deep down about their own personal meaning of running. Why did they start in the first place? To nail a 22:00 5k consistently? Probably not. Many runners started for fun, fitness, camaraderie, and doing something so many others do not do. A lot of the time, after that first “breakthrough” performance you see where your potential lies. It’s a great place to be, but it is not without potential pitfalls. Expectations may start to form, and oftentimes runners find themselves setting fairly rigid goals for themselves. According to my colleague Cindra Kamphoff, PhD, these rigid goals are one of the top issues that runners face mentally. Obviously, the athlete mentioned previously has worked through this obstacle. Adjusting early is a part of tackling this phenomenon and leading to more rewarding racing experiences.
While goals are what often keeps us going, it helps to begin practicing the skill of self adjustment in racing situations. The key here is early adjustment. This can be achieved through many avenues.
Before the race, myself and Dr. Kamphoff both recommend setting a range of goals: Your ‘A goal, something solid but challenging, and one you are confident you can reach. This goes both for pacing and finish times. For more see athletesaudio.com/blog.
Athletes can start learning to adjust early by putting the clock in its proper place. Just as you trust your car to get you to work, sometimes you run into traffic or the weather conditions make it difficult to make it in your usual :30 minute commute. Sometimes you get there in :37 minutes, sometimes you get there in :28 minutes. This has no real bearing on your driving skills, there are just things for the day that you can’t control. This same principle can be applied to running. You trust your vehicle, why not your training?
Part of being mentally tough is being able to tell that either weather, fatigue, or other factors are going to hamper the pace or goal time you want to run. The lesson here is to “know your warning signals”. For me, thos races where even after talking myself through the first two I don’t feel rhythmic, I then dial in appropriately and remind myself to stay tough and give what I have today (or shut off the Garmin and feel the pace). The previous example would say “this is the pace today” and go with it.
Another thing to realize is the big picture, especially if racing longer stuff, such as marathons and half marathons. The quality of the race experience comes from having that line you tell yourself and the subsequent energy levels you save by dialing the pace to accommodate the uncontrollable of the day. All good runners will have off days. We many not run what we set out for, but by choosing to be reasonable with your body for that day, the “disaster” is averted because you’re being realistic. “Challenging and realistic” may be a good idiom for anyone racing on any given day.
In summary, if we were to put some tools in our mental toolbox to help us adjust early in the race when needed, here’s my short list of what to bring to the race:
- Knowledge of the course and climate as well as knowledge of the effects (ask a good coach or refer to a trusted volume) of various aspects on performance is quite helpful. It’s a lot easier to not judge your performance if you know that there’s a 10% drop in performance if the temps are at a certain range.
- A list (can be mental) of ‘red flags’ that may be signs to adjust. Note: these should be noticeable with no need to do a “full scan” of systems during the race as that can be distracting. Have a “decision point” to keep or adjust pace, such as mile 2.
- A go-to self-talk line such as “this is the pace today”.
- An educational perspective. Use each race as a learning experience.
- Regular self-reminders of why races and running are fun. Coaches can convey this by emphasizing quality over quantity and having fun while working hard. The clock has its place, but enjoyment has been shown to produce the most consistency over time.
- Find somebody like the aforementioned athlete. Watch what they do in training and racing and try to adopt some of their characteristics. Remember mental toughness can be learned.
- Use imagery for pacing to adjust; such as picturing tachtometer to see where your RPM’s are at so you don’t “burn out too early”.
- Work on defining success as something more fluid than X:XX time. Coaches can emphasize this as well. Success in its purest form is all about balance.
Hope this helps pin down a concept that is simple yet difficult to learn sometimes. Challenge yourself to be a more flexible racer, and you’ll be surprised at how much more enjoyable and rewarding your running will be.
Stay the course.
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