Racing with Confidence
I would like to focus on a frequently neglected aspect of preparing for a race – confidence. Developing race confidence depends a lot on the distance and profile of the race you are training for, and maybe even relies somewhat on having enough racing experience.
For women in particular, you might find the competitive aspect of running races a little daunting, as it can get a little aggressive, especially at the start. As such, it is worth thinking about how to develop confidence at the start line. It not only makes you a better runner, but also makes the whole experience more enjoyable and less stressful. In case there is any doubt, this confidence does not apply only to people who want to compete for podium finishes, but also to first timers who want the satisfaction of conquering a particular race. Here, I want to focus purely on the training aspect of the preparation. What we want to do is distil all the training and identify the key ingredient that is what gives people the most confidence of success going into a race.
I shall start with a simple illustration of someone who wants to complete their first 10km race. If she has some recreational running background, she might decide that she could get away with maybe 6 weeks of preparation to complete a 10km race. Clearly if she manages to run a 10km distance in practise without too much difficulty, then that is all the confidence she needs. However, not everyone has the time to prepare like that and for people whose main aim is completion, their longest run is often on race day itself. With that proviso, I would like to propose doing two runs within a 12-14 hour period in training, with the total distance adding up to 10-12km. The easiest way to do it is this: do a ~6-7km run on a Friday evening, and a shorter 5km run on Saturday morning. The aim of this sort of workout is the carry over some fatigue in the legs from the night before so that you can simulate running on tired legs the next morning for a short run and build some endurance that will give you the confidence to run well in the latter stages of a 10km run. Once you get comfortable with the idea of running on tired legs you can try increasing the distance covered in the individual runs accordingly.
What if you have larger ambitions like setting a personal best at a particular race distance? Most experienced runners will tell you that they have a very short list of key workouts that they use to gauge whether they are ready for a good performance in a race. Unfortunately this varies quite a bit from person to person and so it does take a bit of racing experience and trial and error, but I will provide some examples here so that you may use these as a foundation for examining your own workouts and races to see what works for you.
I'll start with myself. My main event is the full marathon. Most people will tell you that their most important workout in preparation for a good marathon is their long run. The long run is a common aspect of almost all marathon training plans, and it certainly has its place; long runs stimulate adaptions both in the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems to develop fatigue resistance. However, having done several marathons, some good and some bad, I've found that executing solid long runs every week bore little correlation to my race performances. At least less than I would have liked.
As it turned out, my ability to execute race pace intervals in training bore the best correlation. The marathon race pace is something you should be able to hold for a prolonged period of time, so the length of the interval is considerably longer. A typical example is 5x5km at marathon pace. I discovered this only through trial and error and subsequent retrospective analysis of my training after races. Always take the time to analyse what worked and what did not, both in good races and bad, as they are your best resource for revising your training and bettering your performances. For me, doing these "cruise" intervals in progressing difficulty building up to the race worked best for me. Even if other components of the training were not necessarily going well, executing these "cruise" interval workouts well would always give me huge confidence going into a race. I soon began planning my workouts around these cruise intervals, to the extent of replacing my long runs with these cruise intervals as the race approached. By planning my workouts around my cruise intervals, I put myself in the best possible position to execute these workouts well, and doing them well gave me the confidence I needed to do well in my races. . Whether or not the race actually works out depends on a lot more things like weather, nutrition, race tactics etc, but the key here is finding what gives you the best mental framework for executing a good race.
What about a shorter race like a 10k race you want to do well in? Of the many common themes in different 10k training plans, the "5 x 1km" workout is easily the most recognizable and many variations based on this workout have sprouted over the years. The 1km is run at 10km race pace with some rest in between. Some people may indeed find that if they can execute a 5x1km workout in a near-personal best time, then they can expect a very good 10km race performance. Other people find that their ability to execute tempo runs with 20-30min run at close to 10km race pace, is a better predictor of their race performance, and so when they execute good tempo runs in the lead up to their race, they are confident of a good performance at the start line.
Bear in mind that what gives you confidence that you will put in a good race performance is not the be-all and end-all of training, and many aspects of the preparation go into a good race performance. Nevertheless, the aim here is to figure out what gives you that mental edge and self-assurance at the start line. I've given a few examples of these above. So look at your past performances and figure out what worked and what did not, and centre your preparation for your next race around what worked, and you may surprise yourself at your next race.