We are speeding toward the next phase of the grand annual cycle that governs the lives of runners and triathletes: spring racing. While our current focus needs to be on getting in the training that we need to be successful, it's not too early to ask, "How will I race this spring?" That is, beyond your training, what can you do to assure before and during the race that you race well?
Obvious answers include:
- Have a race plan - but adapt it to the weather and other conditions.
- Dress for the weather but don't overdress.
- Bring all the gear you need. (Are you listening, triathletes? Don't forget your bike, spare tubes or tire, CO2, bike pump, etc.)
- Show up early, not late, so you can be centered when the gun goes off.
- Use the porta-potty before the race.
- Don't be stupid by going off the line too fast and burning yourself out.
- Hydrate, pay attention to your electrolytes and take in appropriate nutrition.
Those are basics for successful racing. Heed them and you likely will race well.
But let's move to the next level of thinking. How can you have your best race, fastest time, highest rank in the age group?
I have 15 "best race secrets" for you, gleaned from my half century of racing experience and that of many others. These tips are not really "secrets," but they are not all that obvious to many athletes, even those with considerable experience, as evidenced by the actions I see athletes take or not take at races. Combining the following "secrets" with the already obvious steps listed above offer you the possibility of having a stellar, "Wow, I never knew I could do that!" race, maybe even the race of your dreams (assuming your training has prepared you for that kind of race, of course).
Envision success. The power of the mind is something we need to tap going into in our races. The way to engage your mind in the most positive way is to envision the race and your success in it. Some professionals go so far as to envision their progress on every leg of the course, from start to finish, and to see and feel a great finish, with spectators cheering them across the finish line to a great result.
Envisioning success works both by helping us see how we can have a great race and also because of a number of psychological effects:
- Envisioning success changes expectations, our adaptation level, the level of outcomes which we expect and will judge as gains.
- Envisioning success helps commit us to achieving that success. According to the commitment heuristic, we tend to believe that a behavior is correct and are driven to achieve it to the degree that it is consistent with our prior commitment, our envisioned race.
- Envisioning success taps into our desire to avoid cognitive dissonance, which is the discomfort from trying to hold on to two competing ideas in our head. If we envision ourselves as a successful competitor, then in the race we are driven to behave in a way that matches our prior vision.
- Envisioning success reframes how we think about ourselves - we are a successful athlete! - and emboldens us to act and challenge our previously assumed limits despite our very human aversion to losses.
- Envisioning success kicks in our unconscious mind, which will continue to process on how to achieve a successful race long after we envision it.
- Envisioning success shows us the rewards we will gain when we are successful - be they satisfaction, fun, applause, recognition, greater fitness, a medal, an awards ceremony - whatever you might view as meaningful. Envisioned rewards are motivators and reinforcers that can drive us to a better performance.
Warm up. Time and again I see most of the entrants at races standing around talking before the race, then wandering to the starting area. I'll concede that warming up at some races is hard to do. (Up until a decade ago I could jump out of the start pen and get a warm-up run in at both the Boston and Chicago Marathons, but security today makes that not possible.) Yet, most of the time, nothing is stopping you from getting a good warm-up in before you power off of the starting line.
Especially in shorter races, my best times have come when I warmed-up appropriately. My coach Jim Spivey drilled into us that to have a good 5K or 10K race, in the half hour beforehand we should run easy for 15 minutes or so and then run six 100-meter strides (pickups run a little faster than race pace, with a 5 second or so pause in between). Often it's possible - and fun! - to run these strides off the front of the start line, with the "big guns" who are doing the same thing. For a triathlete, a warm-up swim (sometimes discouraged by race officials: Then it must be done surreptitiously or away from the start area) serves the same purpose.
Push up. Running around other runners takes valuable energy and wastes time. For triathletes, swimming around other swimmers likewise needlessly expends energy and time. Get close to the starting line or the front of the starting pen or to the front of the wave. Understandably, you don't want to impede other runners or swimmers, but starting with people who are taking the race seriously and who may be just a bit faster than you are will help you get a better time.
My best 5K times were scored in races where I seeded myself nearer the front - even in row 2 in a Washington, D.C., race - a tactic promoted by my friend John Duffy, who was an excellent runner for Marquette University. Likewise, I learned in my many years of running the Chicago Marathon that being at the front of the pen makes a real difference, because you get a lead out on the runners with you in the pen who qualified around your pace and those in the pen ahead of you run away from you because they are faster, leaving you room to run. My best age-group leading swim time in a sprint triathlon came in a race that had a time trial start and I had no one in front to impede me.
Run, swim or ride the tangents. So long as you don't cut corners or go off course, you can take all the turns on the inside and run the straightest line possible aiming between corners and along curves. Running the outside of a curve rather than the inside can add as much as 40 feet of distance. And then not running a straight line to the next curve will add more distance. On a marathon course with many corners and curves this can add up to as much as half a mile!
The same guidance applies to swimming - swim the buoy line as much as possible without being slowed by the melee of swimmers. As for biking, corners are key: Look where you want to go, brake before the corner if necessary, not in the turn, go into the corner wide, cut to the apex - the straightest line through the corner - and finish wide.
I gave my friend Margaret the "run the tangents" advice and then she ran a Boston qualifying marathon that got her into the race with less than 30 seconds to spare: She attributed her qualification to focusing on running the tangents. In 1983 Rod Dixon scored a spectacular victory in the New York City Marathon by running the tangents to catch the leader, Geoff Smith, who was running the road, not the tangents, and nip him at the finish line. It makes a difference!
Make hills your friend. Many racers view hills as a difficult impediment to successful racing. While they do add difficulty, hills present every competitor the same challenge. The secret is to make the hill work for you relative to others. To make hills your friend, change your mental approach.
Because at even energy expenditure you slow down going uphill, the net effect of the uphill on race time is disproportionate to the distance. And then because of the work expended to get up the hill, the tendency is to use the downhill for recovery. Consider changing that approach: Add a little more power than "even effort" when you go uphill - but not so much that you burn yourself out. Use gravity going downhill to regain speed and time.
For running uphill, this means keeping your head and chest up, leaning a bit forward but keeping your center of gravity over your feet, pushing your feet off and up the hill with shortened strides, punctuating your arm swing, adding more power as you get further up the hill and maintaining pace over the top. Going downhill, lean forward from the hips and keep your feet under you (don't overstride), shorten your arm swing and use your arms for balance, and look in front of you rather than down at your feet.
For biking uphill, studies show you will benefit timewise by increasing your power output a little on the uphill, the increase metered by the steepness, less for shallower hills and more for steeper hills. But be careful not to increase your power beyond the the range you’re able to hold for the duration of the uphill. And, as with running, don't back off just when you hit the top - power over the top and take your speed downhill.
Drink and eat on the move. How long does it take you to go through a water stop? In longer races, do you stop to eat a gel or something else? Maybe it's my triathlete mentality, but I want to spend as little time as possible away from "relentless forward motion." Learn to drink and eat on the move!
I suggest working on grabbing a cup of Gatorade or water on the run, squeezing the cup a little on the sides and downing it while not breaking stride. If you get too little water in your mouth that way and instead jostle it out of the cup, you can increase the odds you will get enough to drink by grabbing two cups at a stop, one with each hand or sequentially at the front and the back of the stop. As for eating gel, here are two approaches. One is to pull the packet out when the water stop comes into view and have the gel in your mouth when you drink. The other is a technique I have often used in marathons, which is to "sip" the gel, meaning to squeeze little bits into your mouth as you run along, not worrying about coordinating eating and drinking.
Get a ride. Wind resistance is a factor in running and biking. When legal to do so, triathletes should seek to draft off of other riders in races, preferably at the back of a fast pack, where the energy savings can be as much as a third. As for runners, drafting is always legal - and yet so often we ignore this technique, which can make a meaningful difference, especially when running into a head wind.
One study* showed that a fast runner who runs two or three feet behind another runner in still air will expend as much as 7% less energy than the runner in the lead. The benefit grows with a strong headwind, and even slower runners will save energy by drafting in this situation and thus can run a faster race. Note that you don't need to be running directly into the wind to benefit. If you watch the Tour de France, you will often see riders form an echelon, in which the riders are arrayed like one side of a V, staggered across the road from front to back parallel to the wind.
The key for runners is to get another runner or a pack to block the wind. Being a smaller runner, typically I have no problem finding a larger competitor or better yet a pack running my pace or a little faster to run behind. For drafting in running there are really no "social norms," unlike in bike racing where the etiquette is to trade off leading when pack riding. Nonetheless, when I draft off of another runner I try not to get so close that I am in his or her "space" and become an annoyance.
Pick 'em off. A fun way to race faster is to find targets and "go get 'em"! Spy a runner ahead of you and speed up just a little bit to see if you can close on them. If you can, keep focusing on the target and close in and make the pass. Afterward, you can drop back to your previous pace, having put one more runner behind you. Do this a series of times and you can significantly improve your race position and also up your average pace.
But be aware that if you view each target acquisition and pass as running a hard interval, you can burn yourself out before the end of the race. The key is to overtake those running your pace or just a bit faster than your pace and to do it gradually.
King or queen of the age group! A related mentality to the "pick 'em off" technique is to look for competitors who may be in your age group: These are the racers you want to put behind you! Passing them is very motivating.
Just be sure not to provoke the fellow age grouper when making the pass: Saying "gotcha!" may wake them up to fact that they will be one down in the age group and result in you being repassed.
Net tally. Another approach akin to "pick 'em off," especially appealing to analytical folks like me, is to keep a net tally in your head of how many people you pass versus how many pass you. I find that wanting to keep the count a strong positive motivates me to race more assertively and not get lulled into a slower pace.
This usually works better in smaller and shorter races, obviously, because counting skills are taxed when racing. However, I have also been able to apply it in half Ironman and Ironman bike segments, perhaps because as a slower swimmer I typically have been able to pass many, many riders and build up a strong positive count.
Surge. If you watch elites race, whether on the run or on the bike, you will see them pick up the pace to see how their competitors respond. If the fellow runner, rider or pack does not respond or falters, that's the signal to keep going and open a hard-to-close gap.
If you intentionally throw in one or more surges that are just within your capability given the rest of the race to be run, you can overstress and drop other runners or riders who are not prepared to pick up the pace. Best times to surge are when others appear to be struggling or fading, on uphills and toward the end of the race when competitors are tiring. But beware, surging when you, too, are on the edge can eat into your energy reserves, cause lactate to build in your muscles and ultimately slow you down so you lose the ground you have gained and more.
Spring a surprise. Stealing a march on a competitor who is not aware of your presence can be the key to racing success. Hanging off a runner's shoulder, just outside of his or her field of vision, and then jumping ahead at the right time can put the runner on his or her heels.
In a hot, tough half Ironman race in Wisconsin, I had pushed through the swim and the bike, and, despite cramping on the run, believed I had bested most of my age group competitors. The finish line was in sight...and then an age group member who had been stalking me blew by. I tried to respond, but could not find another gear to catch up. There went a podium spot! Likewise, in a 5K at the start of mile three I passed my buddy Jerry to be the leading runner in our age group. He did not seem to respond to my surge, so I kept going and did not look back. But he got me in the last 100 meters: He had been hanging back in my blind spot for I-don't-know-how-long, just waiting to jump by me when I was lulled into thinking I had the victory. There was too little time left for me to respond and see if I could find another gear to catch him.
Psych 'em out. So much of racing success is mental. You are what you believe - and the same is true for your competitors. If you can get others to believe you are the better racer, that can go a long way to boost your odds of success.
When I was racking my bike before a triathlon with swim and bike sprint distances but a 10K run, which favored my strength as a runner, I introduced myself to a fellow age grouper. Tall and muscled, he talked about just winning the Illinois time trial cycling championship for our age group. I was suitably impressed and thought, "Well, there goes any chance of winning the age group." Simply, he had psyched me out. So when I caught him on the middle of the run, I was a little surprised. But I had not forgotten that he was the best time trialer in the state: In my head, he was filed in the "better than me" category. When he suddenly sprang a surprise and surged ahead of me, my response was feeble and, indeed, he won the age group.
Luckily, that was not the end of the story. A year later we met again before the same race. This time I purposefully talked about my age group success the prior summer at Ironman Canada and my age group leading swim in the same lake earlier in the year. Reverse psych out! This time when I caught him on the race, I paused for a moment, said hello, and then took off. Despite obviously trying, he could not catch me in the final mile. He might have been the better biker, but with a stronger swim and an even stronger run, I was the faster triathlete, and I think he knew it even before my surge.
Be in the moment. Disassociating - thinking about something else - is a way to deal with pain and difficulty. However, it's proven that in most cases associating - being in the moment - results in better race times. Focus on your pace, form, breathing. Pay attention to the topography and the line you are taking and the best way to run, ride or swim the course ahead. Be aware of the opportunities and obstacles that those around you present. Continue to review your progress and status - splits, heart rate, aches and potential cramping, etc. - and adjust your race plan, as needed.
By "being in the moment" you may be able to achieve a "flow state," which psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi described as being the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment. When an athlete is "in the zone," the result is full absorption in the race.
I vividly remember times when I achieved a flow state and had a great race as a result. For instance, I will not forget the sprint triathlon in Indianapolis when the rhythm of the race seemed perfect, from an intense swim and first transition to a hard bike leg which I nailed to a run that began with me matching the eventual female winner stride for stride for the first several miles, resulting in a four-mile PR and an age group victory. I remember the stark engagement of "me against the elements" in epic rides into high wind at Aurora High Cliff Half Ironman in Wisconsin and in a massive thunder storm at the Rockman Half Ironman in Illinois (both age group wins). I remember my 5K PR on the fastest course in Illinois, a straight flat-road out-and-back, being fixated on the turn-around point going out and finish banner coming back, little else entering my field of focus beyond my effort, striding and breathing. Flow is as good as it gets in racing!
Be confident. Confidence is a key racing variable. In the end, how you race is in your hands, no one else's. Before a race it is so easy to look at super-fit athletes - or at least those who appear to be better equipped and prepared to race than you are - and feel inferior. A lack of confidence, feeling imperfect and inadequate to the challenge and the competition, can lead to a sub-par performance. When I showed up at registration for my first longer triathlon, a regional race with a draw, I was blown away by the hard bodies and expensive equipment. Did I belong? Surely I was not of this high caliber!
When your attitude is that you will do the best that your body and conditions allow, and enjoy and even relish the experience, you are more likely to make the most of the opportunity and have the best race possible.
I learned as I repeated big races multiple times, case in point Ironman Canada 10 years in a row, that what really mattered was not the terrain or the equipment or the other racers and their training, conditioning or mindset. By far the biggest variable beyond my own training and health was my attitude, how I approached and executed the race. When I embraced the reality that my real competition was myself and no one else, that self-limitation was the biggest barrier to greater success, my confidence soared, my enjoyment likewise mushroomed and my vastly improved race results reflected the difference.
Hills. https://www.stack.com/a/cross-country-hills *https://cyclingtips.com/2016/09/how-to-ride-the-perfect-time-trial-constant-power-vs-variable-power/
Surging. https://www.runnersworld.com/races/when-to-surge-in-a-race https://www.runningplanet.com/surging-for-race-success.html