Do you know your critical zone?

What I look like when I’m running mile 4 of Al’s Run the right way.

We all have a point in every race where we make a decision, whether conscious or not, whether to push through when the going gets tough. Do you know what that point is for you?

I’ve seen this called your critical zone and it matters because, if you know where this is, you can have a strategy to deal with it.

For many of us, that critical zone happens somewhere around 2/3 to 3/4 of the way through the race. It’s where you are far enough to feel significant fatigue but not close enough to the finish yet to have that feeling that you’re almost done and you can push through. You start questioning yourself. Did I go out too fast? Can I sustain this to the finish line? Do I need to slow down?

For some people in certain races, it may be another point. Often, this will be related to the course, such as a big hill at the halfway point that can take you out of your game. The story is the same, though. Doubt creeps in, you might lose focus, and either you battle through or you suddenly find yourself slowing down.

Whatever the case, if you know where this critical zone is, you can plan for it. You can come up with a race plan that accounts for this critical zone and includes a strategy to get through it.

As an example, I’ll take the race I’m running this weekend, Al’s Run. On this 8K course, mile 4 is a long, relatively straight stretch where you can see downtown Milwaukee the whole way but it can feel like you’re not really getting closer. It can be a mind numbing mile, just as the fatigue of the race is setting in. If you’re not on top of your game at this point, the wheels can fall off. On the other hand, if you are on top of your game, you can pass a lot of people whose wheels are falling off.

I’ve been on both sides of the equation in this mile. For the last several years, though, I’ve generally been on the right side of the equation. Why? Because I came up with a plan to handle this mile. I remind myself that this is the critical zone. It’s going to be the mile that makes or breaks my race. I then tell myself to focus on the runner in front of me. Just focus on closing the gap and passing, then work on the next runner. I also tell myself to treat this mile as if it’s the last mile. Think of this as a 4 mile race. Yes, sometimes I actually run this mile faster than the final almost mile of the race because I put so much into it. That may not sound ideal but I know that, when I get to the 4 mile mark, I’ll be able to give it all I have left because I know the finish is nearby. I won’t lose much in the last mile but I will gain a lot in mile 4.

Before your next race, try this. If you have experience with the race or at least the course, think about where you struggle most. If you don’t have that experience, at least think about the distance and where you often find yourself struggling when running races at this distance. This is your critical zone. Now, come up with a strategy for handling it. I find that directly acknowledging that this is the challenging point works best but others find disassociating works best. Think about what you may have done in the past that worked or experiment to see what works well for you.

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