Racing: a skill that requires practice

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

This time of the year, we likely have our goal races in sight. We may already even be registered for them. However, do you have some other races on your schedule? This is a good time of the year to pick some secondary races to fill out your schedule and make sure you’re race sharp when your goal races come around.

Many runners seem to not worry about this part of goal race preparation. They figure they will train themselves into the best shape possible and take advantage of that fitness. So why do these other races matter?

Because racing is a skill and, like all skills, you need to practice it in order to be good at it.

Whether you’re running a mile or a marathon, whether you’re going for the win or in the middle of the pack, there are aspects of the race that need to be practiced. Here are a few ways you can benefit from practice races (I like to call them tune up races).

Pre-race routine

How early do you need to get up before a race to be awake and ready to race? How much do you need to eat or drink and how long before the start do you need to eat? Do you need a warmup? If so, what is the routine that works best for you?

These are all questions that we can try to answer in training and I would recommend doing so. However, the best solution can’t be found in any way other than race day practice. Due to nerves, some people have stomachs that are more sensitive on race day. You need to be more awake, alert, and ready to go even for a marathon than you do for a weekly long run or an easy run.

Race strategy

If you’re in the middle of the pack, competitive strategies may not matter to you. If you’re going for a win, top 10 finish, or age group placement, competitive strategies matter much more. However, even if you’re in the middle of the pack and focusing on a time goal, there are race day strategies that matter.

For the competitive runner: You need to have some race day strategies and practice them. What happens if your competition plans to sit and kick on you? Do you grind out a pace you hope will run the kick out of them? Do you surge and try to break them? Do you begin your kick early and try to get the jump on them? If you do some tune up races, you can practice these different strategies and be prepared on the course to decide which gives you the best chance. Then you can be ready to execute with confidence.

Likewise, you can develop, practice, and test your ability with other strategies. Maybe you’re a good kicker and you want to be the person sitting and kicking. You can work on maintaining contact while your competitor tries to grind you out or work on how to cover surges

Just as important, these tune up races give you the opportunity to assess your weaknesses and work on them so they can’t be exploited by your competitors. Do you tend to fade in the second mile of a 5K or third quarter of a mile? Then run some races where your aim is to push hard through those spots. Tell yourself it doesn’t matter how you finish, what matters is that you push through the area where you usually let up.

For the middle of the pack runner: You might think it’s simple. Just lock into a pace and carry it through. However, how do you handle the crowds, especially if you’re doing a big race? If you’re doing a long race, how do you handle fueling? If you’re going to use the aid stations, how are you going to go into them? As with the competitive runners, do you need to practice pushing through a part of the race where you often lose focus and let your pace lag? This could be the key to a PR.

Just as with the competitive runner, you can plan these things but there are logistical issues that you likely won’t anticipate until you’ve encountered them in a race. Even more, some of these issues are skills that need to be practiced. You can practice drinking out of a paper cup while on the run in training but race day is different. You’re not in crowds, you don’t have a complete stranger handing the cup to you, you’re not potentially running across discarded and potentially wet and slippery cups while trying to drink from your own cup.

Pushing yourself

I know others look at races differently but, when I’m racing, I’m looking to test my limits. I want to push myself to the very edge of my ability.

Almost every year, when I run my first race of the year, this just doesn’t happen. I don’t push myself that way in training so I haven’t pushed myself that hard in months. I’m simply rusty. I need to remember what it’s like to take myself to the limit.

If you’re not pushing yourself to the limit in workouts (and I hope you’re not) you’re going to need one or two race efforts to get the feel for doing that. If you don’t, you’re going to be out of practice and not going to be ready to push yourself like that on race day.

It doesn’t matter if you’re going for the win or running in the middle of the pack. It doesn’t matter if you’re racing the competitors around you or shooting for a time. It doesn’t matter if you’re running a large or small race. It doesn’t matter if you’re running a mile or a marathon. It doesn’t even matter if the tune up races are the same distance as your goal race. Getting some tune up races will help you when your goal race comes around. There are simply some skills that can’t be practiced any way other than by running in a race. So, now that you likely have picked out your goal races, go out and find a few tune up races to prepare for them.

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