Are your fastest races your workouts?

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I read an interesting article from Steve Magness the other day, “How the need to prove yourself in practice can ruin your race day.” In the beginning, he listed some crazy fast workouts he did before a race but then faltered on race day. He came to two conclusions which I thought were great: 

  1. Getting fit is easy
  2. If you are sufficiently motivated, it is easy to train yourself into the ground. 

Over the rest of the article, he discussed how it was a coach’s job to make sure you expressed the fitness you had gained in training in the form of quality race results. He also discussed how it was his own security that probably pushed him into training so hard, but not seeing the results that he wanted. In the end, he quickly touches on how as coaches, we can’t just say it’s mental (on the part of the athlete) and really work through the physical to dial in why the races aren’t producing results that the fitness is indicating. I have thought about this a fair amount and I think back to an inside joke we had at Hanon’s where we would experience an incredible training segment and then end with a disappointing result. We’d call it, “Leaving our race at Stoney.” Stoney Creek Metropark is where we did the vast majority of our workouts, particularly for marathon segments. 

It was a quick post, probably by design, but I finished wishing there was a little more. What I wanted to see was more of a tie-in from the two fantastic bullet points to the title of the article which is something I experienced myself and what I see many of my athletes struggle with. So, how does leaving your races in training relate to the idea of getting fit and how easy it can be to train yourself into the ground? Let’s take a crack at it. 

The link between getting fit is easy, and ruining my race day… what is the link? That’s what I sat down and really thought about. I had a conversation recently about this idea. We were talking about how some people are surprised when they sign up for coaching or buy a plan and they are expecting these top-secret workouts and there really aren’t any. Personally, I have a saying that if I can just get a healthy person to run 40 miles a week for a few months, I can make them a pretty darn successful marathoner. So, it really is fairly “easy.” I guess that maybe easy isn’t the right word because you have to do work and that is not necessarily easy. The right word is probably simple. The process of getting fit is relatively simple. If you can be consistent and do a little bit of work across the spectrum of paces, you can get pretty fit after a few months. Where this relates to ruining your race day is when we try to take it simple and make it complicated by focusing too much on data and metrics or doing fancy workouts that don’t have any bearing on what you are trying to accomplish. You wouldn’t believe how many times I have simply taken what an athlete usually does and moved it a day over for more rest, or went from 6 workouts every two weeks to 4-to 5 and see how much they improved in a single segment. I mean going from thinking that they will never hit a goal they’ve spent years attempting, to having to set a new faster goal at the end of this segment. 

This ties into the second part of this, which was that if you are motivated, it’s quite possible to just run yourself into the ground. There’s a lot to this. For one, I would say that the vast majority of people I work with, regardless of ability, know how to work hard and even if they don’t love running, they want to work hard. Many times it’s too hard. If 5 is good, 6 is better. If fast is good, faster is better. This ties into the first point because, if it is easy to get fit, and then we make things harder than they need to be, especially early in a segment, we end up putting too much of ourselves into training and there’s nothing left for the race. One analogy I have heard is that we are like a well. There is a finite amount of performances we have in our well. Every time we dip into that well to have a performance above what is required for the day, we pull from that well. Do that too many times and there’s not enough left on race day- the well is dry. Now, of course, some workouts are meant to be come-to-Jesus moments, but we are talking about 1-2 times a segment. Overall, the vast majority of your workouts should be described as average. I felt average. I was able to bounce back and do the next workout when I needed to and it felt average. Your weeks should be boring sprinkled with a workout that didn’t go particularly well for no apparent reason. Even more seldom, there should be that workout where things clicked and you just had to blow out the pipes on that supercharged aerobic engine you built. 

Why do I say you should have some bad workouts? Well, obviously not a string of poor-performing workouts, as that usually is a signal that something is off. But every once in a while, you should metaphorically get punched in the mouth and know you can get back up from it. I say that because the unicorn (not Boston) is the race you get where the stars align and everything goes perfectly on race day. You should know how to deal with things not going right in real time, adjusting, and making it through the other side. 

At the end of the day, the vast majority of your training should be pretty boring. We can take something and shake it up now and then but maintain the purpose of what we are accomplishing. However, the secret is… there is no secret, it’s just that a lot of people don’t want to do it or can’t wrap their heads around the idea that it really is just that simple. When I looked at logs of Boston Marathon winners and Olympic medalists, I had never seen a workout or a system that a runner did and thought, “Wow, that’s it!” No, it was just logs and logs with months of running that never looked that much different than the page before. 

So for me, if you can do the following, you’ll see performances that are much more in line with what your fitness is indicating on a much more regular basis. 

  1. Be really good at the basic stuff and never get away from those basics. 
  2. Most of your workouts should be pretty boring, allowing you to focus on the basics.
  3. A couple of workouts a segment should be ones where you test the current limits and hopefully show you that you can hit that level. 
  4. A couple of workouts should “punch you in the mouth” and force you to make game-time decisions on whether you adjust, give up, or push through as far as you can. 

If you can do that, I promise you that you can leave your races at the race instead of lane one of the workout track. Keep that well full enough with the reserves needed to complete and compete. 

Made the cut for Boston? Take a look at our Boston Marathon Training Group

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