I was always a lousy test-taker in school. Aside from having poor study habits, I was never taught how to figure out what would be required of me on test day. I had friends that seemed to barely study and ace every test. When I'd ask them how they did it, they would usually reply with something like, "I just figured out what I thought they were going to ask and studied that. Then I just glossed over the rest." Easy for them to say ...
Well, the only tests I take now are every three years so that I can feel qualified to sit behind the wheel of an automobile. But another type of test that I take is on race day. A race is like a physical version of an exam. It's there to measure how well you prepared yourself and how well you work your way through all the "problems" that are presented. One thing that I feel that I have learned over all my years of racing is how to "do well on the test." Here are some of the tricks that I've learned along the way.
How would you like to run a PR (personal record) in the next race you run? Whether you're a seasoned veteran of many races or if it's your first race, you could optimize your chances of having a good "time" by doing some homework and preparing yourself in the weeks leading up to the race.
It is no surprise that many races, not large enough to attract the Kenyans, are won by locals. You can call it the "home field advantage," but what does that mean? Quite simply, it means that the locals get to practice on the course and familiarize themselves with all the nuances of the layout. They know when they can afford to rest, when to push the pace, and how to adjust their effort level with all of the little demands that the course will throw at them. The smart runners know what to expect and they train accordingly. Regardless of the distance, race-specific training gives you a huge advantage whether you're trying to beat the competition or going for a PR.
What is race-specific training? It's gearing your training towards the specific challenges of the event in which you're about to participate. Training this way will leave you better prepared for anything that may come up on race day. Is the course hilly or flat? Will there be any aid stations? Are there trails, pavement, or concrete? Will weather be a factor. Will the start be crowded? Answering these questions will allow you to have a clearer sense of how to train yourself to be ready for anything when race day comes.
Where do you start? A little planning goes a long way. It's best to start your race-specific training a couple of months before the race. This will be in addition to whatever you normally do to condition yourself.
If the race is not in your vicinity, write or email the race director and get a map and an elevation profile. If it's not available, try to find someone who has done the race and pick their brain for all the details. Drive the course if it's in your vicinity, or better yet, run it if time allows, and make notes of what the course is like, mile by mile. Here are some of the questions you might ask yourself and some suggestions of what to do.
What is the first mile like? Flat, uphill, downhill?
Tip: Practice starting your training runs with the first mile being similar to the first mile of the race, then practice starting slower than your projected average race pace.
What is the surface? Does it change during the course?
Tip: Run some of your training runs on that surface. (I've met many trail runners who trained for a marathon on trails and then got hammered when they went to race a road marathon.)
Are there any hills? If so, how long and how steep are they?
Tip: Add hills to at least one of your weekly runs preferably of the same height and steepness and/or substitute hill intervals for track work. Be sure to be building strength for the uphills and looseness for the downhills.
At what miles do they appear?
Tip: add hills into your training runs at the same place they would appear in the race. Do a race "mock-up" once a week.
Is the altitude of the race course higher than where you normally train?
Tip: If it's a significantly higher altitude do some acclimation runs within two weeks of the actual race. if the race is at a lower altitude thank your lucky stars and have fun.
How often do aid stations appear and what will they be stocked with? (Who knows, you might be allergic to Gatorade and need to carry an electrolyte replacement for yourself.)
Tip: Never eat or drink something in a race that you haven't tried out on your body first. If aid stations are too spread out for your needs, carry your own fluid supply. If you plan to drink their sports drink, use it during a training run to see if it works for you.
What size of a race is it? hundreds or thousands?
Tip: If you're going for a PR, either don't pick a crowded race or start towards the front of the pack.
What time of day does the race start?
Tip: Begin most of your training runs at that same time within two weeks of the race date.
Will you be running the race with friends or maybe just starting the race with friends?
Tip: Be diligent about practicing your starting pace (slower than what you expect to average) and don't get swept into starting at someone else's pace.
What is your hydration plan?
Tip: If it's a warm climate, practice hydrating. Know your limits and how much water and electrolyte replacement your body requires everybody is different. (I've learned that if I drink a mouthful of water every 10 minutes, I don't get dehydrated and I don't have to stop and pee.) Long training runs are a good time to find out your body's tolerances. If your sports watch has a countdown timer, use it to time your drinking intervals.
Have you run this distance before in a race?
Tip: It is both a great physical and psychological advantage to run the distance of the race ahead of time so that you know what your body will be going through. Race day is not the best time to be going into "frontierland."
How many weeks are there before the race?
Tip: Leave plenty of time to ramp up, train and taper so that you are in your best shape on race day. Start your race-specific training two months out.
Do you have any other physical events close to the time-frame of the race?
Tip: Cancel them if this race means a lot to you.
With some forethought and planning done before your race you can insure that you will have the greatest possibility of doing your best. The success of your race will be directly proportional to the amount of planning and preparation that you put into it on all levels.
Some of these tips are to improve your physical advantage and some are to improve your psychological advantage. Preparing yourself in this way will help you to race your best and ace that test.