With the beginning of the race season around the corner, it's time to start thinking about racing long - for the purposes of this piece, let's call it any race that's over three hours. For some of us that might be a 1/2 marathon foot race. For others it could be covering the 70.3 or 140.6 miles of the Iron distances. Competing for over three hours allows the athlete to go through peaks and valleys within the race. The length of time spent competing necessitates true race management, a protocol grounded in mental and physical discipline. I try to boil race management for long distance efforts down to three focal points. When we mismanage one of these three pillars of long distance race management, we usually end up in a trough at some point mid-race. The good news is that it's possible to manage your way out of the situation, usually addressing one or more of these pillars.
How many times have you let adrenaline get the best of you at the race start and floored it from the gun only to pay for it later? Have you ever let your ego get the best of you and chased after a competitor too early or with too much intensity? I imagine like any seasoned endurance athlete, you probably need more than a pair of hands and ten fingers to count the instances. Similarly, have you ever been in the middle of a nicely executed race where you look down at your numbers (pace, HR, watts) think to yourself that it's okay to push harder than you've prepared yourself for in training and then end up cooked later in the day because of your wishful thinking?
My hand is raised on all accounts (actually, both my hands are...and both my feet, too). It's okay to push the pace outside of what you have prepared for, but you want to keep it for small portions of your day. Just like any withdrawal, you have to make a deposit for it somewhere. If the deposit isn't from your training, it's going to come at some point during the race. However, if you can manage a smaller "super effort" correctly, you can optimize your performance significantly. This might mean backing off a bit for a small period of time later in the race when you can afford to make a deposit. If you've mismanaged the effort, writing the proverbial check your body can't cash, well, you end up a nice mess.
For friends and athletes I coach who are racing long, especially newbies, I stress to them the importance of building pace throughout the day so that first and foremost, they can enjoy the experience. 9 times out of 10, sprinting to the finish line will correlate to a more enjoyable race rather than stammering or crawling to the end Julie Moss style.
Your ability to get in the right number of calories for racing long has a high correlation with pacing. One of the byproducts of going too hard is that we can't get our HR down to ingest, and subsequently digest, the calories we need to sustain our output for a race. For anybody who is a veteran of racing ultras, half or full Iron distance races, 10-25k swims, adventure races, etc. most will tell you that executing the nutrition plan during the race is as equally important as their pacing during the race.
For both of these pillars you are effectively managing your personal Energy Equation - calories in versus calories out. I also want to make it explicit that by nutrition I am also including hydration and proper electrolyte intake. Dehydration has a more immediate and intense affect on performance than caloric deficits and should be treated with utmost importance. Likewise, hyponatremia - a condition often the result of taking in too much fluids without the proper electrolyte content - is a critical, and potentially mortal flaw that distance athletes must avoid.
In long events, if you get the nutrition wrong, you can really wreck yourself in a bad way, mostly because impaired judgment from caloric, fluid and electrolyte depletion doesn't allow you to appropriately deal with the situation. In any race where nutrition is a critical component, I advocate following a simple strategy to avoid these dire situations: if you're feeling really bad, slow down to almost a halt, take in some fluids, calories and electrolytes immediately. Then start to build back into the race. If you don't address the situation then and there, you literally might not have the mental bandwidth to do anything about it later.
This pillar is a natural offshoot of the other two and acts as the glue between them. In long distance races where we've mismanaged one or more of the above we have to be mentally spot on to get back on track. Once we get into a bad spot, the first thing to do is acknowledge the situation for what it is. If you're not truly honest with yourself at the moment of acknowledgment, you are likely to continue down the wrong path and get into a more dire predicament. After acknowledgment, it's necessary to go to a mitigation plan that will allow you to address the situations as quickly as possible. My advice is to immediately assess the first two pillars - have I put in too long of a "super effort"? Have I taken in enough calories and/or hydrated correctly? More likely than not, you will find your answer and mitigation plan from those questions.
Once you have your plan to address the mistake(s) and are ready to execute, you must continue to tell yourself that you will eventually get out of this rough patch. Do not accept the situation as 'this is just not my day.' What I've just described is a technique Jim Collins describes in his book, Good to Great. Collins calls the methodology the Stockdale Principle, derived from Vice Admiral James Stockdale, the most senior American officer in the POW camp at the "Hanoi Hilton" during the Vietnam War.
In racing long, you need to deal with the present moment where you have the most amount of control and not get caught up in the past or future, two areas where you have no immediate control. Race Management should be an active part of your training focus as you prepare for some of the obstacles in racing long. Keying on these Race Management pillars will give you the tools to avoid race mistakes and/or to address mistakes that you might make while racing long. Rehearsing the combination of pacing, nutrition and mental outlook will increase your likelihood of successful race execution. And in those situations where you happen to make some mistakes in one or more of these areas on race day, honestly assessing the situation, making quick decisions and believing in your ability to manage through the difficult times will, like the race itself, go a long, long way.
Matthew has coached American & World Record holders as a swimming coach at Stanford and Arizona State. He operates EnduRight, an online coaching company. Please contact him at www.enduright.com.