Advice from the Coach: Racing

John Lofranco is a Level 5 IAAF Elite Coach candidate in Endurance

John Lofranco is a Level 5 IAAF Elite Coach candidate in Endurance

PART 1 “We are racers, not runners”
American Olympian PattiSue Plummer tells her high school girls cross country and track teams to remember “we are racers, not runners.” There is so much interesting about this idea, and also so much anxiety and hype over racing, that I want to unpack this weird thing we do called racing.

The first thing to think about is that everyone comes to running with a different agenda. Some are racers and they know it from the start. Others might start out with a different goal of losing weight or getting healthy, but get pulled into the whole racing scene after the fact. This is where some tension can arise, as we do enter races, but we’re really not sure what to make of them. Expectations can be too high or too low, and this can result in a negative experience at the race. For many people, it is a blast, even if we do go through some pre-race nerves. So despite our different approaches to running, it seems like everyone ends up racing at some point. My goal here is to examine racing more closely, as we assume a lot about the purpose of a race, and what we hope to get out of it. Sometimes, the two are not in line, and this can cause stress.

There are several different kinds of race, and I’d like to name them, and note that each one has its peculiarities. There are also a few different “events” that include running, like various race series named after classical heros and what not, but I’ll exclude them because that’s a different sport, to be honest. The main types of racing are: track, road, and cross-country/trail/mountain running.

Track is the easiest to describe and nail down. The track doesn’t lie. Notwithstanding weather, you will run exactly 5000m (or as close as you are going to get) or 1500m or 10000m, so you’ll know exactly what you can do in those conditions. Some find the track easier: more frequent reference points as you pass the start/finish every 400m, all the competitors are within sight at all times, and sometimes there are even people in the stands! Some find the repetitive elements more difficult, and strain to keep their focus. Either way, a track race can be a very useful measuring stick, though at a certain level, it may be difficult to find good competition.

Track is the pure form of our sport–the Olympic disciplines lay there, save one: the marathon. And so on the road, we also compete in various race distances. While it may be hard to find someone to race on the track at a given fitness level, you’ll always have someone to run with on the roads. One of the reasons for this is road races don’t (usually) divide men and women, so a faster woman who can run under 20min will find lots of competition with some beginner or older guys who are also around that mark. There are various distances to try: 5k, 10k, 15k/10miles, 20k/half marathon, 30k, marathon (please no one say “full” marathon: it’s just a marathon, by definition it is “full”). The reference points in a road race are usually further apart: you get markers every km or every mile, and sometimes a marker for 400m or 500m in the last part of the race. This can be helpful for those who worry about splits: you can focus on something else, and not stress out. Being off 1sec/400m or 3sec/km is the same (well, 2.5sec/km) but 3sec/km seems much more manageable in terms of making up the time in a race, especially when the seconds start to pile up every lap on the track.

The final racing mode is “au naturel,” that is, cross-country, trail or mountain racing. These are all somewhat different, but the idea is the same: get off the road, onto some soft, natural surfaces with some hills. The distances are sometimes defined (as in championship cross-country races) but even then, courses vary so much that a “10k xc time” is meaningless. Therein lies both the attraction (for some) and the repulsion (for others). You might run a 6.3k xc or trail race in 26min. What the heck does that mean? Not much, to a calculator. The challenge here is either to beat the course, with all its mud and hills, or to beat the others in the race. In this way, it is the pure footrace: first to the tree on the other side of the hill through the river wins! Mountain running has some specific rules, but basically it is the same idea, only up (and sometimes down) a steep incline. Trail running probably differs from cross-country in that xc is more a schools event, on grass, with prescribed distances, while trail races could be anything (even though the names would suggest it would be the other way around).

So this is what we mean by racing: getting out to one of these events, and giving it a go. The next question we want to ask is: why? Why would you do this? We’ll talk about that next week!

PART 2 “Fear”

Last week I described the various possibilities for racing. I just wanted to set the table for a deeper discussion of why we race, and what we can do to feel good about it.

Here’s the thing: we all bring various reasons for running to the table. It may be having a group of people to hang out with, a good excuse to buy fun clothes, a way to burn off stress, a way to relax, a way to keep fit (mentally and physically). The one thing that we all share is that we want the results that come from competition. Maybe we don’t like racing much, but we like and want to see our performance improve. This is fun! When our aversion to racing comes up against our desire to improve, we get pretty nervous. What is good about this is that it is a sign we care. Whatever we are nervous about, it is part of the process. So the way to deal with it is not to try to be less nervous, but to understand the role those nerves play.

A few weeks ago in our club, we had a little “practice race” or “time trial” as some would call it. It was a 2000m run on an indoor track. The reason behind this was to remove all the distractions of racing such as travelling, checking in, strangers in our race, other races going on, parents, friends watching, extended recovery by keeping the distance short(for most), and just focus on the performance. What we found is that the nerves are still there. So from this we can glean that it is not any of these outside things that make us nervous (or at least, even without them, there are still some nerves). We can see more clearly the essence of our fear. We can get to know it a bit better, and hopefully start to embrace it. Fear is associated with racing. Racing is opportunity to perform. The opportunity to perform is simply an expression of your current state in a very specific way. It’s not a judgement, or a general statement about you. It’s just a way of putting all you have done (the running, the jumping, the talking, the shopping) into one small space in time. There’s a lot of energy behind you when you think about it that way!

This is not to close the matter and say, “See, now you don’t have to be nervous!” Rather, the awareness of the role pre-race nerves can play will allow you to not add layers of anxiety about being anxious (“I’m so nervous, oh no, I shouldn’t be, what’s wrong with me”), but to embrace the feeling (“These nerves are part of the process, it means I’m ready to race!”).

When I ask most runners what it is they are afraid of, there are two answers: fear of pain and fear of failure. Once you decide that the pain is an inevitable and important part of racing, you can view the nervousness not as fear of pain, but of preparation for pain. It’s not an easy switch to make, but if you’ve never considered it, now at least you have that tool.

While much of the fear can be related to the pain we know we are going to feel, some of the nerves are also connected to our expectations. This is fear of failure, and it’s a whole other kettle of fish for next week!

PART 3 “Expectations”


Last week we examined the reasons for racing, and the reasons we feel nervous before a race. One of the reasons we covered was fear. The other reason we tend to get nervous before a race is our expectations. I sometimes hear from runners that they are afraid they will let people down: maybe themselves, or a parent, teammates, friends, the coach.

As far as I am concerned, expectations are a good thing: we need to expect more out of ourselves, or we’ll remain stagnant. That said, if these expectations are creating too much anxiety, they can hamper our performance, which is not fun. This feeling of “letting people down” I believe comes from unrealistic expectations.

Obviously expectations will differ depending on the race, and depending on the individual’s goals. I frequently encounter runners, for example, who seem to have a goal of “running all the races in the local series” but also a goal of “running a PB every time out.” There are several problems with this. One is that often these goals are not stated openly. The expectation of a PB is just there, and when it isn’t achieved, that creates disappointment, and anxiety the next time out. This is compounded by the idea of racing every weekend or very often: if you don’t run a PB one week, what exactly do you expect to change in 7 days that will result in one? It’s possible that if you take an easy week, you might rest up and be able to run faster. Of course that is not what most people do. Most runners react to a disappointing race by piling on more training, which may or may not be the best idea.

So you can see how unreasonable expectations can create anxiety and hamper performance. It is not so much the expectations themselves that need fixing (it is probably quite reasonable to want to race a lot and run PBs), but that the expectations are not examined. The assumption is that if I train, I will get better, and if I train harder, I’ll get even more better. Timing is everything in training, however, and this is where examination comes in.

Runners need to set goals by writing them down, sharing them with the coach at the outset of training. They can be flexible, but they should still be firm. You’ve probably heard of “SMART” goals: Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bound. These are good criteria for running goals, but just the process of setting goals will help so much with how you approach a race.

Here I want to share a very controversial idea. I have a few benchmarks in mind that will guide expectations for beginner runners. You may notice these benchmarks are set fairly low at first. Progression and timing is important, though, and I do think that using these as a guideline for expectations in racing is a very wise choice. Here’s the deal: until you can race a 5k in 30min, do not race a 10k. Until you can race a 10k in 60min, do not race a half-marathon. Until you can race a half-marathon in 2h, do not race a marathon.

I realise that this may cut off a large chunk of many road racers. Perhaps, but I wonder if it would not also make many people more satisfied at throughout their running careers, and as a result, give them longer careers. Again, it is all about expectations. If your goal is “finish a marathon and then never run a step again in my life” then go ahead. Run the marathon. You’ll do it. With consistent training, it’s a do-able proposition. But if your goal is to “be a runner” and use running as a part of your life, then the marathon can wait. You can let your friends go ahead and run that 4h45min 26.2miles, but when you debut at 4h, you’ll have a lot more fun, you probably won’t walk, and you’ll feel a great sense of self-satisfaction. If you go into marathon training (or 10k or half-marathon training) without having hit some benchmarks, your expectations are not going to match your performance, and you might not have as much fun.

Run happy!


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