[Editor’s Note: This is the final article of a three-part series. Check out the first and second articles.]
If you’ve made it this far, a process-oriented training approach has put you in the best possible position for race success: you have trained consistently, developed aerobic fitness and strength, honed an efficient stride, developed a diverse skill set for your focus race, and covered the non-running bases for optimal fitness and health. In this third part of the series, we take process-oriented running to race day.
While an outcome-based racing approach is focused primarily (if not exclusively) on external factors–the outcome (placing) or performance (time)–process-based racing is primarily internal. Like training, process-oriented racing is based on two primary themes:
- Multi-dimensional racing objectives
- Continuous self-assessment
A multi-dimensional action plan provides a runner with a comprehensive road map for race-day execution that covers all the important bases, including pacing, mechanics, nutrition, and problem solving. Then, by using self-assessment, a process-based racer can check in and ask themselves:
- Is the plan working?
- Do I need to amend or abandon (part or all of) the plan for something new?
Like training, this all-encompassing but evolving plan gives a runner the best possible chance for success by accepting the external demands–the course, environment, and competition–and meeting it with the (often frustratingly dynamic) abilities of the runner!
An astronomical analogy: The outcome-based racer, one who blasts off the line, ducks behind the runner in front, and hopes to hang on is the space chimp in the tip of the rocket. They are blasting through space, hoping the rocket makes it to the moon without burning up in the stratosphere. The process-based racer is the astronaut at the helm of the orbiter–constantly monitoring both the ship and its crew as well as the outer space, adjusting orientation and speed with measured puffs of engine thrusters on its endeavor for a precise, delicate landing on the lunar surface.
To be a skilled racing tactician requires a disciplined approach. Outlined below are some possible racing objectives for the process-oriented racer.
Have a Pace Plan
The process-oriented racer will have done the homework on the focus race and its demands: profile, terrain, and weather as well as how previous runners have navigated the course. This will give a runner a good idea of a sustainable race pace. A pace plan may include:
- Pace-per-mile objectives. GPS running watches provide real-time run paces and mile splits, while some road races may have markers. Pace-per-mile pace guidelines are generally more useful on consistent, homogenous race courses.
- Aid-station split goals. For race courses with distinct and widely varied terrain or geography, having split goals will trump an overall running pace by providing an overall time target to cover the ground. For a course like Western States, a three-mile segment might be blazing fast (Miller’s Defeat to Dusty Corners: 25 minutes) while another three miler for the same runner may be achingly slow (Brown’s Bar to Highway 49: 38 minutes). These differences are due to unique and varied terrain and weather conditions. Letting go of pace yet having a segmental split goal still provides a focus and feedback on mid-race execution.
- Heart rate (or other exertional measures). Going strictly internal, exertional measures such as heart rate can provide an excellent real-time metric for pacing. Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)–an internal assessment of work output–can be useful, but in an exciting race setting and coupled with natural beauty, one’s RPE may self-register as much lower than physiological reality. The Talk Test–one’s ability to converse while running–is a more reasonable measure of sub-anaerobic effort, but like all things runners can train their way into talking quite well while lactate piles up in the system.
Whatever you choose, once you have a pace plan, there are many other process objectives that will help achieve and maintain those paces!
Nutrition and Hydration
Staying on top of nutrient intake is critical for success, and–if hyper-focused on the time and place outcomes–is easy to lose track of or dismiss completely. Like the navigating astronaut with small-and-measured engine thrusts, the ultrarunner executes the nutrition plan consistently and delicately, early and often.
Whatever works for you, go with it. However, having a multi-dimensional nutrition and fluid plan provides variety and crucial back-up systems, should plan A fail. For the athletes I coach, I recommend two nutrient sources:
- Fast-burn fuel. These are your quick-acting sugars that provide necessary and powerful carbohydrates to the brain and body. In the analogy, these are the tinder that burns quickly and creates fast heat.
- Slow-burn fuel. These are slower, but more reliable fuels that provide a mixture of nutrients (protein and fat) that provide more fuel bulk, burn slower, and perhaps most importantly, stabilize and control the ignition of the fast burners. I think of these like the big logs in the fire: burning slowly but consistently and evening out the flare-up spikes of the smaller, incendiary kindling.
Thus, blending fuels provides several options and keeps the energy burn even throughout the day.
Along with fuel selection, timing is also important. Runners should have a plan for fuel needs at each aid station, as well as between stations. Adequate fueling, as well as consistent hydration and (if necessary or desired) electrolyte intake, will keep all systems in top function throughout the run.
My favorite story of meticulously planned and timed nutrition is that of Matt Carpenter’s 2005 Leadville 100 Mile race, where he measured fluid and calories based on “sips per hour.” This plan consistently delivered water and fuel, but also provided an area of internal, process-based focus that was undoubtedly key to his record-setting performance that day.
Have a Stride Plan (with Go-To Cues)
When it comes to running-stride mechanics, each racer should be armed with two objectives:
- A general idea of what he/she needs to do to be efficient, including habitual patterns and weaknesses
- A collection of strategies to employ when the stride begins to break down
Just like nutrition, having a general plan and emergency bail-out options is crucial with running mechanics. While some runners are utterly and consistently efficient during even the longest ultras, most of us have our stride quirks, weak areas, and–when things go south–our figurative (and sometimes literal) Achilles heels that conspire to grind our running to a stumbling halt.
- Have a general idea of stride efficiency and focus on it early and often. For most of us, that means things such as:
- Staying tall and forward
- Driving the hips powerfully
- Pushing off with a strong foot
- Swinging the arms powerfully and compactly behind, and landing the foot close to beneath the body
- Know your own habits and how to combat them. We each have our stride weaknesses that are often difficult if not impossible to prevent. While training preparations might shore up weakness and habit, having a plan for when the stride gets wonky will help maintain speed and efficiency and prevent excessive leg strain. For example, if you’re a leaner, having a strategy and focus area–such as ‘pelvis left’ or ‘knees out’–can keep that habit and its deleterious effects on pace and body at bay for as long as possible.
- Have a late-race stride strategy. When in the final miles and the chips are down, specific and well-timed stride cues are crucial in powering to the finish. Basic exhorts to ‘push harder’–whether from a well-intended pacer or crew or from within our increasingly feeble late-race intellect–often fail to effectively get and keep you moving quickly, compared to what a few specific stride cues can do.
For many, these cues may be one or more of the fundamentals above, or it could be specifics based on your own habits and greatest needs. Waking up the hips and arms is a tried-and-true strategy that will help most runners make a strong, process-driven, end-of-race gear shift that maximizes our extremely limited energies and preserves the delicate integrity of battered legs.
Mantras and Momentum
Having tuned into pacing, mechanics, and nutrition, adding a holistic focus and, when necessary, maintaining relaxation and confidence is vital for race-day execution and peak performance.
Mantras are simple, repeatable phrases–usually two to four words–that reinforce areas of focus or overall mindset. Examples include:
- Float up, dance down. This is a mantra I used during the Superior 100 Mile, which features relentless, rugged climbs and descents. Rather than resist those demands, this mantra aimed to negotiate the course with the greatest amount of efficiency and ease.
- I am fit, I am strong. In the mid-stages of a race, when fatigue mounts and confidence lags, it helps to have a spirit-boosting mantra. A repeatable phrase such as this is a form of positive self-talk, a powerful mental tool that keeps our emotions in check and the effort strong and consistent.
Mantras help keep momentum, and when complimented with the process-oriented approach, are the best possible way toward the elusive flow state–the brain and body feeling like everything is clicking, of complete immersion in a state of total efficiency, maximum output, and seemingly unstoppable momentum: the marble in the groove.
Inside-Out Racing with Uhan’s Three C’s
A process approach to racing is inherently internal: focusing on the body’s needs and one’s own execution as the path to peak performance. But there comes a time in every competitive race when it is time to turn the focus outward. In my earliest coaching days, working with high-school cross-country harriers, we divided the race into three distinct sections that transitioned from internal focus to the external:
- Composure. Early on in a race, staying composed kept the focus internal, the pace sustainable, mechanics efficient, and mindset relaxed.
- Confidence. In the middle third of the race, when fatigue is mounting and yet the finish is still far away, internal focus and execution is important as ever. But here, positive mantras keep the pain at bay and help instill and maintain confidence in the ability to sustain and continue.
- Compete. This is the crucial last section of the race. With effort and pain both redlining, what keeps us going? This is the time to turn outward, to take the eyes from the ground to the horizon, to the runner (or obstacle) in your path, and to attack that aggressively.
Most runners race the other way around. Hyper-focused on the competition, then, when fatigue and problems (created by neglecting the process) mount, they become hyper-focused on their own pain, and, in the crucial latter stages of the race, are wholly incapable of competing with the runners around them. The process approach is truly inside-out: stay within early, execute the necessary objectives, and then–when everyone is hurting but the finish is in reach–that is the precise time to let go of the internals and focus exclusively on the external.
The competition can fuel a runner to do things that without it would seem physically impossible. Most ultrarunning history buffs would agree that Jim Howard’s 58-minute finishing split from Highway 49 to Placer High is otherworldly, yet it was driven completely by the fact that he was reeling in a flagging Jim King and, quite frankly, needed nearly every step of that final seven-and-a-half miles to catch him.
Competition is a powerful, explosive fuel source that can propel each of us to another level of performance that, without it, we could never achieve alone. But it is explosive and potentially destructive, and must be used wisely. A process-driven, inside-out approach to racing helps to ‘preserve the vessel’ early on and to temper the competitiveness until the right moment when it can be unleashed for greatest possible benefit.
And that’s what it’s all about, right? Why we race and choose to pin on a bib number and toe that line: peak performance but also peak enjoyment of the process. Take what the body will give, until it is time–the right time–to give it everything you’ve got, and more.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Do you take a process-oriented approach to race strategy? Can you describe it?
- What do you think of Joe’s recommendations to keep things internal until later in the race when we should focus more externally?