Using What You’ve Got to Make the Best of Any Racing Situation

Acknowledging and dealing with your ultrarunning weaknesses.

By on July 2, 2013 | Comments

As a coach, one of the most common conundrums I help athletes manage is allaying their fears about training, distance, terrain, and weather conditions at their upcoming events. How does a runner from Georgia whose training is thwarted by oppressive heat and humidity all summer long prepare adequately for an event in the fall? Where does a runner living in the Midwest toughen up her legs for the relentless climbs and descents of the Sierra Nevada? How does a runner from New York City prepare for the rigors of running at over 10,000 feet?

Though it is very important that we recognize our weaknesses and those factors that are working against us such as those described above, we shouldn’t become so fixated with them that they distract from the training process or the event itself. When second thoughts or self doubt become overwhelming, there are two lines we can take:

  1. Pull the plug. Gasp! How could you say such a thing? We are ultrarunners and we pride ourselves on being durable, resourceful, and committed. DNSing an event is certainly a sport faux pas. Newsflash: We are just as human as everyone else on this planet. There is nothing wrong with admitting that you’ve gotten in over your head or that the timing of an event doesn’t mesh with your life at this time. Remember that we race for fun and, if you feel that the fun factor has bottomed out, then passing on an event is an intelligent and honorable decision. Go for a run or sign up for another more realistic race. You’ll find that life moves on and so will you.
  2. Carry on. You decide to make due with the hand you’ve been dealt. In doing so, you’ve got to ensure you’re doing all you can to prepare properly for the event. We all know that specificity is king. However, for many, the specificity component isn’t possible because of where they live and work and family obligations. Yet, we’ve registered for this event, we really want to do our best and make the experience one worth repeating.

Prepare for Your Race-Day Weaknesses

Here is how we can get ready if our training grounds don’t mimic the race course:

  1. Try simulating your event’s conditions by using what you have available. A runner who lives on the Florida coast and is training for White River 50 Mile Endurance Run can utilize treadmills, parking garages, bridges, and overpasses for hill work. An athlete who lives in California’s cooler, coastal climate can use saunas, extra clothing, and treadmills surrounded by heaters to prepare for the high race-day temperatures at the Badwater Ultramarathon. We can all injury-proof ourselves by hitting the gym to strengthen our core, quads, hip flexors, calves, and hamstrings for climbs, descents, and uneven trail tread.
  2. In the same vein, if environmental conditions interfere with proper training, you must adjust. Heat, humidity, and altitude force us to slow down and cover less distance. When the heat’s on, try a workout on a treadmill in an air-conditioned room. If you do venture outside, start as early as possible and be sure to carry water and electrolytes. Once temperatures cool or you return to a lower elevation, you’ll find that you haven’t lost your fitness.
  3. Integrate training that targets your weaknesses. Introduce VO2max and stamina workouts that improve your running economy so you can better handle altitude, long ascents, and warm conditions. Add strides and drills to improve coordination on uneven surfaces. If your endurance is lacking, introduce another easy run to your weekly routine or add a few miles to your weekly long run.
  4. At the same time, keep your confidence high. Make sure to incorporate workouts that come easy to you and you enjoy.

Race with Your Strengths

On race day, don’t focus on those things you could not control during your build-up. Instead, embrace the good. Discover your strengths during your training cycles. Pay attention to and remind yourself frequently of the days you set PRs for a particular workout or while covering a certain terrain or tread-type. Do these types of runs leave you energized and more confident than others? You bet they do! Capitalize on these skills on race day.

Don’t spend unnecessary energy trying to run fast on sections of a course on which you struggle. Back off and wait for those segments where you feel more relaxed and confident to take control and make up time. If you aren’t familiar with a course or unsure where and when you should pick up the pace, take full advantage of modern technology. Memorize course descriptions, study course maps and flyovers, read personal blog accounts, and email past finishers for firsthand race reports.

However, there are many other facets to racing besides the actual running part. Your strengths may lie within your ability to stick to a solid nutrition and hydration plan; you may be skilled with a map and thus know what kind of terrain is where and what direction to take at a questionable junction; maybe you’re good at pacing yourself so that you finish strong; or you can keep a positive outlook under rough conditions. These are all traits that will get you to the finish line.

As I remind my coaching clients, remember your biggest strength of all on race day: your desire. It’s what motivated you to prepare for your event in the first place.  You belong to a very small and rare group of individuals who are willing to step outside their comfort zone to test themselves. Now’s the time to put your head down and run.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • For what recent race did you have to prepare for your race-day weaknesses? As in, when have you recently found yourself in a sauna or running bridge repeats so that your training more closely matches your racing environment?
  • And, what are your race strengths? Are you a good navigator, climber, or technical-terrain runner? Something else?
Ian Torrence

Ian Torrence has more than 12 years of experience coaching runners of all levels. Ian has completed more than 220 ultramarathons, with 50+ wins, since his first ultra finish at the 1994 JFK 50 Mile. Ian and his wife, Emily, are online coaches at Sundog Running. Information about his coaching services can be found at