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

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?

There are 18 comments

  1. footfeathers

    Another great piece, Ian. Stairwells are my first recommendation for flatlanders training for big vert races. Treadmills are usually the first thing that comes to mind for those folks but they only cover half of the needs (climbing). The descents and quad seasoning, or lack thereof, will shut down a race for someone. I have a set of 400 steps built into the side of a steep hill in Oakland CA I used to get ready for Hardrock last year (when I lived in CA). 10 x those "magic stairs" and I'd be wobbly-legged for two days afterwards. Got the job done though.

    Thanks for the good info!

  2. Sarah Lavender Smith

    Thanks for this article, Ian. One "race day weakness" I had to prepare for was running in the sand for the Grand to Grand multi-day, self-supported desert crossing. I hit the beach weekly and ran back and forth in the sand with an 18-lb. pack on my back. It was key to mental and physical prep for the challenge. Now, with a 100-miler coming up in September, I know I have to carve out time for some nighttime runs because I suck at running in the dark and need to get over that fear and weakness.

  3. KenZ

    "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."

    This is true for anything. Even effort, whether it is your strength OR your weakness. For me, that's a HR monitor to keep my effort even. For others, just tune into your body. On race day you have what you have, so obsessing about your weaknesses accomplishes nothing. You may need to recognize your weaknesses so that you can deal with them properly (e.g. I throw up every 4 hours), but obsessing is counterproductive.

  4. John Burton

    Another great article Ian. The "train your weakness, race your strength" message really resonated with me. Historically one of my weaknesses was the inability (or unwillingness) to eat solid food while running. This lead to a lot of DNFs and poor finishes, as it is hard — at least for me personally — to take enough calories purely with gels and liquids. I have discovered that I need a lot more calories than other runners. So I started eating meals right before walking out the door for all my daily training runs. This forced me to slow my pace a bit, but it also taught my body to run while digesting food — which is key to ultra running. I found that being able to eat solid food for the first 6 – 8 hours of Western States this year (before the weather got hot and my stomach shut down) helped me stay strong throughout the day even when I had to switch to liquid calories and gels. Calories in the bank, so to speak.

  5. Runnerman Dan

    Thanks for this article, Ian. I'm lucky in that I don't tend to focus on my weaknesses or where my training was lacking during an event, but likewise, I don't focus on my strengths, either. I just kind of rely on tham and 'just do it'. After reading this, I will definitely try to concentrate on that more, knowing they are the positive attributes that will get me to the finish line.

  6. Anthony D

    I've been dealing with an injury and its a hard pill to swallow to have to pull the plug on an upcoming race, but thanks for the reminder that its okay and bc we're human things happen!

  7. Andrew

    How would you prepare at running at altitude if you live near sea level?

    I would be also interested in knowing how people train for an ultra when they have full time jobs and two young kids! When do people fit in their running?

    1. John Burton

      @Andrew, good question about how to train for an ultra with limited available time. I also work full-time (albeit from home) and have a wife (who also runs and needs to get out and train) and a 6 year old, and a dog that needs to be walked, and a car that needs to be washed, and projects around home that need to get done. You get the idea. In the month of May I participated in this challenge on a website called Strava to see who could run the most miles that month. I finished well (maybe 4th overall) but one of the guys who beat me provided a great answer when asked by a fellow competitor how he finds the time to train. Basically he said that he gets up at 3:00 am and runs 18 miles to work, then runs home after work. He mentioned that he gives up a lot of things like playing on the Internet, evening television, dinners with friends, etc. I think his main message was that "everyone has the same number of hours in the day, it's just how you choose to use them." . I found that to be very helpful advice. For example, I turned my evening dog walk into speed work training by running with the dog and having my son ride his bicycle ahead of me while I tried to keep up :)

  8. J Wilils

    Thanks for the read Ian, couldn't have come at a better time. Adjusting from NoAz to the midwest sure is somethin, these tips help a bunch. Cheers!

  9. Kix

    Ok, this is classic Karen here. I got excited and signed up for the Canadian Death Race. Easy to hit button on computer and send Visa. Hard to run mountains when I do not have any. I have been haunting the local ski hills though. :) Work/life has changed my training plans. Do I go and try my best and see what the day brings me? Or do I bail and stay home and wonder 'what if?'. So, I am going. I will start and see what happens. I will meet many wonderful people. I may surprise myself with my achievement. I will see a new race course (maybe only a small part) and perhaps be able to cheer the frontrunners as they come in. Maybe even help out another runner to achieve their goal. Dream big, anything less and you may as well stay on the couch!!

    Happy Trails,


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