Thursday, February 28, 2013

Are you flexible?

Are you flexible? I don’t mean in the bendy, Cirque de Soleil sort of way. I refer to flexible with your training. As an age group swimmer, my coach was about as flexible as titanium. If any of us had to miss a workout, to take the SAT, for example, his face would turn red and the vein in his forehead would get all big and scary. His rigidity stayed with me decades after I left his tutelage and rendered me a slave to whatever workout I had on my schedule. 

Being beholden to a schedule can be a difficult proposition. On the one hand, having a plan makes training more effective. On the other hand, life frequently gets in the way of training and a lack of flexibility makes dealing with unalterable situations even more frustrating. Shuffling around workouts is often necessary and a missed workout is commonly unavoidable. A younger me would fret endlessly about missed or altered workouts. I would go into a guilt spiral, certain that my goals would vanish into thin air. Yes, my tyrannical swim coach instilled a phenomenal work ethic, but with that came some serious baggage. 

Then, the other day, I had a realization. One of the benefits of being a “mature” (ok, old) athlete is that I have learned how to be more flexible with my training. Don’t laugh. It’s true. I had three instances in the past week that forced me to make changes to my pre-set workout plan on the fly to prove my point.

The first situation occurred last Friday. A hill run was foiled by snow so we decided to run a tempo session on a flatter section of road we thought would be clear. During our warm-up, we realized that there was too much ice so we decided to delay the workout until the next day. Normally I am not a fan of doing a hard run on Saturday as it deadens my legs for my Sunday long run (which in this case was a 20 miler). But, ultimately I decided to do the hill run on Saturday and suck it up for the long run. Luckily, it all turned out ok.

Then, a few days later, when I was driving to the gym for my normal Tuesday morning run session the weather intervened again. The snow came earlier than foretasted and I could see that the ground was starting to ice up. I had to make a decision. Outside or treadmill? I am no fan of the treadmill, but I made the switch and moved my workout indoors. Safety first. As I started my session, I realized that the workout I intended to do was not treadmill friendly so I altered the plan and changed it to something that was more tolerable. Whoa. I made two flexible decisions in one hour. I think that absolves me of being flexible for at least the rest of the week.

Flexibility in training takes on many forms. It may be a matter of deciding that a 20 minute run is better than nothing at all; picking just one of the two proscribed workouts on a busy day. Sometimes it is realizing that if you cut the warm up and warm down short you will have just enough time to get in the intervals. Some days it may mean missing training altogether.

Learning to be flexible does not equate to weakness. On the contrary, a flexible athlete will be happier and better adjusted.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Racing With a Purpose

The Surf City half marathon was my slowest half in almost two years. Given that my injury is better and my training more consistent, I was disappointed that I was unable to have the breakthrough race I was looking for. Then something very interesting happened. My run workouts after the race took a leap forward. Even though I did not achieve a PR, I made noticeable gains in fitness (without the soreness that accompanies a PR effort) that will serve me well for the LA marathon next month.

Most of us race only 6-12 times each year. That is quite low in comparison to the amount of training that we do. It is no wonder, then, that we want to PR at every race, even if at the outset the race was designated as a lower level race in importance. Every race has a purpose, but not every race deserves a full scale taper and gut-busting effort. When planning a race schedule, it is imperative to understand which races are the “A” races and will receive the royal treatment and which races serve a supporting role in pursuit of that perfect “A” race.

Lower importance races can serve many functions in both running and triathlon. Here are 5 things that a race can provide besides a PR.

1.    A chance to experiment with nutrition. What works in training does not always pan out during a race. A half Ironman prior to an Ironman is a perfect opportunity to try out something nutritionally that has worked in training but has never been implemented in a race.

2.    Work on pacing strategies. Usually go out conservatively? Maybe try a race where you go out a little harder and see if you can hold on to it. Usually go out like a bat out of Hell and then crawl to the finish? Start a little easier in your next race and try to finish stronger.

3.     Use shorter races to dial in pace or wattage for something longer. A 10k is a good marker for a half marathon and a half marathon is a good marker for a marathon. Training for an Ironman? A half Ironman is good place to practice pace and watts for the big day. If it feels too hard during the short race then you can bet it is much too hard for the longer distance.

4.    Just for fun. Sometimes a destination race is just that – all about the destination.

5.    In lieu of a workout. Running races, time trials and swim meets are excellent substitutes for a regularly scheduled training session. A race that is used a training session keeps you in the racing mode, allows you to go harder than you would during training and helps you boost your fitness and confidence going into the “A” race.

On Saturday I am running a 10 miler. This race fulfills 3 of the 5 parameters mentioned above. I am going to work on pacing – I would like to negative split. I am using this shorter race to dial in my pace for the upcoming LA marathon. And, the race will substitute for the longer tempo workout I usually do at the end of the week.

Now, that being said, this race will be a PR, but only because I have never raced over this distance. How convenient!

Determining a specific function for a race is something new for me. As a professional triathlete, I felt like I needed to be on my game every single time I toed the line. I put pressure on myself to perform at the highest level at every race, and I raced HARD all season. This is mindset that led to plenty of wins, but it also led to plenty of unmitigated disasters. I have learned that all races have a purpose, and that purpose cannot always be an all out effort. Define what that objective is prior to race day and race accordingly.

Monday, February 4, 2013

How to pace a race: Surf City race report

In December I wrote a blog about number anxiety and pacing. The post focused on managing the numbers and not letting them mentally rule you during training or racing. There are often situations where you come up with a perfectly reasonable plan where the numbers (i.e. pace or watts) align with your training but for whatever reason when you get to the race you are unable to execute the plan. In this instance, you have to throw the numbers out the window. This happened to me yesterday at the Surf City half marathon.

Several athletes I coach also ran the race. I gave everyone this advice: run your goal pace through 5k and at that point re-evaluate how you feel. If things are going well, you can maintain the pace. If it feels too hard, back off.

I am usually terrible at heeding my own instructions, but yesterday, at 5k I heard myself loud and clear: BACK OFF, BACK OFF.

My goal for the race was to dip under 1:18. My main concern was that the bronchitis I had been dealing with for four weeks might have an effect on my race. The constant coughing irritated my lungs exacerbating my asthma symptoms and my diaphragm and abdominal muscles have been incredibly sore making breathing hard quite uncomfortable. I optimistically imagined that sea level would magically make all of those things non-issues and I would run the race as if I was floating through the oxygen-rich air.

During my warm-up run I knew I was in for a tough day. I felt like crap had just crapped on crap. My breathing was already labored making me feel sluggish. I opted to stick to my plan, though, so when the gun fired, I set off at 5:55 pace. I continued with that pace through 5k at which point I knew I was running too fast. I was wheezing terribly and I had a sharp pain in my abdomen.

Making a concerted pacing change in the middle of race is not an easy task because it is not something we do on a regular basis.  Normally a pacing change occurs un-willfully – you’ve gone too hard and you blow up and end up in survival mode just putting one foot in front of the other. Yesterday, I was in the rare situation of deciding on the fly, what pace should I run? Did I want to back off 5 seconds per mile? 10? 20? Just cruise it in?

Ultimately, I decided to back off 10 -15 seconds/mile and try to maintain that through the halfway point and then back way off and finish the race comfortably without further taxing my lungs. I went through the halfway in 39 minutes, and then I slowed dramatically to 6:25 pace for the next 3 miles. This allowed me to regroup and get my breathing under control.

By slowing down for those few miles I was able to drop the pace the last few miles and salvage the race with a second place and a 1:20.14. While I missed my goal by a lot, I learned a very important lesson about pacing and making changes to the race plan during the race: it is far better to consciously alter the pacing when not feeling good then trying to push through it and having a very negative outcome. By making the decision to back off, I was still in control of the pacing and ultimately I was able to pick up the pace again.

Think about a longer race – a marathon, half Ironman or Ironman. Making pacing changes in a race of that duration can have huge repercussions on the outcome of the race. If you are struggling at some point and slow the pace to recover, you may add only 5 minutes or even 10 minutes to your time. If it is a particularly bad day, you may never bring the pace back down, but at least you can race more comfortably. But, if you keep pushing until you blow up, you can easily add an hour or even worse you may not finish.

Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between “Gee, I hurt, but I can keep pushing” and “Gee, I hurt, I need to back off.” In both instances, give yourself a small break and then reassess whether you can go back to goal pace. Endurance racing is more than just a physical challenge. Being able to think quickly and make adjustments under pressure are also important for success.