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The critical non-essentials

  • Ultra Marathon
  • Half Marathon
  • Training

The critical non-essentials - the final 1%.  It's in the details

With three weekends of training left before the big day, it's time to start making the final preparations.  Training wise, you're either in the taper phase after a good, solid month or two of high mileage, or you're maintaining the programme to build that last little bit of fitness and form that will carry you around the peninsula on race day.

But if training and preparation are responsible for 80% of the result, then it's important to understand that you don't simply prepare your muscles for hours of activity, your joints for thousands of "impacts" and your heart and lungs for deep, oxygen-supplying breathing.  You also prepare mentally, and you prepare the small details that go into making the race a success.  These are what I'd call the critical non-essentials - they are non-essential because the truth is, you can get away with not doing them.  Indeed, of the 25,000 or so people hitting the trails and roads, those who pay attention to the details will be in the minority.

But, they're critical because they are often the difference between a PB and a narrow miss, a bronze vs a silver vs a Sainsbury vs a blue (whichever category you fall into), and perhaps more importantly, can be the difference between having a great day out and surviving the day because of little things, those 1% factors that we too often fail to prepare.

Included in these factors are the following:

  • Time of day that you train compared to race times
  • Pre-race diet, including waking time, eating time and what you eat
  • Managing the warm-up - do you even need it?
  • Pace judgment
  • In-race strategies for fuel replacement and hydration

The golden rule:  Race day should not be guesswork

As we hit race week, I'll discuss these in far more detail.  And it may seem like a really long way out to be talking about race-day strategies now, but it's actually the perfect time, for the simple reason that the golden rule is "Race like you train", or "Race day should not be guesswork".

That means that just as you've paid attention to getting your legs and lungs ready for the hills and you've been diligent about doing the long runs, you need to be diligent about rehearsing your race-day strategies.  This is particularly important for a big race like Two Oceans, where it's easy to be overwhelmed first by the expo, where dozens of retailers will be punting their products and guaranteeing you PBs based on a miracle mixture that you've never tried before, right to race day, where the sheer number of people, the noise, and the festivities can derail a plan that is less than certain.

So in terms of your expectations, and your body management, the next three weeks are vital for teaching yourself what to do in the moment, taking the guesswork away.

Some tips in this regard:

  1. It really pays to do at least a few training sessions at the same time of day as the race.  Generally, our routines force us into running either in the afternoon or the morning.  There are also physiological and performance differences between morning and evening exercise, and the latest research suggests that there are genes which predispose us to be morning people (larks) or evening people (owls).  The problem is that with a 6am or a 6.25am start, you may be well outside your normal routine, if you are one of those evening people.  The result is that you're unaccustomed to the early start, the effort at that time of day, and I think this is a big factor, particularly for those among you going for a faster time.  So my advice is to try to get at least 2 runs a week in at the same time of day - it means changing your routine, but the reward is worth it, because the "shock" of doing one single run before sunrise will be taken away!
  2. Practice the pre-race meal.  The other reason to do these early morning runs is that it will force you to be aware of, and perfect, your pre-race meal.  It's easy to get the eating right when you train at 6pm, because you have lunch, then a mid-afternoon "top up meal" and leave yourself a good two hours before you run.  But on race day, when the gun goes off at 6am, it's a different proposition, and many runners will be affected by this, because they'll try to have their normal breakfast only an hour before.  If that normal breakfast has dairy in it, or protein, it's often a recipe for disaster, because it's too close to the race to properly digest, and the result is stomach problems from the very first kilometer.  Added to this, the scientific evidence suggests that the last meal before exercise should be at least 90 minutes before (preferably two hours), because when we eat closer to the race than this, we switch on our body's "storage" functions, and the result is that we are not primed to burn fat, but rather to store it, along with carbohydrates, which often means we get low blood sugar levels BECAUSE we ate too close to the race.  In this regard, you're better off not eating anything, and waiting until you start the race before having your first 'meal' of the day.  But the end result is that the normal routine just doesn't fit into a race morning.  Pre-race nerves, the old butterfly in the stomach phenomenon, further complicates life, and it's very common for runners to have some kind of stomach issue on race day.

    The secret is figuring it out.  That's why running a few races is so valuable - the experience this provides is invaluable, and for most Ultra runners, you'll have done enough racing to have figured out what you can and can't handle on race day.  It's a little more difficult for the half marathon, because so many novice runners don't race enough to learn the 'boundaries'.  Therefore, use the next three weeks to figure it out.  Practice a medium to long run in the morning, with a small meal an hour to 90 minutes before.  If that's a problem, then you may need 2 hours, which starts to become impractical, and therefore tells you that you should wait until the race starts until you eat or drink something with carbohydrate in it.  Experiment with what you eat, learn whether you handle fruits (I can't, for example, look at a banana without getting stomach problems, others can eat two), whether it's better to drink something.  There are no hard and fast rules, only that you should try things out and see what works.
  3. Pace judgment.  All the great training in the world can be lost within the first 20 minutes of the race if you get the pacing wrong.  Again, for Ultra runners, this is likely less of a concern, because of experience in marathons and other races.  For the half marathon this year, it's going to be particularly challenging, because the route is different and now includes a tough hill at 2km.  That hill lasts 2km, and at 4km a long descent provides what will feel like much needed respite.  The problem is, if you err on the side of speed on either the up or downhill portion of this climb, you'll pay it back on Southern Cross 6 km later.  Too hard on the uphill will take a good deal out of you, and too fast on the descent will soften up your legs, and both scenarios will compromise your second half.  So it's really important to know how to manage those first 2km.  

    I've run the hill half a dozen times in the last 3 weeks, and it is tough enough to slow you down by around 45 seconds to 1 min/km.  At a 4:45 min/km tempo, I found that I was running 5:45/km.  At a 4 min/km tempo, I was running 4:45/km, and at 6 min/km tempo, I was doing 6:40/km  (by tempo, I mean judging the effort, and also using heart rate to try to control the pace to be able to compare it to running on the flat roads).

    The result is that you'll lose around 1:30 to 2 minutes on this climb, and you won't make it all back on the descent - maybe 50% to 70% of it can be recovered.  That should be built into race strategy, so that you don't burn the candle out before the next big hill.  If you're in Cape Town, I'd strongly encourage you to run the uphill section of the climb at least twice before race day, and if you're not, then find something similar - it's 2km at an average of around 6%, with a steepest section of 9% for around 800m.
  4. Another consideration, more for those going for quicker times, is the warm-up.  Do you really need one?  It's less important the slower the target pace.  For someone running say 4 min/km (those silver medal hunters among you), it's essential, because going from cold to 4 min/km is a physiological stress that can hurt.  Also, given that a climb comes only 2km into the race, you want to be warm when you hit it, not feeling like your legs are lead pencils.  So for you, the warm-up is important.  For the rest, particularly in the bigger half marathon field, it's less vital, because the start is often very congested and the first few kilometers act as the warm-up as you navigate the crowds.  Let that feed your energy, warm up on the go, and then make sure you finish strongly, not start fast and fade.
  5. And finally, strategies for in the race are always tricky, because you don't have the luxury of frequent water stations on training runs, and certainly carrying your own energy can be difficult.  Once again, the value of races is shown here because you can learn what does or doesn't work for you.  But if you have no idea what to do in the race in terms of replacing the energy, and also drinking, then try a few things out in the next few weeks.  I'll talk about this much more as we get closer to the race, particularly in terms of how we balance water, energy containing sports drinks, gels and other sources of energy.  I won't go into that now, unless there are specific questions, by my advice is much the same as it was for the other factors - use the next three weeks, and those medium to long runs, to test out some options.  Drink Powerade or Coke (that's what is given out on the route), take a gel or two, or some jelly babies, see if you can handle a potato on the run, and learn from your mistakes in practice, before you have to learn on race day!

Those are some brief tips - as has been the case all through this series of blog posts, my aim is to have the first word, to get the ball rolling and I'd love for you to fire away with questions that maybe popped into your head as you read this.  There is only one principle to take note of here, and it's to practice what you plan to race with, but if there are any specific things, please use the comments below to ask and I'll try to answer.

As we get closer to the race, we'll have a look at the route, and talk about getting the last week just right for a perfect peak.

Ross

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