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Body awareness: The secret to unlocking training potential

  • Ultra Marathon
  • Half Marathon
  • Training

In previous articles, I’ve spoken about how physiology rewards consistency, and about the importance of systematically and building up the duration of your weekly long run so that you hit a peak around 2 to 3 weeks before the race.  If you get these two elements correct - do a minimum of 3 to 4 training runs a week plus that long run, then Two Oceans is in the bag, provided you run the race to match your training!  (Note: there are some important differences for Ultra runners – the above is intended mainly for half marathoners.  For the Ultra, the longest run may come in mid-March, not late March, and the training volume is necessarily higher).

But making this count requires a crucial component, and that is self-awareness.  Training, as I mentioned before, is nothing more than applying a stress to the body to lift its ceiling and raise the thresholds so that you can run faster, or further, because you feel fatigued and have to slow down.  But the key to harnessing these effects is to be aware of them as they happen.  Recognize that training is not merely physiological, and it’s not only your muscles, heart and lungs that you’re improving, but also your understanding of your own body.  And so in this week’s article, I want to encourage you to use your training to move to a higher state of “body awareness” so that you can better manage your physiology in training and racing.

Take your goal, for example.  We may be 46 days away from the race, but it’s really important to have a goal in mind at this stage.  Don’t wait until the day before the race to ask “what sort of pace should I run?” – do it now, and then over the course of the next 6 weeks, refine it, improve it, adjust it based on what you experience during training sessions and the odd race.  For example, decide today that based on your most recent 10km race times, your target should be a 2-hour half-marathon.  Or that based on your qualifying marathon, you are capable of a 5:30 Ultra.  Then, if the training goes well, that 2-hour target might slowly come down and you realize that actually, a 1:50 is possible.  Or perhaps your initial ambition was merely finishing, but a few “test” races have shown you that if you pace yourself correctly, 2:15 is doable.  This is exactly what elite runners will do – they’ll have test sessions that they do once every few weeks to simulate an upcoming race, and based on how they perform in these tests, they’ll form a race strategy that is often frighteningly accurate.

Pacing – getting the day right because the goal and awareness are right

It’s absolutely vital that you know these limits and your potential, because it enables you to set a best case, acceptable case and worst case scenario for race day, and then to pace yourself accordingly.  I suspect that many people under-perform, or have bad races, because they don’t have this anchor clearly enough set in their mind.   That’s awareness.

Speaking of pacing, this too is the result of awareness, and listening to your body during a run.  Many runners say that they have no ability to judge pace, and this is unfortunately true, but it shouldn’t be.  Simply being aware of pace and effort should be a priority for runners, and you don’t need a fancy watch with GPS or heart rate capabilities to tell you how fast you’re going – your body tells you, but you have to listen in order to learn.  Cues to listen to include the speed of the ground moving beneath your feet, your breathing rate, your ability to hold a conversation, the impact on your legs when you strike the ground, or an overall rating of exertion that accounts for all of the above.  I myself use breathing rate as one of the most accurate guides – I know that if I’m breathing in for 3 steps, and out for 3 steps, I am running a certain pace, whereas if I speed up slightly, then it changes to 2 steps in, 2 steps out.  Or sometimes, it’s 3 steps in, 2 out, and that’s a pace somewhere in between.  I’ve found this to be a fairly precise way of estimating my pace.  Yours may be something else, but do  I think every runner should experiment with this, and see whether they can find a cue that enables them to judge pace accurately. 

For all the sophistication of modern technology, that perception of effort still seems to be the best one in terms of guiding us on when to slow down, when to speed up.  But we have to be receptive to the signal – it’s all about, you guessed it, awareness.

Don't be misled by false awareness

On this note, to those of you who do use heart rate and GPS, these can be really useful tools to guide your training.  But you have to view them as “assistants”, not directors.  Too many people become over-reliant on them and allow them to dictate training, to their own detriment.  The most obvious example of this is someone who normally runs 5:30/km and sets off to do their easy 8km run at this pace.  But work is stressful, sleep has been scarce, family stresses are high, diet hasn’t been great, and that pace, normally easy to handle, is suddenly too fast.  If you don’t listen to your body, and understand why 5:30 suddenly feels too fast, you can easily slip into pushing too hard and overtraining.  The same can happen when you use heart rate, and that’s why again, you can learn more about your body using these tools, but they never replace the best “coach”, which is your own body.  Again, that’s only if you’re aware of what it is telling you.

The bottom line is that for the next 45 days, you’re going to be putting a great deal of time into your training.  That’s never wasted, but it is often under-realized, and if you recognize that your self-awareness will harness those hours, then you can take 7 weeks’ worth of training and get 14 weeks’ worth of value out of them!  So don’t just train, really feel it.  The belief that you will take with you to the start line, standing there with thousands of others waiting for that gun to go off, comes from knowing that you’ve done all you can, left no stone unturned, and that is only possible when you fully appreciate what you’ve done! 

Next time, we’ll start “turning over those stones”, when I’ll write about the importance of strength and stability for the race.  And here, we’re not talking mental strength, but core strength, and I’ll interview an expert who will help guide you to be better posture, lower injury risk and faster running!

Ross

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