If you’re like most recreational runners, you probably don’t have regular access to a coach. Some of the larger big-city running clubs have coaches on retainer and there a number of very good coaches who make a nice living working with runners remotely via the telephone and e-mail. But for the vast majority of amateurs, the opportunities to learn can be few and far between. And for many runners that lack of constructive criticism and encouragement can lead to stagnation and difficulty improving.
If you fall into this category, one of the best ways to soak up some invaluable knowledge is by running as many races as you can manage and watching the runners at the front of the pack. My club has two terrific coaches who have been invaluable to me, but I’ve learned just as much by watching the elite runners in my club at practice and in races. Here are five things I’ve picked up over the years from these folks that may help you get an edge in your next race:
- Race. There is no better way to improve your racing than to race as often as you can. Most of the top local and regional competitors race at least once a week during the peak racing season, and I know several elite runners who frequently race twice in a weekend. Most of us don’t need to take it that far, but racing two or three times a month and varying the distances can teach important race tactics, help improve your mental focus and eliminate the nervousness that can come when you don’t race often enough.
- Lose your watch. If you’re interested in really racing—and not just running a specific goal time—forget your splits. After you’ve run a few races in your local area, you’ll start to recognize the people in your age group who are around the same fitness level. Instead of worrying about whether you ran a 6:55 first mile, concentrate on staying with those other runners and then picking them off in the later stages. Which leads to my next tip:
- Pass like you mean it. When you decide to pass another runner, especially if it’s someone you know is strong, go by fast and keep on going. Don’t just move in right ahead of him, as if you’re in a NASCAR race. That just gives him the motive and opportunity to pass you right back. There is nothing more demoralizing in a race, especially in the last half mile, than having someone blow past you with no hesitation. Try it a few times and you’ll see.
- Do a real warmup. For years, I never did more than some light stretching and maybe 30 seconds of jogging before races. This led predictably to slow starts, bad middles and worse finishes. But I never saw the point of running before I ran. Wouldn’t I need all of that energy for the race? I’ve found that putting in an easy mile or even two before a race gets the muscles primed and ready for the task ahead. Many of my much faster friends will run as far as 4 or 5 miles before a half marathon, but then again they’re going out at 5:15 pace. Must be nice.
- Run with the gazelles. Find a few faster runners and run with them. Go out once or twice a week and put in a few fast miles with these guys and you’ll be amazed how quickly your fitness improves. If you normally train at an 8-minute pace, find some friends who run 7:15s and do five or six miles with them as a tempo run. You’ll also have the chance to ask questions and get free advice.
Try these tactics and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the improvement in your racing results. And if you’re not, remember that you got these tips from Anne.