June 11, 2014

On Race Day It All Comes Down to a Run

The swim start may scare you but the run is where the real suffering happens if you’re not prepared.

Most people focus on what to do in training but knowing how to save your legs for the run during the race is critical.  I’ve seen both training-challenged and super prepared athletes reduced to a shuffle well before the finish line.

How does this happen?  And more importantly what can you do to avoid the dreaded death march on race day?

Bottom line is this:  Your ability to resist fatigue has to do with making smart moment to moment choices… specifically, choices that keep you moving forward at a sustainable pace without unnecessary spikes in effort.

Here are a few common mistakes that athletes make on race day that lead to failure on the run.

Going out too hard at the swim start:   Hammering it for the first 200 or so yards and then settling into your race pace is a common strategy.  That’s fine if you trained for it and actually do settle into a pace you can handle.  If you haven’t, you can easily put yourself into oxygen debt which will force you to slow down and recover.  This wastes valuable energy for no gain.

High kick rate in the swim:  A good, rhythmic kick is an important part of your stroke. Unless you have a particularly strong kick, however, increasing the rate won’t add much to your swim speed and can lead to early fatigue.

Ride above your pay grade on the bike:  When other competitors flash by you it’s easy to let your competitive nature drive you to push a higher pace.  But unless this is a training race and you’re purposely riding harder than you trained to test your fitness, you’re setting yourself up for an extra-long, frustrating day.  You can’t out race your training.

Try to make up for lost time:  Imagine this: You’re on track for a personal record with a Kona slot fully in sight.  Suddenly you get a flat and to make matters worse the tire change goes badly.  After 20 long minutes you’re back on course and you decide to pick up the pace in hopes of reducing the lost time only to find your legs shot when you head out on the run.  Oh yeah.  This happened to me.

Bolt out on the run like a pro:  Running too hard in the first half of the run can easily leave you hanging on for dear life when you turn for home on the second half.  Going too hard too quickly slows the normal adjustment your body must make to effectively transition to efficient running form.

Now that you know what NOT to do, here’s what you should do instead:

Focus on your breath:  Yes, I know you were planning on breathing throughout the day.  But this is about focusing on taking deep breathes when the gun goes off.  This will help you avoid spiking your heart rate, which is likely creeping up a bit from the excitement of the moment.   Deep breathing will also help you to stay in control and build into a solid swim pace at a comfortable effort.

Ride one gear easier than you can hold:  This tactic lets you build into your pace without over stressing your body during the transition from swimming to riding.  It works particularly well in long course races because physically and psychologically you’re building momentum and you can count on having more in the tank as the day goes on.  Combine this tactic with good pacing and you’re well on your way to a faster run split.

Spin more in the last few miles:  When that “horse to the barn” syndrome sets in its hard not to push big gears to finish the bike leg FAST.  Try instead to increase your cadence up to 90 RPMs or more in those last few miles to loosen your legs and prepare them for quicker turnover in the run.

Stretch before T2:  In those last few miles take a moment to stretch out your back and calf muscles.  Just stand up and lean your hips forward to loosen your back muscles and then drop each pedal one at  time to the 6 o’clock position and push your heel down to lengthen your calf muscles.  This will make it a little easier to jump off your bike, dash into T2, and transition to an upright running position.

Focus on fast leg turnover first:  If you want a faster run leg you need to start with a higher leg turnover.  The reason is simple because after the swim and bike your legs will be tired and your stride shorter.  Your best weapon at this point is a quick cadence that uses your cardio system more than your leg strength.  That way you have a better chance of holding your pace through the second half of the run.

Talk to yourself…Positively:  To help you get into a good run rhythm it’s a good idea to have something in your quiver that gets you focused.  You can count your breaths, repeat a word or phrase like “quick” or “smooth and strong” to yourself, repeatedly count from one to four, hum or sing a favorite song, and by all means smile!  Remember there’s no right or wrong; there’s only what works for you.

That’s it for this week.  Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.

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