-- Marathon Running Information, Coaching and Advice from Coach Joe English

Four Critical Moments in Your Marathon Performance #running #marathon

running-advice-bugThe marathon is a long race and requires a level of precision to hit a specific goal time. If you’re running for a specific time, there are to me four key moments that will determine how well you do, whether you meet your goals, and whether you’ll hit the wall or sail on through it. Today, let’s take a look at those four moments and think about why each of these is critical to your race day performance.

Runners cross into Vancouver at the Vancouver Marathon

Runners cross into Vancouver at the Vancouver Marathon

All running races require a level of pre-planning that goes way back to the beginning of the season when your training schedule was constructed. Having laid out a plan and done the work, race day is the execution of the strategy that was embodied by that plan. Where many marathon runners mess it all up is by changing up their goals or strategy on race day — or to put it another way, by forgetting what they did in training or not following their own plan. That’s why these four moments become so critical: they keep you glued to the plan that you’ve trained to execute.

Moment #1 — Twenty minutes before the race — My first and perhaps most critical moment comes just before the race. Before taking a single step of the race, and before the gun goes off, I like to spend five minutes of quiet reflection thinking through my training and what I have set out to do in this particular race. Twenty minutes is usually just before I hit the start corral, after my warm-up, and before all the singing and fireworks start. It’s also when I take a first energy gel to get the energy pump primed. I spent a few minutes asking myself some key questions and reminding myself of what I set out to do. “How did this training go in comparison to how I thought it might go?”; “How are the conditions today as compared to the way that I envisioned them?”; “I am ready to run XX time and that’s what I plan to do.” This is my final review of how things went and a reminder that grounds me to my actual capability on the day.

In my last national Duathlon competition this Summer I recall giving myself a reminder that I had not come to that race to win, but only to qualify for a spot on the next year’s team. The course wasn’t what I expected and my training had been weak due more than expected travel. Pulling myself out of the pre-race hype right before the race, helped me calm down and have more reasonable expectations. I did this while lying on the grass and talking about my expectation with my partner. She helped me remember what I was trying to do on the day and this stayed with me all through the race.

Moment #2 — Just before the end of the first quarter of the race — Probably the biggest series of moments to mess up marathon pacing coming in the first couple of miles. Perhaps the biggest mistake that people make consistently is going out too fast for their training. It just feels so good on race day, after that nice long taper. It feels good to open it up and run, especially with all of those other people around to run against. Somewhere in that first quarter of the race, after the initial couple of miles when you start to get warmed up, is the second most important moment. This is the check-point in which we ask, “am I running too fast?” Just before mile six, we should be asking that question and backing off if the answer if ‘yes’. This is early enough in the race that the the damage can be undone. Leaving this check until say 10-12 miles, you’ll never recover and you’ll most likely hit the wall even earlier than normal.

In the Boston Marathon this year, I was dealing with a hamstring problem so I was walking up one of the hills about mile 14 or 15. There were two other guys walking. I remember one guy saying, “I’ve hit the wall before, but never this early.” This is a simple case of going out too fast. That’s why checking yourself well inside the first quarter of the race is so important.

Moment #3 — At the mid point of the marathon — Mentally the “Middle Miles” are always very tough. Passing the half-way point it can be easy to fall into the “I’m only half-way done?” down-in-the-mouth kind of thinking. It’s important to re-check right at the half-way point and assess how things are going. If you’re pacing yourself correctly, then this is a time to remind yourself that you’ve done plenty of long runs along the way that were longer than this one. This is the point when you want to calm down and say, “you can do this, just relax.” And as I always tell my runners this is also the point when you want to avoid “freaking out.” Focus yourself on the middle of the race, knowing that you’ve done the easier parts and you now just want to keep eating and hydrating, and then let the time pass until the next check-point.

Moment #4 — Entering the last quarter of the race — As I hit the last quarter of the race, I usually have a key split in my head about mile 20 or 22 depending on the course. This is the last critical moment when we can assess how we’re doing. I can vividly recall this split saving me in several races. I may have felt like crap, but looking at the time at mile 20 and thinking, “yes, that’s where I’m supposed to be” then I could grit my teeth and pull myself through that last section of the race. The last few miles are always tough. They almost always hurt. Having a reminder that you’ve done exactly what you set out to do can help calm you down. This moment is also the time when I remind myself to keep up my nutrition and hydration, because my mind may be starting to go a little blank. Rechecking and saying, “OK, keep to the plan. Keep fueling. Keep drinking. You can do this” is often exactly what I need to keep on pushing in that last section of the race.

As I approach a marathon, I usually have only four key splits memorized. I know my split a miles 2 and 4, mile 13 and then mile 20 or 22. It’s easy enough to memorize these few key splits. You might notice that these map essentially to my “critical moments” because these are the times that I am checking how I am trending according to my race plan. I also will look at the mile splits at every mile, but my ability to do math rapidly declines over the course of a race. So when I hit these key points, I am checking the time and then going through the mental work that I’m recounting here.

Everyone deals with the mental strategy of the marathon a little differently. This is the way that I check myself and keep myself grounded to my plan. Find a strategy that works for you, whether it’s using a watch to give you reminders or playing a game of some kind. You know what will work for you. What’s important here is to have a framework for breaking down the race and being able to check ourselves at these critical points that will make or break your performance.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News


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