Personal Best or Personal Worst: How to Review your Race Performance
Just lately there has been a flood of disappointed posts in some of the social media groups that I follow from people who didn’t achieve their much longed-for personal best. Not every race goes to plan, so here's a guide on how to review what went wrong and what went right in your last race and how to correct it.
First Medal, Lunch, Relax…
First things first, in the aftermath and emotion of an important race, the first thing you need to do is refuel, relax and chill out for a bit. If things didn’t go to plan, there is no point analysing what went wrong in mile 5 whilst you’re still standing shivering in your sweaty kit a few metres from the finish line. Take a break.
In the hours and days following an important race, however, it is well worth taking a look at what you did in the lead up to and on the day of the race and try and work out what went well and which areas can be improved upon.
Too Much, Too Little? No Specific Training?
One common error that can lead to disappointment goes a bit like this; we feel good, we’re fit, we’re strong, we’re fast – and so in a burst of enthusiasm we sign up for every race we can find for the next few months. That’s a potential new PB every week!!
Now, managed correctly, racing often can be ok. The race environment is fun, social, stimulating, why not take part in a race rather than train alone? Apart from the fact that now and again it can be helpful to train alone (but that’s another post), the problem with racing every weekend is that we either have to learn to use some races as training runs (very difficult for most people once they’ve pinned on their race number…) or sooner or later you’re going to stop feeling fast, fit and strong and start feeling tired, worn out and not quite on form…
A common reaction when things haven’t gone to plan – especially with the longer distances – is the desire to quickly find another race and try again. Again, sometimes this works. I have done two marathons just a few weeks apart, and I did improve my time, but just by a few seconds. If I’d spaced the races out better I would have had more time to recover, review my training program and maybe achieved a much better time on my second attempt.
Another mistake is to overestimate the amount and/or quality of the training that we have completed in our attempt to achieve our personal objective. When I first started running I didn’t like the sound of interval training, fartlek or anything that took me out of my comfort zone – when in fact that is just what I needed to make real improvements (I also discovered that "difficult" training sessions can be more fun than slow running and lead to a much greater sense of achievement). Take an honest look at your program, think back, (this is when it is very handy to have a training diary) did you tend to focus on your "favourite" type of training sessions, neglecting the “tough” ones?
If you have time goals it is important to find the right training program for you. A few weeks ago I wrote how I found it much easier to run a 3.21 marathon than a 4.30 marathon once I changed to a marathon-specific, custom training program. The fact is there is no standard training program that can get the best out of everyone - all free, downloadable programs are by their very nature generic. So it’s well worth taking a look at your personal strengths and weaknesses in relation to your training program and your chosen distance. (Contact us if you’d like to find out more about our online coaching services and custom training programs.)
Rest, Sleep and Diet
It’s not just about training though. Even if your training has gone exactly to plan, a poor diet or lack of sleep in the days leading up to the race can mean we don’t perform at our best.
In any races where you expect to be running for two hours or more, it is important to eat carbohydrates the day before the race. Remember too, that breakfast is important – and race morning is not the time to try something new and exotic, stick to tried and tested to avoid stomach issues!
Many people suffer from race day nerves and sleep badly the day before a major race. This shouldn’t be a problem if you have slept well and rested in the days leading up to the race – but if you’ve been burning the candle at both ends don’t be surprised if you don’t break any records on race morning.
If you’re visiting a new city for an important race leave the tourist visits until after you’ve collected your medal – or, if you can, get there a few days before so you have time to go out and about and then relax the day before the event.
If all of your preparation went to plan, you trained well, slept well, ate well and rested up the day before the race, beware there are still several issues that could thwart you in your quest for a personal best if you’re not careful!
You’ve probably read this before, but it is important. Plan your route to the race, get there in plenty of time so that you’re not running round looking for a bathroom or the start (!) as the gun goes off.
Choose your shoes and clothing carefully. Nothing new, all should be tried and tested here too otherwise you risk blisters, chaffing or just the distraction of being uncomfortable. Dress for the weather. If you’re concerned about being cold at the start, wear layers, or bring along an old sweater or bin bag that you can dispose of at the start. If you wear running sleeves you can always pull them down to your wrists if you get warm. Sunglasses will stop you screwing up your face in the sun and help you stay relaxed.
The Race Itself
Even if you’ve done everything right until now, a few simple errors can turn a potential best time into a race you just want to forget.
Just before the start, try to stay relaxed, focus on what you plan to do and how you’re going to do it. By now you should know what your race pace will be – don’t get caught up in the enthusiasm of the start and set off too fast. Most of us have made this mistake at some point and it almost never ends well. You can get a good idea of your potential race times (with the right training), training paces and race paces by using our training tool here (paces shown in km, miles coming soon).
If you find yourself starting towards the back of the pack and get held back by the crowds in the first few miles, avoid the temptation to continuously zigzag to try to make up the time immediately. Try to maintain a steady pace, you’ve got the whole race to make up any time lost at the start.
Get into the habit of drinking at every water station, even if it is just a sip or two. In longer races you can consider taking gels or supplements if you’ve already tried them out in training. Here too try to avoid surprises, nothing new (your stomach may not like it) and always make sure you drink water at the same time if you take a concentrated gel.
Do not let yourself be ruled by your gps watch. First of all, they are not 100% accurate (how many times have people said that the measured, approved course is long because their gps says so….). You are much better off using a stopwatch and checking your pace each mile marker, if you have prepared well you should have a good feel for your race pace, relax into it and trust yourself.
You can’t control everything
Sometimes it is just not the right day.
It might be the weather. If it is very hot you may find you simply can’t maintain your planned pace, it’s much better to slow down a little and finish safe, healthy and well, ready to race another day. I’ve raced in snow, hale, wind and sunshine – sometimes all in the same race - and each of them present an additional challenge.
Sometimes you do everything right but then important family or work issues arise and you find yourself unable to dedicate as much time as you had planned to your training.
Not every course is “quick”. Take a look at our previous article on how to choose the right course for a marathon personal best. The more challenging the course, the more difficult it will be to shave seconds or minutes off of your best time.
It’s not (really) about the time
In the end, if you enjoyed yourself, tried your best and it didn’t work out as planned, well there is always next time. Most of us run because we enjoy it, because it keeps us fit, because we meet like-minded people, for any number of reasons. Whilst time can be a motivator, it is just one of many many reasons to run and keep running.
In my experience, the racing community is one of the most open-minded and welcoming groups of people, and no-one will think any the less of you if you haven’t yet reached your dream objective. We just enjoy sharing the joy, pain, challenge of pushing ourselves and discovering our own limits, and we all know that some days it goes well and others, not so well.