How to Learn From Your Race Experience

Analyse the details of your key events to improve your performance next time.

“If you had a great race, you’ll want to know how to repeat the experience,” says Alexa Martin, a running coach. If you fell short of your training target, whether it was a time goal in a race or a key workout, you can learn from that, too. “As gut-wrenching and heartbreaking as these experiences may be, if you assess the carnage thoroughly and honestly, you will uncover the clues that will lead to your next big running breakthrough,” says Martin. Discover what went right – or wrong – by conducting the following post-mortem as soon as you catch your breath.

Record The Facts
Write down everything you did the week before and during a race or big workout. Include when and what you ate and drank, how you slept, what you wore and how it felt, and how your warm up went. Also include weather conditions and any aches and pains. No detail is too small. “If you wear a hat you’ve never worn before and it’s bugging you, that can throw your race,” says Jess Cover, a running coach. Separate the things that went well – like your fuelling and hydration strategies, for example. These are now part of your formula for success. Then identify the things you had no control over, like freak weather. What’s left are the factors you can improve. Prioritise them during your next training cycle, but focus on just one or two at a time so you don’t get overwhelmed, says Tom Holland, author of The Marathon Method.

Examine Your Head
Did you fall apart or stay strong throughout your run? Were you distracted or energised? Did you have fun? Jot down everything about your mental state that day, taking care to note fluctuations in mood, says Martin. “I know that at about 60 per cent through a race, I typically decide racing isn’t fun, and it really doesn’t matter,” she says. “Then suddenly, about 85 per cent of the way through, I care again.” Identifying such patterns can help you devise coping strategies. To overcome tough stretches, Martin uses mantras like “Stay loose and relaxed” and “This is only temporary.”

Also note any circumstances that brought you down – a huge crowd stifled your start, perhaps, or your iPod died. “Stress is a choice,” says Holland. “It’s a process, and it’s often unnecessary.” You can’t control what’s happening around you, but you can control your reaction: practise positive self-talk to counter anxiety, like “I did my homework, I am ready” and “I feel great.”

Study Your Splits
Whether you met your time goal or not, analysing your splits will help you assess your pacing strategy, says Holland. If your pace was consistent or got slightly faster in the second half of your run (a negative split), put pacing under your “Done Good” column. If you sped up substantially after the halfway point – running, say, one to two minutes faster in the second half of a 5K, or more than five minutes faster in a half-marathon – consider a more ambitious goal.

Should your splits reveal a slowdown in the middle or later kilometres, you likely started too fast or lost focus. Next time, plan to run near a pace group targeting a finish time about 10 minutes slower than your target, stick with them for the first third of the race, then speed up, says Martin. Or break your run into thirds: complete the first third comfortably (15 to 20 seconds slower than goal pace), the second at a hard but sustainable pace, and the final third at maximum effort.

To hone your race-day focus, practice tempo runs, says Cover. Beginners can alternate five minutes of comfortably hard running with two to three minutes’ rest for 20 minutes; more advanced runners can run about 20 seconds slower than 5K pace for 15 minutes, building up to three 20-minute tempo bouts in a single workout.

What Went Wrong?
Easy solutions for common race problems

The problem: Sluggish start
The solution: Revise your warm up. Do three to eight 100 metre strides and drills like high knees and skipping to prime your body for speed.

The problem: Heavy legs
The solution: Review your taper. Reduce mileage by 30 per cent the week before a 5K; by 50 per cent 1.5 weeks before a half; by 30 per cent two weeks before a marathon; and by 70 per cent the week before a marathon.

The problem: Rushed prerace routine
The solution: Compile a gear, food, and to-do checklist. Begin marking things off the day before – and get to the race earlier.

The problem: Gut distress
The solution: Practice eating and drinking during training. Write everything down and make small changes to find what sits well.

RUN BETTER: If you missed your goal by a lot, you might be aiming too high. Run a short tune-up race before your next event to gauge your readiness.

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