A male runner runs on a track on a sunny day.
(Photo: Getty Images)

How to Run a PR in a Time Trial

Techniques for training your mind to get the most out of your body on virtual race day.

A male runner runs on a track on a sunny day.

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As COVID-19 quarantine moves into its third month, with no certain future in sight, many runners are seeking ways to keep their competitive juices flowing—and to find ways to take advantage of hard-earned training. To fill this need, virtual races and time trials are increasingly rising to the fore. 

My own club has invited other clubs to join us in a Strava-coordinated “quarantine 5K,” to be run any time during an eight-day window on the course of the runner’s choosing. To make it interesting, we added a team division, with cross-country-style scoring. 

Other clubs are doing similar things. “We just put out a COVID-19 Challenge to our entire team,” says Mike Reif, coach of the Genesee Valley Harriers in Rochester, New York. “We’re running it somewhat like the USATF Masters Grand Prix Championships, with our own scoring system.”

All of which sounds like fun but leaves an important question: how do you do well in a time trial—whether in a virtual race or on your own?

The fact of the matter is that it can be very difficult to run as well in a time trial as in an actual race. There’s nobody to chase, no collective adrenaline to draw on, nothing but you and the clock. Time trials and races are different enough that one of the things I tell runners is to think of them as separate events, each with its own PR. 

But I myself ran many PRs in time trials. 

Thinking back on it, I realize that part of my formula was that I never went into them with expectations. Often, I didn’t even plan a time trial until suddenly I found myself running fast, feeling good. 

An Expectation-Free Experiment

That always led to the question: can I hold this? Then, it was simply an experiment. I knew my PR and the pace I had to maintain. The moment I knew my splits were faster than PR, I was highly motivated. Ooh, that first mile was faster than my 3-mile PR pace. Can I hold it?

That type of thinking is very useful, says Jeff Simons, a sports psychologist at California State University, East Bay, because part of running a good time trial involves breaking free of expectations. Instead, he urges, just run, saying to yourself, it could be fast, it could be slow, who can tell? Let’s just do it. 

“Expectations,” he says, “are often cruel. Breaking free to explore what is possible in the moment presents the opportunity for flow (getting in the zone).”

This appears to be how Portland, Oregon, runner Corinna Jackson approached her first-ever time trial, after seeing her spring track and road-racing season canceled.

Jackson—who’d spent much of the previous two seasons unsuccessfully trying to break 19 minutes for the 5K—hit one of her city’s few still-open tracks, and did as Simons recommends. Lap after lap, she found the zone and just ran. Then, knowing she had the PR in the bag, she reached the final 1,000 meters determined to find every possible second.

She wound up not only breaking 19 minutes, but breaking 18:30 (she ran 18:27.3), a 45-second PR.

It helped that she knew she was fit. But when coronavirus canceled her spring plans, she also decided to take advantage of the free time to focus on her mental game. 

Partly, that involved remembering that building her 5K speed wasn’t her ultimate goal, but a stepping-stone to a hoped-for sub-3:00 marathon. That took a lot of pressure off of the 5K.

Affirmations and Visualization

Then, based on Carrie Cheadle’s 2013 book, On Top of Your Game: Mental Skills to Maximize Your Athletic Performance, she reviewed her memories of prior races. 

“I came up with a list of affirmations from successful race days,” she says. “Statements such as, I’m calm and confident. One lap/mile at a time. Smile. I rehearsed and started using them [in training].”

When it came time for the time trial, she approached it as “an opportunity to get the best out of myself and push myself to stay positive. With 1K to go, I was chomping at the bit and ready to put my full heart into those final laps. I found myself saying ‘I can!’ out loud several times during the last 600.”

Reif takes a similar approach. “I have people recall their best race and visualize it,” he says. “[Then], I ask them to write down a word that describes how they felt (1) before the race, (2) on the starting line, (3) in the middle of the race, (4) in the last portion (mile or whatever), and (5) at the finish. I have them rehearse those words, then use those words during the ‘race’ (virtual or real) at those times.”

In order to dig deep for the last 800 meters or so, he adds, he urges runners to pretend they’re in the lead, with a national title or age-group championship on the line. “Tell yourself I will not let them pass me,” he says.

Kathy Butler, head coach of Run Boulder Athletic Club in Boulder, Colorado, adds that you can reduce pressure by doing time trials at distances different from those you most normally race. “I picked an ‘off’ distance to make it harder to compare to a true race,” she says of a recent team time trial. “We had several PRs, and people really enjoyed the challenge.”

Refining Speed and Confidence

Young female athlete running on race track

Not that running a good time trial is entirely a mind game. You also have to have trained for it, as for an actual race.

It can be good to include in your training a couple of hard “race simulation” workouts, says Paul Greer, coach of the San Diego Track Club. That way, you can have confidence that the time-trial goal is feasible.

What you’d do for this depends on the race distance, but for a miler, Greer says, it might look something like this: 

  • Week 1. 2 x 400, at 800m race pace, on 30-sec recovery
  • Week 2. 3 x 400, plus an additional 300, at 1500m race pace (with 30-sec recoveries),
  • Week 3. 1-mile time trial.

What you yourself might do could differ, but the idea is that if you can’t hit the target time-trial pace in workouts in which it’s broken into pieces, it’s probably too ambitious.

On the day of the time trial, try to remember that there isn’t really that much pressure to hit the goal. Even if it’s a virtual race, your competitors aren’t running the same course, in the same weather, on the same day.

Also, remember that time trials also offer unique opportunities to experiment. 

“One athlete talked about how he would have started slower in a real race because he would have been worried about fading at the end and having people pass him,” Butler says. “But in a solo time-trial, he went for it more at the beginning and didn’t fade.”

Which brings us back to sports psychologist Simons, and what I learned all those years ago. Drop the expectations, run for the joy of it, and, as the Nike ads say, just do it.

The worst that can happen (unless you dash blindly through an intersection and get hit by a truck) is that you shrug and try it again some other day. Because the joy of time trials is that nobody else really cares.

From PodiumRunner Lead Photo: Getty Images

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