Racing Strategy for Young Runners
Anything can happen during a race. Having a strategy in place will make sure you're ready for it all.
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When learning to race at any distance, strategy is important. Racing middle and long distances doesn’t mean sprinting from the starting gun to the finish line. Melody Fairchild likes to negative split (run the second half faster than the first). This is a common approach of world-class athletes. In both of Melody’s Foot Locker Cross Country National Championship wins, she did not take the lead until after the first mile. This requires trusting your mental strength as well as your fitness. Having a racing strategy is important for runners.
To race well, it’s important to learn to pace yourself. You can do this by practicing varying your effort in workouts or on easy to moderate runs. Pay attention to how you spread your effort throughout a session. You can also run without a watch or split cues to determine—by feel—the rhythm of your effort.
Pacing yourself is like making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Are you globbing spoonfuls of peanut butter on one side of the bread, or are you carefully spreading it across in an even layer? Once you add jelly, is your ratio to PB off, or is it balanced? Try testing out a few different approaches in practice. Worst-case scenario? You bonk or get booty lock (that cramping feeling in your rear and legs when you’ve run all-out). As long as you walk away with new knowledge and continued curiosity about how to build your most delicious PB&J sandwich, you’re stronger for it.
Another key to good racing is to start out confidently. Get out quickly enough to get into a smart position without draining your immediate energy stores. Then progress into a rhythm, breathe, and as the adrenaline from the start wears off, remind yourself not to fall asleep. Instead, tell yourself it’s time to get to work. Start moving up, allowing competitors and teammates alike to motivate you into getting the most out of yourself.
Once you’ve dialed in your pacing and start, work on making moves during races. Throw in a surge, challenge someone who runs up on your shoulder, stick with someone who passes you for 100 meters. The goal? Giving maximum effort—your very best—up until the split second you cross the finish line! Competition makes us dig deep.
No matter your goal or plan, make sure to keep your eyes and ears in the race in order to observe and react to what’s going on around you. Races rarely go as planned. Often they’re filled with jostling, unexpected moves, and even falls. Here are tactics for tackling some of the challenges you might face.
You’re going to get elbowed, possibly even in the boobs or kidneys. Be assertive. Protect your space. Learn how to stand up for yourself without being deliberately or unnecessarily rough; do not impede any competitor or you will get DQ’d. Activate your forearms. Make them like steel so when someone pushes against you, you are a solid barrier. Be fierce! Take up space!
If you tend to get cramps in your torso, try this prerace exercise: Lie on the ground. Bend your knees with your feet on the ground, hip-width apart. Place your arms out to the sides, relaxed with your palms up. Fold your right leg over your left. Gently drop your knees to the right, and turn your head to the left, allowing rotation to travel up through your spine. Inhale and exhale three times, as deeply and completely as possible. Take a fourth inhale and hold it for 10 seconds, then exhale forcefully, until all the air is out of your lungs. Switch sides and repeat. If it happens in your race, try to breathe into it and hang tough.
If you take a tumble in a race, pop up! Unless you’re injured, use the surge of adrenaline that will course through your veins to regain your stride. Work steadily to find a new position. If you fall down frequently in practice or races, you might be tired or underfueled, in which case try taking a day off, drinking a milkshake, and incorporating single-leg and proprioceptive drills into your training. Also work on upper-body strength, ankle mobility, and lower-leg strength.
It happens. How will you respond? First, dig up that grit inside you—you’ve definitely got some—and resist the urge to slow down. Try to surge with the other racer. If they persist, as you are being passed, try imagining a rubber band (or hair tie or scrunchie) attached from your belly button to the center of the passing runner’s back. Let it pull you along and hang tough!
Feeling Tired, Uncomfortable, In Pain
Start with the idea that if you begin something, you will finish it. Accept that racing can be uncomfortable, searing, and sometimes even pukey. It makes us feel countless fleeting sensations. If you feel sharp or pinpointed pain, ask yourself if it is a damaging kind of pain. If it is, call it a day and take care of yourself. But if the pain isn’t signaling an injury, remind yourself that it is there to chisel you, to develop your grit and resilience, and to test your determination and strength. Embrace it. Don’t forget, the faster you run, the sooner it’ll be done!
Going Out Too Hard and Bonking
Practice pacing. Be humble. Check your ego at the Porta Potty on the way to the start line. To avoid fading, start more conservatively (slightly slower) in the first third of the race so you can pass competitors later. But it’s a balancing act, and the trick is to not go out too slowly. You want to use up everything you have to give by the time you stride across that finish line. If you’re bonking because you’re low on energy (signs include dizziness, lightheadedness, stomach grumbling, feeling weak) then eat more and/or more frequently, including more protein, carbs, and fat. Have a bigger snack or meal prerace (making sure to leave enough time to digest).
Stress, nerves, and running hard can cause us to sprint for the toilet or garbage can. Relax, this happens to most runners, whether they admit it or not! If you tend to experience GI distress before or during races, test out easier-to-digest prerace fuel (such as plain toast, bananas, white rice, or applesauce). If your digestive issues exist during normal training or when you’re not running, see a doc.
Coming in Last
If you gave your best and worked for every inch of the race, congratulations! No matter what, there’s no place to go but up. Keep training, and focus on areas that need work, such as your aerobic fitness or your final kick. Incorporate fast strides, speed, and A, B, and C skips so that you can keep driving when called upon. Did you finish last because you gave up? Work on your mental fortitude.
Woo-hoo! Own it. Embrace it. Celebrate it. It’s awesome, but know that it doesn’t define your worth. Winning may bring with it some extra attention and pressure upon you or a sense of needing to live up to expectations. Acknowledge that, then take it one step at a time, knowing we all win some and we all lose some. Practice mindfulness to stay grounded.
Is your coach, parent, or brain hypercritical of your race? That can be a difficult experience. After your race, try to decipher what you are feeling and how the race actually went. Competition makes you dig, and this includes digging deep for something positive about your race, even if it’s just the fact that you showed up and crossed the finish line. No matter what, if you put effort forth, take pride in the fact that you uncovered new layers of yourself and gained fitness. Remember that there’s a lot of value in putting yourself out there, pushing yourself and taking risks, no matter the result or what your brain or someone else tries to tell you.
Adapted from Girls Running by Elizabeth Carey and Melody Fairchild with permission of VeloPress.