While training should challenge you, it is not meant to test you in all of the same ways that racing does. If you race or push too hard too often in training, eventually you will plateau and won’t be able to match or better your best practice performances on race day.
Make racing special by saving your best efforts for race day
I grew up playing basketball so when I started running cross country I wasn’t aerobically fit. I could sprint with short breaks between bursts, but I wasn’t very good at pacing myself or sustaining a hard effort for extended periods of time. As a prepubescent teenager from a blue-collar town in rural Oregon all I knew how to do was push myself to the limit day-in and day-out. After a few months, I was finally able to run an entire 3K cross country race without stopping. After a year of daily hard efforts, I finally made my high school junior varsity cross country team.
I continued to train hard every day in practice throughout high school, but often ended the season sick, fatigued, and unable to accomplish the goals I set out for myself at the beginning of the season. The most frustrating part is that the goals usually weren’t unrealistic given my performances in practice, but when it came time to perform at the end of the season I was usually too worn down to make it happen.
After high school, I walked-on to a successful collegiate cross country team. Nine guys on the team were on scholarship. I was not one of them. In order to travel with the team, I had to be one of the top 7. I did everything in my power to prove to my coach that I was worthy of traveling and earning a scholarship and travelling with the team. I continued my high school training approach and turned every training into a race.
Eventually I earned a spot on the traveling squad of the cross country team and after a year on the team I earned a scholarship. However, most of the teammates I beat throughout the week in training beat me in races on the weekends. I began observing my teammates and realized that they did the necessary work in practice to be ready to race without digging themselves into a hole throughout the week.
I decided to change my ways and tried to contribute more to the team by focusing less on hammering every day’s run and more on being ready on race day. For the first time since I began running I was actually healthy at the end of a season and was able to compete in and help my team win two national cross country titles.
Since that time, I have learned that training is about finding the optimum balance of stress and rest so that when it comes time to compete I am ready. This experience has helped me to help the athletes that I coach to avoid the same tendency to run too hard in training and not performing when it counts.
When the average pace of each run is the same pace day-after-day it means that the athlete is usually running too hard on the easy days and not hard enough on the hard days. By backing off on easy days and gearing up for the long and hard days, the body and mind are able to better prepare for the demands of racing when the race day comes. Conversely, when every day is a race, it is rare that one can muster up any additional energy or will power to take one’s running to the next level and truly fulfill one's potential.
Save racing for race day and you will find greater satisfaction with your race results.