Building Race Day Strategies on the Long Run

Many people view the “long run” as a dress rehearsal for an upcoming race.

In some ways it is.  It offers a fantastic opportunity to run a significant portion of your race course, and test out gear and fueling methods.

In other ways it is not.  Running a long training run at race pace isn’t such a great idea.  It takes time to recover, precious time which you may not have enough of before race day.

I treat a long run as what it is, a chance to log a bunch of miles.  I plan to write quite a bit more about running long, but today I want to focus on using the long run as a chance to make observations about your running and building a strategy for an upcoming race.

This could fall in to the category of posts that is more for me than for you, but I hope that you will find some inspiration to develop strategies based on your performance on your own long runs.

When I trained for my first half marathon last year, my strategy was simple:  finish.  This time around, I’m going for a huge PR, so my training is much more focused on pace and my long runs are much longer.

In fact, this morning’s long run was a thirteen miler.  Being the overachiever that I am, I couldn’t resist the urge to go the extra .1 and unveil a “time to beat” for race day.  I didn’t make this decision until I saw my Garmin go past 13.  This was not a time trial like the 10K that I ran last week.  At no point during this run was I “racing” and I didn’t have a finish time in mind.

Observation #1

The first three miles of any long run are always the most challenging.

This could be purely psychological; knowing that you have X miles ahead of you can be daunting and slogging through the first few when there are still so many more can be anxiety-inducing.  But once you’re past those first three miles, you can tell yourself, oh well I only have X many left, and I can handle that!

When I have a 10+ mile long run scheduled, I tell myself that the first three miles are a warm-up.  I pay no mind at all to my pace at the time, and usually find that I’ve run about 10:20 for each of those three miles.  I find that by including my warm-up in the mileage total, the number of miles seems less threatening.  While I wouldn’t adopt that strategy on race day, in training it has its benefits — not the least of which is temporal.  I mean, I don’t have all day.

I tell myself those first three miles are going to suck, but that I will get through them.  Often, I allow myself a break at the end of those first three miles.  It is typically a bathroom break.  I rationalize that if it were a race day, I would get to use the restroom just before the race, about 30-40 minutes after leaving my apartment, just after finishing my warm up.  For long runs, I usually consume two glasses of water before leaving my apartment.  After a half hour or so, I will definitely need to “go”, so I factor it in to my plan.  This also gives me the chance to adjust my gear, if necessary, before really taking off.

After this quick break, my legs feel much more loose and ready to go.  This is undoubtedly because of the three mile warm up they’ve just had.  Also, maybe I’m more motivated and less threatened by the fact that I have only X many miles remaining to my run.  I can handle that!  And my pace quickly drops down in to the 9:XX’s

Race Day Strategy:  Hydrate before leaving the apartment and warm up before the race.  Stretch, jog an easy mile and then do strides.  Finish the warm up within 30-40 minutes of race start time.

Observation #2

Telling yourself there is no way out of this is one hell of an effective way to get yourself to finish a super long run.

I am suddenly imagining how much more productive I would be if I took this no-bullshit, no-excuses, no-prisoners approach in every aspect of my life.

Race Day Strategy:  Run like hell and don’t stop until the finish.  And then, you know, jog around a little.

Observation #3

Rolling hills take way more out of me than one steady, steep incline.

As per my training plan, today’s long run was technically scheduled for Sunday.  But I am traveling tomorrow and will be away for a week after that.  I wanted to run my last long training run of this cycle in Central Park, where I could really guage my performance on the race course.

The first 6+ miles of the NYC Half are run on the full loop of Central Park.  Since I had 13 miles of training to get in this morning, I did a double loop plus a little extra.  The park itself is quite hilly, but most Central Park runners will point out the three most challenging.

The steepest hill in Central Park, with the longest ascent, is Harlem Hill in the northwestern portion of the park.  When I do hill training, I run repeats of the northern loop of the park, running this hill over and over again.  Perhaps that is why I found that I don’t lose nearly as much time on it as I would have thought.  On my first lap, I fell off of my previous mile’s pace by about 20 seconds.  On my second lap of the park, I lost about 40 seconds here.

The second is Cat Hill, but I find that I lose little, if any, time here.

The third is more than one.  It is the series of rolling hills that travel down the west side of the park and commence immediately after the decline from Harlem Hill.  I lost 40 seconds on the first lap, and almost nothing on my second.  This shows me that when I hit these hills early in my run, they are more challenging than when my legs are better warmed up.  A good warm-up plus the fact that the race starts on the west side (meaning I will hit these hills later in the race than I did on my first lap this morning) means that I should be in better shape to stay apace on these hills.  Nevertheless, I shouldn’t allow myself to forget the beat down they gave me during the Ted Corbitt 15k in December.

Race Day Strategy:  Give myself one minute of leeway when coming down the west side of the park.

Observation #4

My legs really wake up at mile 6.

This is the point where I reach flow.  I am one with the road.  Leg turnover feels so natural.  I could just keep going.

Race Day Strategy:  Shortly after Mile 6, the race course exits Central Park and heads down a mostly flat course for the remaining 6+ miles.  If my legs “get into the zone” around mile 6, I can really capitalize on this and take full advantage of that flat portion of the course.  Negative split like whoa.

Observation #5

Two gels are better than three.

Today I planned to test out my race-day fueling strategy.  I ate a banana and a Larabar before leaving my apartment.  After that, I planned to take one gel at mile 4, one at mile 7 and one at mile 10.  At mile 4, I wasn’t quite ready for my first gel so I took it around mile 4.5.  At mile 7.5 I wasn’t quite ready and took my second gel close to the start of mile 8.  By mile 10, I was reeling from all of the caffeine already in my system and resolved that I didn’t need another gel, but by mile 12 I was pretty hungry.

Race Day Strategy:  Carry three gels, but only take a third if it feels necessary.  Eat a little bit more right before the start (probably a second Larabar).

Observation #6

One or two sub 8:00 miles may happen.  Go with it.

Out of the blue, it seemed, I ran a sub-8:00 mile.  It was mile 10, after my second go around Harlem Hill and the west side’s rolling hills.  All of a sudden, I took off.  It felt natural and it felt great, so I let it flow.  After that I kept the rest of my miles at a sub-9:00 pace.

Race Day Strategy:  Knowing sub 8:00 min/mile isn’t my usual “relaxed pace”, try to keep these in the final third of the race.  There is always a chance that I will need to jog to recovery after a hardcore mile, and I wouldn’t want to lose time here.  Keep an eye on total elapsed time, and let the good miles roll!  But they’re all good miles, really.

Observation #7

Mile 10 is no longer a hallucinogenic.

I think of the runner’s high as that feeling of euphoria and sense of accomplishment that follows a good run.  Occassionally it takes on a visual representation and my face is flushed with a cheerful glow.  I look revived and I feel great.

But there seems to be another high that can come with running.  When training for my last two half marathons, anytime I crossed mile 10, I would be overcome with emotion.  The world would seem to be moving in slow motion.  Suddenly everything would become a blur.

That doesn’t happen anymore.  Mile 10 feels empowering, especially when I know the plan is to keep on going! 

Today I ran mile 10 in 7:53.

Race Day Strategy:  I am now a much more seasoned runner, so I can maintain focus even at this late point in the race.  Stay focused on my goal.

Observation #8

Don’t rely on the law of averages to get you to your goal pace, though it may.

Today, my pace was all over the place.  I ran with what felt comfortable since this was a long training run.  For the first few miles, that meant low 10’s, then 9:xx for the next few miles, then a sub-8:00 mile followed by the last few at a bit quicker than goal pace (sub 9:00).  I finished in great time, but I know that my race-pace speed workouts will definitely pay off on race day.

Race Day Strategy:  Try to string together a bunch of miles at goal pace, but if in the later portion of the race faster feels better, ride it!

Observation #9

I finished this 13.1 mile long run in 2:03:59

This is a 13 minute half marathon PR for me, and I wasn’t even racing.

Race Day Strategy:  My goal pace of sub 9:00 min/mile with a finish time of 1:57 or better is reaffirmed!

Observation #10

Today was a very good day.

This was a super long run that could have gone in many different directions, but it went incredibly well.  I have a great deal of confidence and pride flowing from this run.

Race Day Strategy:  Set goals not expectations, trust your training and Run On™

My little disclaimer:  I am not a doctor or medical professional; nor am I a certified personal trainer.  The information provided in this post is a description of my own experience and opinions.  What works for me may not work for you.  If you are interested in beginning a new exercise routine, please contact your physician.

3 thoughts on “Building Race Day Strategies on the Long Run

  1. I love this post. Don’t we all go through some kind of otherworldly mental experience during these long runs? No matter how much music, gels, etc. it’s always a test of willpower. Looks like you came out on top. Nice work. Please stop by teachtorun.com and share some of your experiences and advice with our other commenters.

  2. Pingback: Race Recap: 2013 NYC Half | Rachel On and On

  3. Pingback: Fueling for the Long Run | Rachel On and On

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