Get Good in Practice to Get Good in Competition

[Note: Though the examples in this post are about runners, all comments as it applies to the mental game are true for all sports.]

Here is a finding from research on one aspect of mental game training – the effect of an athlete’s excitation – or “arousal level” as they say on sports performance. Complex however is a relative term. This is not solely for skill sports as you will see.

The effect of increased arousal of an athlete performing a complex task or learning a novel task will be to elicit an incorrect response (doing the wrong thing), which will be the dominant response.

You know what that means? Coaches need to chop new moves/plays/skills into small chunks (which is commonly done) AND allow for the athletes to MASTER that one thing before adding another chunk, or combining chunks otherwise the most common result is an error – doing it wrong, having the wrong results.

In a non-skill sport such as running it means that runners need to master pacing to be the best runner they can be. Pacing is a very complex skill despite using gross motor skills instead of fine motor skills (like hitting a baseball). Each contraction of muscles and sets of muscles must be controlled and regulated to fire with an exact sequence and power to run at a specific pace. Like any other athletic skill the increased nerves in a competition setting make this seemingly simple task daunting for most runners. (Go ahead, check around, how many runners do you know go out too fast, too slow or simply don’t know what their race paces are?)

The skill of pacing is not learned in the heat of battle – during a race. It is done with endless repeats – often (but not always) on a track – learning pace in practice. The very best runners can reel off 400 meter repeats within tenths of seconds of each other again and again and again. Elite marathoners can run consecutive mile or 5K splits within seconds of each for the entire 26.2 miles.

The reason pacing is an important running and racing skill is threefold:

  1. Mastering paces means that you are versatile. You will know how to find your mile pace, you 5K pace, your 10K pace, your half-marathon pace  and your marathon pace almost instantly. That means you will maximize workouts because you are working out at the right intensities (purposeful practice).
  2. Mastering paces means that you can use tactics against your opponents far more effectively. You will be able to use controlled surges to break your opponents. You will be able to vary paces specific to the terrain or conditions for a competitive advantage.
  3. Mastering pacing yields faster times. It’s been shown that even pacing is the most economical way to run to a fast time. If you know your can master your pace then it is unlikely that you will go out too fast or too slow in a race. This is especially critical in large races but can happen in any race where other runners may influence your pacing.
    • Go out too fast (often described as more than 2% faster than your goal or average race pace) and you will lose more time than you banked more often than not.
    • Go out too slow (often described as more than 2% slower than your goal or average race pace) and you will have lost more time than you can make up later in the race. That finishing pace will simply be above your capabilities.

Coaches: If the athlete has not mastered the one skill – do not compound the problem by introducing more! And most certainly do not expect that athlete to magically perform this skill in real competition before mastering it in practice.

Running Coaches: If a runner cannot run one lap right on pace in practice what makes you think your runner won’t fall victim to going out too fast or that they can do 8 laps on pace in a race? If they do not know their goal race pace what makes you think they can master competition tactics such as surging, pack running, leading or trailing or going out hard? If a marathoner cannot run a mile right on pace what makes you think you can run 26.2 miles on pace in the race?

Note to Athletes: YOU must be patient enough to master that small chunk before adding to it if you want to be successful. That means you must practice it until it becomes automatic. Attending practice and going through the motions won’t work. This is one form of mental toughness – discipline.

Runners: This means you must get good at learning your paces. Every workout has a purpose and purpose is defined in both distance and pace. You must become disciplined and not just run mindlessly. Learn to tune into your body and learn how every pace feels.
 How do you do this?

  • Learn how a specific pace feels when you are fresh by challenging yourself to stay on pace right from the beginning of a workout (just like at the start of a race).
  • Learn how a specific pace feels when you are fatigued by challenging yourself to stay on pace in the last half of a workout.
  • Learn how to vary your pace and return to your target pace by introducing strategic surges then returning to your goal pace.
 Play pacing games.

Here are a couple specific ways to do this.

Introductory level: Run 16×400 meter repeats at your goal 5K race pace with 1:00 rest between. For every second fast or slow you add a point. Your goal is to have the lowest point total (like golf). Example: If your goal is 90 seconds for each 400 and you run 90 seconds – you score zero points; if you run 91 you score one point; if you run 89 you score one point. No, the 89 doesn’t cancel out the 91. The point of the game is to be right one target!

Advanced level: Once you get good at that game you need to increase the difficulty in order to “master” pacing. Do the same workout without your watch. At first you may have the timer read a split for you at 200 meters. Then advance the difficulty and have your timer read out your times as you finish your 400 – no split times allowed.

[One member of our club, Josh M., was known as the Human Metronome. He could run 16 reps and keep all 400s within a second with most of them right on split. His typical score for 16 reps would be less than 8, without a watch.]

100-100s: This is a more challenging pacing game with variations (50-50s, 200-200s). Performed on a track, you run the straightaway 100 meters at your mile race pace alternated with the curved 100 meters at your marathon goal pace. Continue alternating these paces for 3-4 miles without stopping. You will need to manage your pacing right from the start while fresh as well as when you labor towards the end.

[By the way, you’ll know you did this workout just about right when your time for 3 miles – 12 laps on the track – is within about 30-60 seconds of your current 5K race time.]

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