Freezing cold days, roads filled with snowdrifts, iced-over pavement. It's all part of winter running in this part of the country. On these forlorn days we dream about future races - marathons or 10Ks - in which we envision putting in best-ever efforts, lowering personal bests and winning medals.
Although nothing beats a solid training program for achieving goals, there are other things you can do. Pay attention to these principles and you might have the race of your life.
Pick the right race
To increase your chances of running a personal best, pick a flat course. It doesn't have to be absolutely level. Sometimes running up and down a few gentle hills is better than pounding out the miles using the same muscles in the same way, mile after mile.
Although it can be fun and challenging to compete in races held between November and mid-April, remember that's when the Upper Midwest is supposed to be having winter - not a good time to be out trying to run the best race of your life.
Hot weather and fast racing don't combine well either. On a sizzling summer day, your body's priority is to keep you cool rather than fuel a best-ever race. Avoid competitions that time of year if you can't be finished by 10 a.m. However, some of the best road races of the year come during the summer season.
When you put a race date on your calendar, be sure you actually have time to do the training. Scheduling a race at the end of your busy work season is not a good plan. As a teacher, I often chose fall marathons since I had more time in the summer to train. This worked well since it usually takes about three months to prepare for a marathon.
Make the race a priority
If your goal is a personal best in a road race, then make running your priority. Workouts in other silent sports should not deplete the energy needed for a quality running effort. You should be fresh for every hard run.
Develop a training program geared to the race you have chosen. Marathoners do longer runs, higher mileage and speed intervals of greater duration than those preparing to race shorter distances.
Once you have a created a training program, write it down and then stick to it. For years Sunday was my long run, Tuesday meant hill training and on Thursday I did speed. I tried to never alter that pattern. Adhering to it meant that some mornings at 5:30 a.m. I was charging up North Street Hill and weekend long runs started well before dawn so I could be back in time for family activities. If needed, I could miss a recovery run, but I worked hard to make sure my three quality sessions a week happened.
Being a good husband and father was important. Because I didn't want to take away from family time, I often found myself doing runs before my wife and kids were awake. Finding opportunities to run, often means less time for socializing, watching TV and hobbies.
The number one ender of running dreams is overuse injuries. And most of those can be avoided. I know. I have sabotaged my plans for great running many times because I ignored the warning signs telling me to ease up or take some time off. Here's what I should have done:
1) As you get older it takes longer to recover. Until sometime in your thirties, you can follow a plan alternating hard and easy workouts. When you start having injuries or find yourself beginning workouts with sore muscles, it is time to add another day of recovery. Eventually you will move to having two or three recovery days after each tough run. Now in my mid-sixties, I can only do one quality effort every five days at best.
2) Racing takes more out of you than training. We tend to reach down farther and push ourselves harder when we're wearing a race number. If you're the type that goes all out in races, follow this rule: For every mile raced, allow one day before racing again. You can still do 10Ks every weekend, but not half marathons on successive Saturdays, and a month should pass after a marathon before you slip on those racing flats again. You can begin your regular training a day or two after a race. Just resist the temptation to compete.
3) Running shoes need to be replaced every 400-500 miles. By then the mid-sole becomes compressed. I once wore a pair of Brooks for a thousand miles. The money I saved on shoe replacement I paid back several times over in medical bills and the cost of orthotics to rid myself of plantar fascia pain. I also lost out on running the Buffalo Skylon Marathon.
4) Be patient with injuries. Coming back too soon always got me hurt again. If rest didn't bring about healing, I sought help from orthopedic doctors, physical therapists or chiropractors.
5) If you know what caused an injury, you can avoid making that mistake in the future. Although keeping data in a running log can help you improve race performances, it's the strings of daily zeros representing the miles not run that should be scrutinized. These breaks in training invariably result from overtraining. By reviewing workouts leading up to the zeroes, you can pinpoint training errors and avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
It's pretty obvious that eating a well-balanced diet pays dividends in running performance. Check out some diet plans designed for athletes to get a better idea of what are your best sources for calories. Carbo loading, especially before long races, is important. What you eat in the last 36 hours before a race can significantly influence what happens on race day.
Be ready to race
There's no workout you can do in the last days before a race that can improve your performance, but you sure can train your way into a poor performance. The meaning here is clear: Taper. In that final week, run fewer miles. And with the exception of maybe a few pickup sprints mid-week, run slower. Let your muscles recover and your energy reserves build.
Runners, deprived of their usual training routine, often feel antsy. This is not the time to re-sod your lawn or build a deck. Relax. One year I transplanted my raspberry plants the day before and then had a flat race. I should have just sat back with a book and let the raspberries stay put.
On the day of the race, arrive at the race site early enough so that you can learn about the course. Drive it ahead of time if necessary. Be sure you know the last half-mile leading to the finish, so you can time your sprint perfectly.
Then go to the starting line vowing to run an even pace and confident that you will run your best race ever.
Dave Foley has had several hundred road races in which to learn the lessons that he offers here.