Imagine if you could pay an entry fee, show up in Augusta, and compete at the Masters against the best golfers in the world. One of the beautifully unique things about distance running is whether you’re a two-hour marathoner or a seven-hour marathoner everyone lines up on the same start line and runs the same course. When our ZAP Fitness professional team does a question and answer session at our adult running camps one thing that always surprises our adult campers is how similar their experiences in the sport are.
It doesn’t matter how fast you are, many of the mental and physical challenges are the same, as are many of the motivations and joys; whether it’s the elation of breaking through for a personal best or the drudgery of lacing up your shoes on “one of those mornings.” Despite there being more similarities than differences, there are three important things the pros do a better job of than most of us, outside of just running fast.
Running fast, is of course the goal for all of us, and to get there we can learn from some of the very best. Most of these skills have been developed through the countless hours professional athletes have spent mastering their craft, but that doesn’t mean we can’t put their lessons to use for ourselves. I have spent many words of this column preaching the value of keeping your easy days easy, and by in large most professional athletes adhere to that principal. As with most of these concepts, it is easier for a professional athlete to adhere to them due to their experience, but also their ability.
Taking Easy Days Easy
In this case professional runners tend to have several more gears in the transmission than the rest of us, sometimes limited to two – go and stop. While it may be easier for the pros to adjust their effort and find a pace that is easy and conversational, taking that lesson to heart will allow you to train healthier, train more consistently, and realize bigger improvements coming off harder workouts.
Being in tune with your body is an important concept that allows you to take easy days easy and when you need them. The best athletes understand that hard days and easy days can be more about effort than pace. An easy pace can vary greatly based on the day and level of fatigue, and you will rarely see professional athletes checking their pace on an easy run.
Easy days are good for ditching the GPS watches that lure us into running faster and faster. If you know the distance of the loop you’re running a simple chronograph watch will track the time it takes, and that alone gives you an overall picture of how your body is reacting and feeling, but worrying about keeping the pace high on an easy day is counterproductive. They are called “easy runs” or “recovery runs” for a reason and that is to allow your body to recover, regardless of the pace.
Another important aspect to recovery and performance is proper nutrition, particularly post exercise. For professional athletes whose job is literally running as fast as possible it’s easier to take the time to plan and prepare proper nutrition throughout the day. However, just because the pros have more time doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother paying attention to what we’re putting in our bodies and when.
The when is particularly important and that is an area where the pros are generally more attentive than the rest of us. We know our bodies operate most efficiently when they have a steady stream of calories throughout the day. This means eating frequently throughout the day rather than in two huge meals so your body isn’t operating in big caloric deficits and surpluses throughout the day.
If you were to attend the practice of a professional training group or individual you would find almost everyone consuming something immediately after their training run or race, even if they have a bad case of “tempo tummy” and don’t feel like eating. The very simple act of consuming a few hundred calories immediately after a run kick starts the recovery process and allows the body to repair damaged muscle much more quickly.
I recently had a conversation with a coaching client that illuminated a stark difference between the way most people approach their racing and the way professional athletes approach their racing. He was disappointed in a 5k he had run like all of us have been. The temperatures were hot and the field was competitive. What he didn’t realize initially was despite his “slow” time he had won his age group. Racing shouldn’t always be about time.
It’s not to say the pros don’t have goal times, everyone loves to run a personal best, but they are much less fixated on the numbers and more focused on competition. You often hear announcers on TV talk about how slow the pace of a championship event is, but the runners could care less; all they care about is winning.
Unlike someone starting in the 2nd corral of the 3rd wave of a 20,000 person race, it’s easy for them to identify their competition at any race the same way LeBron James knows who’s going to guard him every night in the NBA. While it may be hard to identify individual competitors at big races you can still have outcome goals that aren’t predicated on covering a distance the fastest you’ve ever covered it, especially in the case of inclement weather. It’s easy to check online at past results and come up with an age group placement goal for almost any race.
Many of the mental struggles in running: pushing through pain in racing, dealing with low confidence or a bad race, finding motivation when you’re in the dumps – these are all shared experiences we deal with together. Just as we all run the same road and share in the joy of triumph and the heartbreak of disappointment we can share in some of the skills that make us all better.
*This Article Originally Appeared in the May 2017 Issue of Running Journal