It’s as sure as night follows day. After the dust has settled from a race, social media is alive with comments and friends that dissect their runs and performances.
“Could I have gone quicker?”
“What if I had tried a little harder at this point in my race?”
One of the debates that invariably surfaces is the ability to go harder than you may have thought possible, perhaps running more so to feel than to splits. Many people I know like to set splits for their race and make sure they hit them, which ultimately gives them a time they are proud of and rightly so. Nothing wrong with that at all.
But could those splits be impacting your run? Could it be that you’re potentially allowing yourself to run harder than your body actually permits and risk blowing up, or on the flip side perhaps you’re not actually running to your potential either by allowing yourself to run at a pace that might be too slow? No-one wants to get to the end of a race and feel like they could have given more. So it begs the question, just how hard could we really push ourselves in races if we really wanted to? Where’s that fine line?
Now we know that beating times and running hard isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and not the primary focus for racing and taking part in trail and ultra running. Each to their own for sure, but if you’re interested in finding out how hard you could go, read on.
Treading the fine line
Indeed, if you push too hard too early in a race you definitely risk a potential blow-up further in the run. The recently held Six Foot track trail run here in Australia is well-known for its blow-up casualties. With 15kms of sweeping downhill to begin the race, the adrenalin flows and runners will reach the first checkpoint at the river in super quick time. They do so because they know there is 10km of grinding uphill to slow them down shortly after. So the theory goes that by putting in the quick kms early, we’re building a bank of time. But if you were running a marathon, would you start out at a deliberately quicker pace to do exactly the same thing? Probably not, you’d want to be as even as possible so it pays to keep things in check early on. So when can you push hard?
While joining in the debate about people’s runs at Six Foot Track, a runner relayed to me something he’d learnt as part of his prep for the race and then subsequently executed. He questioned whether or not he was running hard enough for the final third or so of his race. If you look back, when does the kick for home really start? Do we simply maintain a ‘good’ pace until say the final stretch or last few kilometres and then give it a kick?
Are we worried that if we push a little too hard we’d come undone?
Our regularly coaching guru Andy DuBois has this to say:
“In a race we tend to stick to a pace that our body feels confident it can maintain to the finish. But are we really at our limit? Can we push a bit harder and still hold it together? If you are strong enough mentally there is usually a slightly faster pace that is sustainable but it’s just outside our comfort zone. To maintain that pace will require a strong mind and a willingness to accept the pain that comes with it.
Pushing into the ‘uncomfortably hard’ zone
Andy continues: “We like to think that when we race we are at the edge of our limits but in reality few of us truly explore those limits. We stick to the edge of our comfort zone which admittedly is not a particularly comfortable place to be.”
As I thought about this further, he was right. We do, for the most part stick to the edge of our comfort zones – what if we went into an ‘uncomfortably hard’ zone? One that although hurt, we knew was tolerable for a certain amount of time, but that the longer we were able to hold it, the better our overall time would be?
For our runner, he was advised to get into that zone around 15kms from the finish at Six Foot (i.e. the final third). This would mean a good 1hr 20mins of really uncomfortable hard running. Our notions of pain tolerance all differ and in the heat of the moment, it can be very hard to tell if you’re in that zone. It’s probably not until the end of the race that you know if you’ve really pushed yourself into the truly uncomfortable zone. Andy continues:
“Could you have run 3-5 seconds per km faster in a race? You’d like to think not; you’d like to think you gave it your all and couldn’t have gone a second faster, but is that really true? What if there was a million dollar prize if you could run the race 3 seconds per km faster? What if you had your own personal coach running with you the whole time setting the pace for you? Could you run faster then? Possibly? It would hurt like hell but it may be possible if you were prepared to get outside your comfort zone and sit there for a long period of time.
“Of course go too far outside the comfort zone and you’ll blow up quite spectacularly. It’s a fine line, but there is only one way to find out what you are really capable of and that’s to get uncomfortable – in both training and racing.”
Our runner decided that he would change his mindset from what he thought was pushing hard to a level that was beyond that into what he describes as a truly ‘uncomfortably’ hard zone. With 19kms to go he pushed into that zone and it really hurt him. His quads and hips screamed, but while he was breathing hard, he knew that his internal clock was being regulated – He knew he would finish. He trusted his training and fitness.
Every time he could feel himself slipping back into a comfortable place, he would mentally refocus and place himself back into the ‘uncomfortably hard’ zone so that his legs hurt and he was breathing hard. Not too hard that he would blow-up, but running to feel and knowing that he was right on the edge. He knew he was in an uncomfortable place that required total focus and concentration on the ‘hurt’.
It sounds so simple, but it’s probably not something I’d really considered before. In the past I thought that I was running hard, but it was ‘comfortably hard’. I didn’t allow myself to finish in a zone that was really uncomfortable.
It’s a fine line however. I’m certainly not advocating you push your body to extremes at all – we don’t want to see people dropping like flies at the finish line. Additionally, we know that this is not why all people race too. But there’s nothing that beats that feeling of being pretty much ‘spent’ after a hard run.
Did that approach work for our runner? It sure as hell did and he surpassed his own expectations that day. He puts that down to the focus and willingness to just ‘hurt himself’ a little bit more than he might have ordinarily done. If you’re keen to find out what you’re really made of, try to put yourself in the ‘uncomfortably hard’ zone when you’re training and racing and you may surprise yourself.