The best shape of my running career was not when I ran my mile, 3k, 5k, 10k, or even half marathon PR. Instead, it was at a time when the best race I could muster was a 3:51.4 1,500m, or 8 seconds slower than my best. How does this happen? How do you get in the best shape of your life, yet not run anywhere near the fitness that your body is telling you?
Let’s travel back to my senior year in college and look at the hard workouts (days in between were mileage, about 90 miles per week during this period)
Monday: 4×400 with 1 minute rest (58), long rest, 4×300 with 1min rest (42.7 avg), long rest, 4×200 in 27.3 with 1min rest
Wednesday: 800m in 1:56, 5min rest, 2×400 in 55sec in flats. Really windy.
Saturday: 10 miles in 50:15 (splits- 25:30/24:45) on a hilly course with 2.5 mile warm up and cool down.
Monday: 4x100m from standing start (11.7), 1×200 in 23.7 with 12 miles of running total for the day.
Wednesday: 600m, 500m, 400m, 300m, 3x200m, 2x100m with 2minutes rest decreasing by 15 seconds each rep (so only 15 seconds rest the last rep) Splits 1:31.7, 74.0, 59.7, 42.9, 28.5, 27.8, 28.2, 13.8, 14.0
As I look back over the training during this period, there are two main conclusions:
- Getting fit is easy, expressing that fitness is the challenge.
- If you are sufficiently motivated, it is easy to train yourself into the ground.
Contrary to the common notion, the job of a coach is not to get athletes fit, it is to get them to express their fitness. Fitness is the easy part. Throw a variety of hard work at someone and fitness will soon follow. But having the ability to utilize and express that fitness on the right day takes skill.
When athletes don’t express their fitness, we need to find out why. Are they overtrained? Are we working them too much in one direction, while neglecting a different factor? Do they waste their mental and emotional energy in practice, leaving nothing there on race day? Are they low on iron or another vital nutrient that is preventing them from expressing their fitness?
Whenever I encounter this issue, I always look to the physical first. Knock off the easy problems first (i.e. nutrition deficiencies, overtraining, etc.) before you dive into the complex. Far too many coaches (and athletes) blame the athlete (He/She is “mental”) because it’s the easy way out. The reality is the physical and mental are so intertwined that it’s impossible to distinguish and separate them.
As I look back on my own training during this period, I think the culprit is clear. There was an insecurity that was filled by working hard. Because of several years of poor performance, I felt a need to prove that I was in shape. Every workout represented a test. Am I fit enough to hit my goal?
When you approach training in this manner, you’ve shifted the goal. It’s no longer about getting ready to perform on race day, but instead feeding your need to know that you are ready. By the time you get to race day, one of two things likely happened
- You wasted your bullet in practice and are physically and emotionally drained.
- You killed a workout and your mind got the message that it wanted “you are fit.” The problem is, you subconsciously feel like you accomplished your goal. As the race was never the true goal, proving fitness to yourself was the goal.
The need to prove oneself comes from insecurity. It’s a lack of trust in the plan and the process. Stop trying to prove fitness, and start trying to do what is best to get you to the starting line fit, healthy, and ready to go.
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