Ian Sharman's guide to the perfect race - part 2

Ian Sharman, who will tomorrow take part in the Western States Endurance Run, where he was fourth last year, gives us more of his tips for competing at your best

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Motivation

Whether in training or races, constantly ask yourself how things are going and whether a change of direction is needed. Focusing on the process of training and racing, rather than just the outcome, is vital to success. That doesn’t mean having no goals, but it means those goals should be about how things feel and how sustainably hard the running is at any moment. Then, near the end of a speed session or race, the outcome becomes a useful motivator: to aim for times, paces or catching runners ahead.

Know what to expect

Running an event is the best way to get to know the experience and prepare for it again, but similar races, group runs and course recces all help ready the mind and body for the specifics of the race. That makes the particular challenges more manageable and more familiar… plus it minimises the chance of getting lost and wasting time unnecessarily.

Unlock the next level

Don’t put limits on what you think you’re capable of doing, but also get a realistic idea of current fitness from training runs and build-up races. Always allow for an upside as well as a downside to how well you race. And know that it’s impossible to predict how much better you can become over the coming years, so don’t assume that certain goals won’t be achievable with time. 

I see this every day with the runners I coach, but also went through this with my own running. When I first started I dreamed of running a three-hour road marathon, and soon realised that improvements kept coming as long as I kept learning and training consistently. As each barrier is broken, it opens the door to the next level. 

Keep it fun

Motivation comes from having things you want to achieve (whatever that may mean to you personally) and I’m no different. I want to see if I can keep running better while enjoying the journey. A large part of that means backing off when I feel I need to and planning enough of an off-season each year so I’ll be hungry to train and race again the next year. If it’s not fun overall then my motivation drops off fairly quickly.

Training

At the start of a season it’s useful to think through any weaknesses, both physical and related to areas where errors were made or problems occurred. Often it’s good to discuss this with other experienced runners (like a coach) since they can be more objective and work out what will make the most difference. However, still practise your strengths, since it’s important to maintain those areas. 

Obsession with fixing weaknesses is only really a problem if it psychs you out within a race, causing additional stress and bringing on the problem of which you’re afraid. Future perfect

It’s good to focus on the biggest problems or mistakes from the prior season, since that’s where the biggest gains can be made. 

One of the most fun things about training for any sport is continually learning and improving.

The science behind it all 

We’ve all read about how leading runners now use science to help them, but is it worth pursuing?

Blood testing can identify slight imbalances, but it’s probably most effective in identifying major issues that are generally hard to diagnose in any other way, such as iron deficiency. If a runner has low energy levels or has a significant drop in performance in a short space of time then it’s worth checking with a doctor and/or getting blood tests. For us trail runners, it’s not just about the running but also the quality of life and how you feel all day long.

Under rather than over 

Always assume that training won’t go 100% to plan and that how it’s adjusted and re-optimised along the way is more important. Life always gets in the way, and that’s also the same for your competitors. Fit in 90% of what you aim to do and you’ll be extremely well prepared physically.

For ultras, physical fitness accounts for a lower proportion of success the longer the distance gets, meaning that tactics and execution count for more.

I can’t repeat enough that it’s better to turn up to a race a little undertrained than the opposite (or even injured), because a well run race matters more than just being fitter. It’s more about how close you can get to your potential on the day, rather than how high that potential is in the first place. Of course, solid training should improve both of these elements, but what matters more in long endurance events is the minimum speed, not maximum speed. 

A simple calculation makes this clear: running harder early in a race on a flatter section may mean saving one minute per mile, which doesn’t add up to much. But, later in a race when everything feels tougher, the leg muscles are sore and major things may be going wrong, the difference between a reasonable pace uphill and a death march could be a 20-minute mile versus a 60-minute mile… a saving of 40 minutes in just a mile.

Be specific 

It’s worth including some elements of specificity at all points within training for a target event. But it’s the final two to three months that matter the most for preparing your body for the nuances of the race.

For part 1, click here