Over the past year or so I’ve been working really hard on my mental game as well as racing and training by effort rather than pace. When you think about it, these are really the only two factors in our control on race day and they are pivotal to executing a solid race. For years I have set pace expectations for myself only to be let down on race day if things didn’t go exactly as I had planned. If I fell off pace or couldn’t hit my target pace, I would get in my head and my race would suffer as a result.
Before I toed the line this past weekend at a local 5k, I changed the display on my watch so I couldn’t see my pace. Believe me, this is so hard and I hate it, but I know it’s the best thing for my racing. If I kept pace on the display it absolutely would affect how I ran. I would either see my pace and think “this is too slow.” Which equates to: “I’m not fast enough.” Or, “I’m having a bad day”. Then before you know it I’m all chimp brain and thinking negative thoughts. The other scenario is I see my pace and think “this is too fast, I can’t run this fast” and I slow myself down not even giving myself the chance to see if the pace is sustainable. Since neither of these situations would set me up for success, off pace went allowing me to just focus on running hard.
The only thing I allowed myself to see on my watch was total time and heart rate. I peeked at this data once or twice during the race and noticed my heart rate was lower than what I would expect for a racing a 5k. My heart rate was high for sure, just not maxing out where I would have thought. Seeing this number, I questioned if I was running hard enough and if I possibly had more to give. According to the number displayed, I did. But when I tuned into the sensations I was feeling, there were a lot of other signs that indicated I was going plenty hard.
In the final mile my legs felt like they were going to give out on me. Like literally just fall out from beneath me. I know, so dramatic. A few times I thought about just stopping dead in my tracks and saying “I’m done”. Fight or flight for sure! I was breathing really hard and pretty much hating life. I can assure you I was not smiling at this point either. I also kept having to spit and it was really difficult to swallow. While that may sound gross, it’s an good indicator that you’re at lactate threshold.
When I got home and went over the race in my head and questioned if I left it all out there, there was no doubt. Even though my heart rate may have suggested otherwise, based on the sensations I was feeling and my perceived effort, I ran as hard as I could. I let effort be my guide and didn’t get caught up in the data. And in trusting myself and being in tune with what I was experiencing, I ran myself to a new 5k PR. I am fairly confident that would not have happened had I been a slave to my pace.
Every training session and race is an opportunity to learn your efforts. Yes we try to dial in paces but in the end, it is more important to know what the desired effort feels like. This tool, combined with consistent training and hard work, is what sets us up for being able to execute a well run race.