Benefits of Early Season Racing

Sunday, April 24, 2016 - 07:45

Coming off an age group win at Ironman 70.3 Florida last Sunday, I am excited for the opportunity to write my first article for All-Pro Health!  I've been working with Todd and Tejal for a few months now, rehabilitating my body from several years of intense racing and training, largely focused on Ironman and 1/2 Ironman distances.  The integrated treatment plan I have benefitted from over the last few months includes a significant amount of soft tissue work, but also an extensive array of exercises intended to strengthen and correct for the compensation my body has gotten to be so good at, especially over the last couple of years.  Why is this important?  As I have "aged up" (notice I do NOT refer to this as "getting older!"), I have observed that my body does not recover as quickly and when the correct muscles do not fire, racing/training through that has at times been quite painful.  So perhaps the first takeaway to consider is:

Take a comprehensive approach to rehabbing your injuries.  Ensure you are not only focusing on the problem areas, but get to the root cause of the problem and develop a long term strategy to correct it.  This will require patience, something I do not have an abundance of, but I will do my best and will keep you posted!

Now onto the main topic for discussion....

After a fairly lengthy off season and my rather "relaxed" approach to early season training, why jump into a 1/2 IM in April to kick things off in 2016?  I've found this to be not only a great way to kick off spring break, my husband John Bye's birthday, and a family vacation, but also:

An early season race is a great way to test baseline fitness, challenge your ability to focus mentally, and identify areas of strength/weakness in order to tweak (or build) your training plan for the remainder of the year.  

Baseline fitness - what is this and how do you access this?  

For those who have been racing/training for several years, you will agree that when starting a new season it is generally not normal to just "pick up where you left off" and perform as you would in peak season, but certainly you can count on a level of base fitness that has built up over the years.   As you ease into your training program, make sure you've got some workouts scheduled that can help you find this pace, even if only for short intervals.  This actually works - I did not have the benefit of many long rides/runs before IM FL 70.3, but I did have a couple key workouts that helped me settle into my race pace.  

For example, on the bike - one of my interval sets on the Computrainer within two weeks prior included (after an adequate warm up and some drills) a 4x5 minute interval set holding my goal 1/2 IM watts, followed by 4x2 minute interval set "faster than 1/2 IM race pace".  The purpose of this was to remind my body what it felt like to hit certain power numbers, especially since I wasn't as dialed in to my training as I would have liked leading up to this point, and it actually worked, in fact, so much so that I looked down at my bike computer several times wondering out loud, “how could I possibly be riding this fast?”  (For those who do not train with power, this same idea could be effectively duplicated targeting heart rate or level of perceived exertion.) I biked the rolling course at 21.7 mph in 2:34, and while it was certainly challenging (especially with the wind, I don't like wind!) it was a manageable pace made possible by triggering some muscle memory in just a couple of specific workouts.

Mental focus - how important is this?

As important as it is to swim, bike, run and execute transitions well to win or even to complete a race, bringing your "A game" mentally is probably even more critical.   Yet this is where we tend to spend the least amount of time preparing and where an early season "practice race" can help.  Think about it, when you enter a race early in the season, generally you will not be as prepared physically as you would like to be, especially if you are like me and take your time "easing in" to the season!  So that means it's going to hurt when you are out on course.  (And if you are still rehabbing an injury, it will hurt even more!)  This is where you get some great practice in the discipline of mental focus that will benefit your entire season.  

By the time I got to the run last Sunday at IM FL 70.3, the temperature was rising in proportion to the rise in my heart rate. Dave Ragsdale announced the first few women heading out of transition onto the run course, then I was the fourth women out, so I was in a good place heading into the run. But I also knew this run would be tough - it was a three loop course around Lake Eva, with a few big hills on each lap - and at the start of the first loop, it was all I could do to get my legs to turn over, especially on the steep climbs.  In fact, I don’t think I could call it running up my first climb, it was more like doing some tip-toe speedwalk thing…Rather than let this bother me, instead I focused on putting one foot in front of the other and would reassess in a couple miles after my legs had a chance to adjust to running off the bike.

My left calf, which has been causing me problems for awhile, tightened up and my quads were on the verge of seizing up.  I “ran tall”, engaged my core, and shortened my stride up the hills, took some salt at the next aid station, then noticed I was starting to find my stride again. But it didn’t get any easier, as I needed to keep pushing my pace, and I became focused on "one loop at a time."

Breaking the course into segments - 3 x 4+ mile loops - instead of thinking about needing to run 13.1 miles was key. Then within the segments, focusing on the terrain (especially the downhills where I could look forward to some recovery), the location of aid stations, and being very conscious of where I was vs. my competitors when the course looped around the various out and backs were the things I was thinking about (and good distractions from focusing on the pain in my legs!)

The other element needed to retain mental focus, especially as fatigue sets in, is confidence. Having run E Murray Todd as an early season half marathon a month or so ago (feeling similarly unprepared at that race too!), gave me the confidence to know I could execute a decent half marathon. While I’d done few long runs since, I knew I could draw on those “miles in the bank” as Bill Haskins would say. In terms of pacing strategy, I clearly did not have it in me to run a peak season ½ IM run. I focused on a couple of key track workouts that I had done over the past couple of weeks that were quite similar to the Computrainer workout I described above, with the focus on simply “dialing in” a goal pace that, on the track, felt easy, but on the last loop of IM FL 70.3, felt like it was the best I could do. By the last loop, I needed to resist the urge to walk the aid stations with everything I had.  I wanted to pull over and stretch, but knew I would likely not be able to get moving again if I did.  So I dug deep, focused on my form and needed to rely on my mind - after doing a quick assessment to ensure I wasn't doing any damage to my recovering injuries - then ignored those inner voices telling me to slow down or stop and instead thought of the competitors that were likely gaining time.  FOCUS, do what you have trained yourself to do, perhaps the season before, but no matter.  And then, finally, THE FINISH LINE, and the age group win, following a 1:38 ½ Marathon run (7:31 pace).  

After studying my race data and allowing my body to recover, I will consult with Todd and Tejal and get another functional assessment.  This will help me refine my training for the rest of the year.  Stay tuned for the next article and I will share more findings!  

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