[The beginning of cross country practices and the post-Labor Day surge at work has made it difficult for me to think clearly, let alone sit down and write. So with apologies for the re-posting, here’s something from the archives: a consideration of whether high school runners should “train through” dual meets with (often) much weaker opponents. Originally published September 24th, 2009]
It’s an age-old question, and one that’s likely to generate strong opinions on both sides.
We had our first meet of the season yesterday, and I can say with certainty that barring injury, every kid on the team will improve A LOT in the next eight weeks. Some of that improvement will come from physical training, but a significant amount will come from being able to take better advantage of capabilities they already have. When you aren’t used to racing 5K, the physical sensation of fatigue is unfamiliar and daunting. You don’t know how to relax when going fast. You think you’re going to die if you go faster. But after several races, you learn how to manage the discomfort and run closer to your potential.
As a coach, when I see someone suddenly slice a minute off their best time, one explanation is that they were slacking off in earlier races; another is that they suddenly got a lot fitter; but I think a very likely reason is that something clicked in that mysterious mind-body connection and they figured out how to be in the physical and mental state that enabled them to maintain a sustained effort for much longer. They figured out how to go all-out.
In every race, if you take it seriously, you learn something. With luck, you learn how to rewire your brain to reach the emotional/mental state that allows you to do your best. And if you run a race and DON’T take it seriously — for instance, if you jog through a race against a weak team and still win easily — then you’ll probably feel good about yourself for a few minutes, but perhaps less certain about what will happen when you face a stronger opponent.
I don’t know. Maybe when you’re an experienced runner with several seasons of highly competitive racing behind you, you can “race” at 80% and not have it affect your head for the important races. In my opinion, most of the runners I coach aren’t at the point where I trust that running races as workouts is a good thing. And as for myself, I’ve tried doing races as workouts, and I don’t like it. It messes up my mental routine for races I really do care about.
I guess what it comes down to — for me — is that I believe that workouts are workouts (and not races), and races are races (and not workouts). Learning to keep these two straight is a lesson worth learning.