Τρίτη, 11 Οκτωβρίου 2011

Running an ultra with a pace-plan, or by the feel?

Having ran 10 ultras in the last 3 years (I consider myself as an intermediate ultra distance runner) I am getting ready for my 2nd 100miler run later this month (the first one was UTMB 2009). I have completed several marathons always improving and right now I have a 2:49 personal best. Also completed 3 Ironman triathlons and my most recent one was getting close to the 10hour mark. I like endurance sports!

I have always been preparing and running, every single one of my long distance races with a plan. By "planning" I mean breaking down the event to segments and planning my time passings for each segment / part. And on race day or days (!) I was trying to stick to my plan or using it as a benchmark during these long hours out in the nature. Of course there are other race-specific plans, like nutrition and hydration plans, but these are not within the scope of this article, as I will explain later on.

My thinking has always been to prepare, analyze and monitor my performance during the event (in terms of time achievement) to see how successful was my pacing plan afterwards, as well as pace myself efficiently. I think that this is the best way to identify the problems and mistakes I may be doing during a long run or any endurance event (by doing my evaluation afterwards), or learn how I could make my planning more accurate for the next event, by fixing inaccurate factors and wrong assumptions or calculations. These are also essential ingredients for the training-preparation period, since I can locate my weaknesses easier, or  experiment with new routines and procedures that would address my weaknesses for future events. It is part of this famous trial and error routine that one way or the other we all apply to our training!

But it has become very clear to me that all these benefits can come also by simply recording your effort and studying after the race. So we must not confuse evaluation which can come from simply recording, with the actual achievement during the ultra.

I will focus for the sake of simplicity on the 100 miles event that I want to complete this month. Following a race plan has some major contributions to a key event like this mountain ultra run:
  • Control and avoid mistakes, mostly with the pacing and energy management
  • Focus and enhance runner confidence during these events, who will eventually encounter low or high points (physical and mental-emotional)
  • Breaking down the big thing in small pieces - intermediate targets!
  • Create benchmarks for training and future ultras (which can also be achieved by simply recording the event and analysing afterwards!)
On the other side, when you become more familiar with long distance running, planning a race is by definition a study on your own limits and capabilities. As such, it is obvious that by working on these details, one sets his limits and imprints them in his mindset. So I am starting to wonder... Is this situation affecting my performance? Is this analysis affecting my experience of the event and my search for my own limits? I think yes.

Advantages and disadvantages of planning your pace
  • Control
  • Focus
  • Benchmarking
  • Segmentation of the task
  • Mental & emotional influence
  • Barrier for trying new things
  • Delayed reaction - adaptation to circumstances due to tendency to stick to the plan even when there are obvious reasons not to!

On the other hand, getting in an ultra endurance event, without a pacing plan, can have some positive aspects. The obvious one is that you avoid being affected mentally by falling behind or going faster than planned! Believe it or not, even the most mentally strong or disciplined endurance athlete, gets affected by realizing that his pace is different to what is dictated by his well prepared race plan! If actual pace is slower compared to what is on the paper, sooner or later the athlete will start feeling "discouraged" because he/she is not achieving according to expectations. Also it will obviously lead to an effort to speed up in order to catch up with the plan! On the other side, if going faster than planned, the athlete gets in the mood that he/she is ahead and may start to either slow down as a reward when not feeling so well (which tends to appear faster when feeling safe and "in control") or because of insecurity of overdoing! This way, we do not explore our limits, our potential for an optimum performance, since we are affected by the same indications which are supposed to help us get to the finish line as fast as possible! Basically it looks like we are adding one more parameter to the situation, which is making things more complicated, in exchange for a possibly more effective performance.

Advantages and disadvantages of no race plan
  • Less influence from variations in pacing
  • Easier adaptation to circumstances
  • More confidence during the event
  • Increased insecurity before getting to the start line
  • Perception of the event is less "organized" in runners mind and more vulnerable to personal emotions
  • Easier to push harder than you should

Let me define optimum performance: Fastest (according to personal capability at the specific time) completion of the required distance, when energy and hydration intake are kept within the limits.

Having read several studies and publications on the way our body and mind are handling ultra endurance efforts, I have come to the conclusion that our mind, when standing at the starting line, is consciously and subconsciously aware of the distance and the effort required to complete the event. By "aware", I mean that our brain, based on previous experience and a "body-systems" control has already prepared a plan for the upcoming effort. Previous experience does not have to be on the same route or distance. The mind is projecting an image of what it may encounter during the event, is comparing to similar experiences in the past, and prepares a reaction plan. When the pain, or discomfort, or insecurity kicks in, the body and mind will react based on previous experience. Also it is defining the limits of how fast or how slow we should be moving in order to get to the finish line. All these are based on experience and past efforts!

The proof for these remarks is very simple: Look at how kids of ages 4-6 years old, are addressing any running event. They start all out and  usually they are ready to collapse within the first hundred meters, even if they are supposed to be running a kilometre. Young kids, do not have experience and their brain cannot plan and regulate the output to the muscles. They go "all out" and exceed their capacity even though most 4-5 year old kids from the bio-mechanical point of view, should be able to cover quite long distances! The brain of the child is defining the limits by trial and error, as I said before. Of course, quite fast for children, the strategy is revised, imprinted and then applied in any future race.

So it is quite obvious that analysing and planning the pace is affecting our approach to an ultra endurance event. In this category I will include also the many monitoring sensors most of us are using in races: heart rate monitors, speed and pace counters, pedometers etc. By just taking a look at the watch, we can instantly know the details that will allow our brain to calculate how we are doing according to the plan! But I think that recording is in a different category.

Having said all these details, I am coming to the conclusion that, as in the famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics, the observer (in our case the analysis, pace-plan, monitoring) is messing up the probable outcome of our effort in an ultra endurance event. Of course there are some variations in this assumption. Below I present a graph with my thinking on when planning should be done and when not!

There are 7 axis of important aspects for any endurance athlete (coloured magenta). The centre represents an approach closer to "running by feel" and the outer part of each line is "running with a time-pacing plan". The line is connecting the 7 axis, and is moving closer to the centre or further out, according to how well each strategy is scoring to each one of these aspects.

Every reader can adapt this spider web according to his character and beliefs, and help him visualize his / her  approach to the question: "run by the feel" or "run with a time plan"? Having said all these things, I can positively state that I am going to do my upcoming ultra running event, based on my feeling and not with a pacing plan. In the end, I will let you know how it all went for me. But if it goes well, then it is certainly going to be a huge confidence boost for any future event. I will take a look at the altitude profile though!

It is really important to clarify, that nutrition and hydration plans, should always be applied and followed in any endurance event. If we rely only on our feeling and senses for these parts, then it is certain that we will mess up everything! If we wait to feel thirsty to drink... then probably it is already too late! So my assumption does not apply in these two essential factors of a successful race. We should always have a nutrition and hydration plan.

Also my approach assumes that there is some experience of previous ultras. A beginner should try to have a plan for his first ultras. Experience is helping define in our brain how slow - slow should be and how fast - fast should be for given distances. I can never forget one of the most universally accepted mistakes that most runners do: their slow runs are faster than what they should be, and their fast runs are slower than what they should be!

1 σχόλιο:

  1. Very well written article.
    I don't consider mysellf an ultra distance runner,but I have some experience from ultra distance triathlons. And although I do use heart rate monitors and GPS devices I use them mainly to track my performance after the race, compare them with previous events and as a guide during my training sessions.But during the race I'm competing mainly by feel because I've found that I have a "reliable built-in pace maker". Of course I keep an eye of my data during the race.
    I like to do some tests during the race although I know that these kind of tests would jeopardize my final result.
    From the 2 tables above the most important thing from those that you have written Leonidas is
    "Easier adaptation to circumstances".