Have you ever started a race and immediately realized, “This is going to suck?”
It happens to every runner sooner or later: a shitty race, an uninspired performance, a mediocre showing, a poor indicator of your ability.
This is exactly what happened to me on March 11, 2012 when I raced the St. Patrick’s Day 8k in Washington, DC. My time was nearly a minute slower than last year at this race.
I met up with Lindsay after the run and was happy to hear she ran a good race (even after doing a long run the day before!). My description of my race as “tragic” might have been an overstatement – sorry for being so dramatic Lindsay!
Play by Play of the St. Patrick’s Day 8k
Meaghan and I got to the race earlier than expected, so we had plenty of time to pick up my number, get my D-Tag fixed to my flats, and pin my bib on my singlet. She’s a saint so she watched my gear while I ran a 20 minute warm-up with a minute at tempo pace.
I wore the Nike Streak XC flats for the race, which I think are one of the top racing flats available on the market right now. They’re light, low to the ground, and have enough cushioning for road races. I’d recommend them only for runners who are used to racing in minimalist flats or spikes though. There’s not a lot of support.
Sidenote: If you want to pick up a pair, use code CX12H001 for free shipping at Road Runner Sports.
I then jogged to the starting line and ran six strides. Honestly, I wasn’t feeling great at this point. I didn’t feel strong, quick, or with any “pop” in my legs.
See also: stale, flat, slow.
If you follow me on Twitter, I tweeted an image of the start right before the race started.
The gun fired and we were off, racing down Pennsylvania Ave towards the Capitol Building. The course is mostly flat and I hit the first mile in 5:26. Last year I was 24 seconds faster in the same race!
I knew that this race wasn’t going to be fast from the very first minute. My strategy changed and I turned my effort to “hard tempo” instead of “hard racing.” There would be no going to the well this St. Patrick’s Day.
My 5k split was 16:55 and I was at 22:01 through 4 miles. I ran the last mile at 5:25 pace – pretty slow for me – and you can see me losing to another runner in the photo below.
How to not finish a race
When I crossed the finish line, I was barely tired. The race felt like a tough tempo workout and my legs weren’t beat up at all. Clearly, I hadn’t pushed myself as hard as I could have.
But that was part of my strategy. You can’t “have it” for every race (especially your first one after a marathon!) and it’s important to be flexible and adapt to what your body can do on race day.
So, how do you adapt your race plan if you need to?
Detect the Warning Signs of a Bad Race
Sometimes, it’s not meant to be. It’s important to have stretch goals but you can’t accomplish them every time you cross the starting line.
I didn’t feel great before the St. Patrick’s Day 8k but my race strategy stayed the same until I saw my slow first mile split. At that point, based on the effort level it took for me to run that 5:26, I knew my strategy needed updating. There was no way I could run in the 5:15 – 5:20 pace range.
There are a few warning signs you can use to determine if your race might not go well:
- It’s your first race back after a marathon
- You’ve been running significantly lower mileage than usual
- Your workouts have been inconsistent or unfocused in the 3-4 weeks before the race
- Your warm-up is slower than usual and you don’t feel any energy or “pop” in your legs
- Your pre-race strides feel slow or uncoordinated
It’s safe to say your race may not go according to plan if all of these are true. But fear not, that doesn’t mean you should give up!
Instead, stick with your race plan for the first mile of the race. Your body can occasionally surprise you so don’t immediately discount what you’re capable of on race day. You may feel terrible, but somehow run faster than ever.
In fact, that’s what happened when I ran my 4:33 mile PR – I felt like I was sprinting the entire time and felt awful. But my legs kept moving and I got a nice two-second PR!
Always stay positive for the first mile of a race. Click here to tweet this!
But if your legs aren’t responding, your breathing is heavier than it should be, and you’re far off from your goal pace, what do you do? Do you drop out of the race or start walking? I say no!
How to Run a Race When You Feel Slow
Quitting isn’t an option unless you feel an injury starting. Never run through a sharp, intense, or stabbing pain. But if you just feel flat or slow, you can still gain some valuable fitness out of a poor race. Let’s look at the two best ways to do it.
Race Strategy #1: Your first option is to turn the race into a tempo or “hard tempo,” the same strategy I used for the St. Patrick’s Day 8k. This strategy will work best for distances of 10k or shorter, since you can’t run your tempo pace for a half-marathon or marathon.
After that first mile, dial back the pace to your tempo effort. The “effort” part of that is key – you may be going slightly slower or faster than your true tempo pace, but that’s fine. Since tempo workouts are largely based on heart rate or perceived effort, the actual pace can vary significantly based on fatigue, stress, weather conditions, workload, hydration, and how fast that first mile was.
The benefit of turning your race into a tempo run is that it’s still a valuable workout. A 5k – 10k tempo will boost your fitness and prepare you for longer and harder workouts in the weeks ahead. After this 8k race, I ran two more tempo workouts and felt better than ever. The race was a springboard to better training, even though the race itself sucked.
Race Strategy #2: This option is almost exactly like #1 above, except for the last half-mile to mile of the race. After you determine your race is going to suck at the mile marker, ease into your tempo pace until about a mile left in the race. Then when you’re 5-10 minutes from the finish line, pick up the pace and try to negative split your final mile.
This strategy is a bit more advanced than the first and you’ll need to feel slightly better to execute it well. Your body can do a lot more than you think!
You get all of the aerobic benefits of strategy #1, but negative splitting the final mile will not only boost your endurance adaptations, but it will give you confidence to finish fast no matter how you’re feeling in a race.
Learn From My Race So You Can Run Faster
Figuring out how to run a race when you feel out of shape is a gradual process. I’ve put on the racing flats and stood on the starting line hundreds of times and I’m still learning the nuances of race tactics and strategy.
Racing is best done during the taper or peaking phase of training (I was definitely not there for the St. Patrick’s Day 8k). I was poorly trained and I didn’t prepare for the specific demands of this race distance. If you’re the same way, don’t expect an amazing performance. That will happen when you’re properly peaked for the race.
It’s great to have an optimistic “Plan A” for your race but always plan for the worst! Your Plan B and Plan C can help you turn a crappy race into a valuable training session. While it may not be the fantastic performance you were looking for, it might be a good workout that helps you build on your fitness. If you need help planning your training for an upcoming race (so it goes better than mine!), check out my personalized training plans.
I want to hear from you: How did your last race go? Did you need to adjust your strategy after you already started? What did you learn?