Should runners expect tough patches to hit at a certain point in a race?

Anticipating tough patches in a race and planning your physical and mental strategies will help you to get to the finish within your target time and still in one piece. Most of us runners can count on our previous experiences in race situations to educate us and enable us to learn what works well and what should be avoided.

The best way to avoid tough patches in your race is to prepare adequately. Personal, tried and tested routines not only provide you with a solid plan on race day but will also increase your confidence which will give you a huge psychological boost. A good training plan including running specific exercises will help ensure you have the strength and stamina for your race. A well-tested hydration and fuelling plan and using running gear which has been well worn will ensure you have not left anything to chance.

What mistakes do people make when a race starts to get hard? E.g. Shallow breathing? Poor posture? And what effects can these mistakes have?

The number one error that can have disastrous effects later in the race is setting off too quickly. In 2018 the running statistics of 1.7 million recreational runners were analysed. The study focused on the relationship between the starting and finishing times of men and women. The main findings showed that men were far worse than women at racing off at the start and this generally led to slower overall times with an increased probability that they would go on to hit the wall later in the race. Whilst it was clear that women were more effective at pacing it also showed that they tended to be too cautious which resulted in overall slower finishing times.

Another top tip is to make sure your planned split times are realistic for your adjusted finish time. If you are still going to run a composed and controlled race take note of the times you should be hitting at certain milestones along the route. If your split times start to slip on the day try to avoid speeding up within the race to try and claw back lost time.

What can people do, physically, to make tough periods of a run as easy as possible?

Firstly, remember you’re not alone. So many runners have a point in their race when things almost get too tough to handle. Getting through the hard times is a runner’s rite of passage. Remember your miles of training, recall the drive and passion that got you to this point. Take solace from the runners around you, your brothers and sisters all fighting the same battle.

Practically, you’ll need to do a quick check. Are you properly hydrated? Are you fuelled enough? As well as being a welcome morale booster a few jelly babies from the crowd will lift your energy levels. How is your breathing and body tension? Focus on taking deeper more relaxed breaths, slow things down, allow yourself to walk for a while until you feel more in control. Relax your shoulders and allow your arms to swing freely.

Many long-distance runners practise a ‘yoga on the move’ routine where they take stock of how each body part is feeling, taking a moment to consciously relax tired and overly stressed body areas. Running style and composure can be one of the first areas to suffer when fatigue sets in. In particular, running with tired glutes can lead to an increased pelvic drop, which in turn can cause the knees and foot arches to fall inwards.

What can people do, mentally, to make tough periods of a run as easy as possible?

When you’re truly in the grips of struggle and your body feels like it’s on its last legs, you’ll need to switch to the much talked about strategy of mental perseverance. So many top athletes tell stories of races won with tough mental resilience. Using techniques such as distraction and visualisation can really help to get you to the end of the race without falling apart.

Research has shown that when the workload starts getting tough, using distraction techniques – such as practising easy mental arithmetic – can reduce your rate of perceived exertion (how hard you think you are working). By focusing your mind away from the arduous task at hand you can trick your brain into feeling in a better place.

Visualisation on the other hand allows your current state of mind to be partially distracted with implanted positive scenarios. Imagine yourself tall and strong, striding out towards the finish with your own personal theme tune in the background. Adding in a mantra such as ‘Fast, Fit, Fearless’, to repeat to yourself will help enhance the effect.

Are there any signs people should look out for that suggest they should stop rather than battle through a tough patch?

It’s important to recognise the signs to watch out for which may indicate you have reached the end of your physical capacity to run. Visual disturbances, listlessness and poor coordination can lead to a serious collapse and can be signs of a medical emergency. When your body starts to show signs that it is shutting down it’s imperative you seek medical help immediately. Dehydration, muscle cramps, shock, heat stroke and low blood sugar levels are just some of the areas the race medics will be concerned about.

Always ensure you have filled in the medical history/medications section on the reverse of your race number just in case you find you’re the one in trouble on race day.

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