ARTICLE: Running Strategy & Tactics

As I was writing the race report below, I couldn't help being reminded how many consider running tactics a joke: Just go out there and run, they'll say.
Now the above statement is not a complete fallacy, but it's mostly an easy way of instilling a laugh and attempting to take seriousness out of running. Personally I enjoy running more when my legs haven't turned to jelly, and clever running will help you accomplish just that.
Steady She Goes
You will always achieve your best speed over a given distance if raise your heart rate to the maximum level you can sustain over the lenght of a race. Finding out what this is is trial and error, unless you pay a physiologist to show you your own limits (as I have done).
Based on the readings from a treadmill test, you can know exactly how long you can sustain a given pace before the lactate level reaches a critical stage that will force you to slow down. Because of this, shifting gears too much during a race can be a grave error: Firstly you may go too slow, thinking your saving up energy for later, but if you then overcompensate for you lower speed, you often find that your bursts kill you off at a vastly accelerated rate. Why is that?
Exponential lactace build-up, quite simply. Let's take a simple example based on myself:
  • Running at 13 kph I produce 3.87 mmol/L of lactate
  • Running at 14kph I produce 6.66 mmol/L of lactate.
  • Running at 15kph I produce 8.12 mmol/L lactate

How long I can keep going at depends on my tolerance to lactate and my body's ability to wear it down. While I do not have access to figures that show exactly what that is, the exponentially rising rate of production will inevitably mean that if I can tolerate and keep going at 7 mmol/L, even short sojourns into the 15kph area will cause my legs to fade.

Whatever my limit is, as long as I keep beneath it, I'll be fine (at least for a sizeable amount of time). Staying too far below the line, one the other hand, does not serve any useful purpose.

Don't believe me? Well learn from the best and read below instead then...

Lessons from Paula Radcliffe
Now here's a woman who perfectly understands her own strengths and weaknesses and meticulously plans and plays to them. Emma enjoyed telling me this story the other day, and I'm happy to retell it her:

Paula went through pretty much every type of distance in her illustrious career, most notably 5000m, 10000m and cross-country (her running cradle). Her problem was simple (and one I share according to Emma): The natural physical limit of her max speed was too low to beat the fastest runners on 5000 and 10000m.

When she changed to marathon she almost immediately got pay-off in the forms of medals and victories. Why? Because while her maximum speed was lower than the fastest marathoners, she kept racking up more mileage than any of her competitors. End result: She couldn't match them for max speed, but she could keep a higher average speed for longer.

That's the lesson for all those of us who are not natural speed demons or whose propensity of fast twitch fibres is so low that we have no answer to the savage short burst attacks of someone more naturally endowed as a sprinter.

There's no one you can't potentially beat. If someone is faster than you, then you must train harder than they do. If you do that, you can't match them for speed in the sprints, but you can wear them out with a higher average pace.

If they keep training harder than you, however, or the difference between your max speed and their max speed is so big that the training required to beat them with average pace becomes unfeasible, the yes, you may have to put down your sword and surrender. But don't, if you gave it your all, then you're a champion regardless: The best you can be in what you do.

This doesn't work without strategy and tactics, however First plan your race, then get the experience needed to adjust your tactics along the way for optimal average pace.
Hill Running Strategies
Hill runs are notoriously difficult to plan ahead of time even after having run them a few times. Let this be said: Hills are lactate builders! Going to fast on the early stages of a hill can ruin your race completely, the lactacte buildup will be immense due to high heart rates, and you will never get sufficient rest during the race to get rid of it.
One reason why so much duelling goes on in the hill runs, as opposed to the street and trail runs, is that the terrain makes it more unpredictable for people to find a sustainable running pace, and thus they "hit the wall" more often in these races, run empty, and must see themselves passed by.
General rules are hard to set up, because it depends on your individual strenghts as a hill runner, but here are a few:
  1. Attack on transition areas (up to flat, up to down, down to flat): Most people slow down here, and you can get "free" metres
  2. Be aware of multiple hills: If there's multiple climbs on the route, save energy on the first, don't go all out
  3. Use the Hills: It may hurt, but in shorter races, or races with only one climb, this can be the best place to attack your competitors.
  4. Don't save too much going down: You can reach tremendous speeds going down, but it's tempting to use the descents to recover from ascents. Don't do this in shorter races, take full advantage.
  5. Watch out for flat endings: Most races finish with a long descent, but watch out for those who have half a kilometre or more of flat at the end. You'll need to hold back a little bit on the descent, or the flat will turn you to jelly.
  6. Shift Rhythm: Very steep slopes can only be survived by small controlled steps. Less severe slopes must be defeated with long slow strides (this will decrease your heart rate significantly). Adapt your rhythm to all terrains, going down should feel like a dance with the mountain, don't resist it, follow it.
  7. Adapt Your Breathing: Your breathing rhythm will need to change with your running rhythm. Keep your chin up!

There's probably many more, but I'll leave it for tonight, the Navigational Challenge beckons tomorrow. Sleep well all!

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