Distance or time – you choose

After a period of rest and easy running following the Florence Marathon in November (much needed for both ailing calves) I’ve been putting the miles in so far this year while also racing cross country for the wonderful Victoria Park Harriers and Tower Hamlets AC. I had lined up the Wokingham half marathon last weekend as my first road race of the season due its reputation of being well organised and fast with a strong field (and it didn’t disappoint with any of that). However, after a decent 6 weeks of training since xmas, mostly involving long slow running, and no more than a couple of tempo sessions and some fast 400s, the last week or so I’ve been fighting that annoyingly debilitating cold bug that’s seemingly been doing the rounds. Even the day before the race I was uncertain on whether I would run. After a night of fitful sleep, I woke early and decided to go for it, promising myself I would bail if at any stage in or before the race I felt light headed, weak, faint or plain broken.
I started the race relatively conservatively, as I was wary of the testosterone fuelled excitement of those around me but soon settled into a rhythm in the early downwind miles. I ran strongly through the always challenging middle part of the race before falling apart a bit from 10 miles. Every incline (the course includes bridges over motorways) became a challenge. Looking for positives, I knew that meant I was running right on my lactate threshold but it felt too hard and I while I never gave up the effort, I gave up on hope of a fast time.
Imagine my surprise, then, as I came around the last corner with 150m to go to see 1:13:30ish on the race clock. One sprint finish later (an unusual occurrence for my aging legs) and I crossed the line in 1:13:54 for a new PB. Delighted.
Now, you might reasonably ask why I was surprised. Was I not checking my watch?
Well, yes, no, sort of.
On the basis that I’m looking to run a half marathon in or around 75 mins, I like to split a half marathon up into 3 sections of 25 minutes each. I set my watch to lap time and lap pace and hit the lap button at the end of each 25 minute block. My aim is “simply” to hold a certain pace for the first 2 sets of 25 minutes
When I’m running each set of 25 minutes I  break it down further into 5 sets of 5 mins and then tell myself that *all* I need to do is hold the target pace for the next 5 mins. And then do it again and again. The idea of breaking it down into 5 minute segments is that you never get ahead yourself. All you have to think about is holding the pace for the 5 mins you’re in, rather than holding the pace for the next x miles. This is what I would describe as mindful running – staying in the moment – only thinking about what you’re doing right now, not what’s to come nor what’s already passed.  I practice this in tempo training runs where I aim to hold a pace for 5 mins – distance becomes largely irrelevant –  so when it comes to a race it can be very similar but with the added bonus of other people around me trying to do the same thing or at least running at a similar pace.
Then when I get to the final 25 minutes of running, I hit the lap button every 5 mins with the aim of trying to hold the pace and making sure I don’t fall off.
At Wokingham, it was getting tough with a number of inclines and headwinds to negotiate and I lost concentration a little on hitting the lap button on time in the final third of the race and was struggling to hold the pace anyway. Assuming, therefore, that my chances of running under 74 had gone, I started to judge pace from feel rather than the watch and because I have set my watch to lap time and lap pace I don’t actually know what my finishing time is going to be until I see a race clock! I thought I was struggling to get under 75, hence the surprise.
Anyone following me on Strava will know that I’ve used the time based method in my training and racing for a while now (rather than distance – course distance markers, for example, are there as reference points but not targets).
Why might it work?
Time doesn’t change, or rather it changes constantly but with fixed units. One minute at the start of the race is the same as one minute at the end. Regardless of how much that minute hurts it doesn’t suddenly become 70 seconds long.
Distance, however, can seem daunting at the outset and then get worse when we’re tired – 1 mile at the end of the race often takes longer than 1 mile at the start – how many times have we asked ourselves whether we will ever actually get to the finish! In this instance a 13 mile run, the distance from Hyde Park to Heathrow, became a 75 minute one. Somehow it seems easier to deal with when put like that doesn’t it?
Now, I appreciate that this works if you can complete a half marathon in 75 minutes, but the principles can be applied to longer (or shorter) durations too. 25 minutes and 5 minutes are blocks that work for me, for a half marathon. You don’t have to stick to these numbers. Also, I appreciate that we’re all different. While I have applied this thinking to many athlete’s training plans, others prefer to work in distances. Time based approaches don’t work for everyone.
So, give it some thought and at the very least, try turning that “ugh, I’ve STILL got a mile to go” thought into “I’ve ONLY got 6/7/8 minutes of running left” and see what happens.

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