Analyzing Race Performance

Racing is hard. We put months and months of miles and miles into training for one specific day. The number of pitfalls that can sabotage us between the beginning of training and the finish line are innumerable. Yet we push on with the hope of having that perfect race day performance. We dream of that race where the heavens part and angels sing—a race so epic that Morgan Freeman should narrate it. It is our white whale. 

Running is a sport where the athlete is, for the most part, rewarded directly proportional to the amount of effort and work we put in prior to race day. Generally speaking, the better we prepare, the faster we will become. As John Parker discussed in Once a Runner, as a whole, runners are less apt to be deceived about the true quality of our competitive performances as other athletes may be. For instance, who's a better basketball player, Jordan or Lebron? That can be argued back and forth. Runners are painfully aware of our place in the hierarchy of both current and former runners. The distance of a meter or a mile hasn't changed throughout history. The cold, hard numbers stare back at us with the final say in who was the fastest runner ever over a given distance. 

The hardest part in our need to quantify what is exceptional, acceptable, or objectionable is trying to quantify what is good or bad. For most of us, our evaluation begins and ends with one metric: the clock. But time is really only one aspect of the race day experience. It's a valuable one, but is not the be-all end-all that we runners equate it to. Given the numerous weather and course conditions that can lead to a less than ideal finishing time, how do we measure our performance when conditions are not optimal? Simply looking at the finishing time isn’t a good indication of how well (or how poorly) we ran. Our time does not always tell us how well prepared we were, how well we ran, how talented we are. If performance is not all about time in a realm that is all about time, how do we evaluate our races?

When comparing times between races, we need to rethink our evaluation process. We make broad assumptions about someone’s athletic ability, training plan, or race execution. When we start looking at all the things that go into a race, we find that the answers aren’t as black and white as a simple finishing time. And when looking at our own results, we need to be sure to balance “making excuses” for a given race with objectively looking at a race result and its individual components.

Our goal should be to try to compare each performance against its own merits. There is never a perfect race, nor a complete failure. We need to try to be as objective as possible in looking over different factors that can help or hurt a race day performance. Things such as wind, temperatures, humidity, elevation changes, turns, bottlenecks, race day logistics, etc., can have a huge effect on what the clock says.

Temperature and Humidity | These two aspects work in conjunction to make race day either a blessing or a curse. The tough thing is that if the "feels like" temperature (which is a combination of temperature and humidity) is comfortable before hand, it's probably detrimental for an optimal performance. Studies show that for runners who aren’t heat-adapted, racing in conditions where it "feels like" 70 degrees can reduce performance by as much as five percent. That doesn't sound like much, but what starts at 5 percent gradually builds as the race goes on and as our bodies try to cool us down. Our blood flow is diverted from our running muscles to our skin, causing our sweat glands to perspire. As our perspiration evaporates, heat is taken away, and we cool off. The warmer it feels, the more blood flow is diverted to the skin to keep our engines from overheating. If there is more blood going to the skin, however, there is less going to the muscles we use to run, and we have to run harder to go the same speed. It becomes a downward spiral. 

Wind | Wind can affect us more than we may realize during a race. A slight breeze can help cool us. A tailwind can give us a push, and a headwind can make it tough sledding. How much though? A tailwind does aid performance, but you only “get back” about half of what you put into a headwind when you turn around and run with it at your back. Studies show that a tailwind that effectively eliminates air resistance (i.e., a tailwind equivalent to the speed at which you are running—so running at 6:00 min/mi pace with a 10-mph tailwind) would increase your performance by about 6 seconds per mile, while the equivalent headwind (6-min/mi into a 10-mph wind) would slow you by about 12 seconds per mile.

Hills | Hills, both up and down, affect how hard our bodies have to work. Impact forces on downhill running are 54 percent greater and braking forces 75 perecent greater while running down a 9 percent grade hill. In contrast, the impact force virtually disappears running up that same grade, but the effort increases by 74 percent. This should not be too much of a surprise, since gravity is doing most of the work downhill, but we have to put more in on the way up. What does this mean? It means downhill running will be much more strenuous on us than we tend to think and uphill running increases the amount of power our muscles have to produce to stay on pace. So being inefficient in either of these areas will cause us to run out of gas earlier or end up running slower than if we were covering the same ground over a flat course. 

Etc. | There are many other factors that can inhibit performance. I look at a course like a river. What would slow down a river? Things like bottlenecks that cause participants to jam up cause us to slow down or use extra energy weaving through the pack. Too many turns, or tight turns and U-turns will cause the pack to hit the breaks before re-acceleration. This speed up/slow down aspect wears us out and hurts our gas mileage. When racing, we want to be as efficient as we can with what energy we have. Another aspect that can hurt performance is the logistics of the race. Big races that take forever to get to the start line or have a late start can throw off our fueling routine or cause extra time on our feet, sapping energy away from our race performance. Big races can also cause us extra stress since we’re dealing with bigger crowds and packs. Mental and emotional stress can wear us out just as assuredly as physical stress can.

So how can we determine where our performance ranks without getting to the point of making excuses or grasping at straws? Some things to look at are relative finishing position to the same race over the years. Would your time have been a similar place over the prior few years? Where did your performance rank compared to others around you? Websites like Athlinks can help us see how our time compares to the general population. We tend to live in a bubble on race day and look at our race as a singular event. By looking at everyone around us, we may see that the day was a fast or slow one relative to the bell curve of other race performances. Some races, like Boston, give people the opportunity to see if they can beat their bib number or seed. This helps us to get a better gauge of just how well we do compared to our qualifying performance.

Sure we'd all like to PR every time out, but that won't always be in the cards. Using these tips allows us to better evaluate our performances in a more accurate light. We can see it's okay to be excited and proud of a performance that doesn't meet the clock metric. If we run a bit slower on a tough course in brutal conditions, that may end up being a better performance than our PR on a perfect day on a fast course. By bringing a bit of perspective to evaluating our races, we can appreciate our racing more.


Tim CaryTim Cary is Head Track & Field and Cross Country for Lindenwood University at Belleville and the former Fleet Feet Assistant Training Manager.  Over his more than two decades of coaching, Tim has coached athletes to three national team championships, five national individual championships, two national records, and numerous All-American and All-State honors.  Click here to subscribe to our blog.

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