The summer before my junior cross country season in high school I made a concerted effort to get out the door and get in some consistent mileage. I wanted to get faster so I could help my team qualify for the State Championships.
There were several routes I could run from my house—nice, flat routes and crazy hard, hilly routes. I spent an inordinate amount of time flying along the flat loops that summer. And when the season started, I ran some great early season meets on some flat, fast courses. I was thrilled: the hard work paid off.
But as the season went along and the courses got tougher, my performances did not keep up with my early season results. By the time we arrived at the State-Championships-qualifying time of year, I crashed on the hills like a wave against a rocky shore. Sure, I had put in the training, but I hadn't prepared myself for the courses we would run to qualify for the State Championships.
If you Google training plans for half marathons or marathons—or pretty much any race—you’ll find a million different references on how to put together a training schedule. All of that information is great, but you can’t forget that the primary focus of any training plan is to prepare you for your goal race.
My summer training plan of running flat, fast routes did an excellent job of whipping me into shape and preparing me to race. So why did I crash so badly late in the season? I crashed because I prepared to race flat courses—not the hilly courses I would actually run.
“Nothing new on race day.” We've all heard this adage. Usually, we apply it to fueling and apparel. We often forget to apply it to the actual course and conditions we’ll see on race day. If you’re running a hilly race, you need to have a steady diet of hills while training. If you’re running a concrete jungle course (i.e., any race in a city), you'll need to prepare for the elements a city will throw at you—no shade, lots of wind, hard surfaces, etc.
The goal is to be prepare for whatever your goal race throws at you. Former St. Louisan Serena Burla recently executed an excellent example of training for her goal race. Serena was in town a few weeks back when we had that nice stretch of cool weather. But despite the beautiful running conditions, she ran around covered head-to-toe in heavy sweats. No, she wasn't cold. She was training for her goal race: the World Marathon Championships in Beijing. The expected temperature is in the 90's, with humidity hovering in the 90-percent range. By focusing several months of training in the conditions in which she'll be racing, she was well prepared. And, in turn, she ran an awesome race: 2:31 for 10th place overall and first American.
When we design the training program for the Fleet Feet Training Team, we try to incorporate a wide variety of conditions and topography so that the group will be well prepared for all kinds of race courses and conditions. We also try to replicate difficult runs. In other words, we don’t want every training run to go swimmingly. Sure, easy runs are more enjoyable, but easy runs don’t prepare us for what we’ll face on race day. We try to mix in some tough training runs, because anyone who’s ever raced knows there’s always that one rough patch during a race. If we don't have a rough patch in training, we won’t be prepared for it on race day.
The summer before my senior year, I spent almost every day running at the hills at Babler State Park, and let's just say those hills at the end of cross country season didn't slow me down. The next time you're deciding where to run, make sure you think about what will best prepare you for race day. In the end, it's all about training for your specific race so you can have your great performance.
Tim Cary is Fleet Feet's Assistant Training Manager and coach of the Fleet Feet-sponsored Runnababez Elite team. 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 receive Tim's weekly article via email.