In coaching age group and masters athletes, both groups reveal a consistent pattern in competition strategy: out strong at the start of an event, only to die a slow, miserable, horrible death from about the 1/2 way point all the way to the end. Time after time, race after race, athletes attempt to set personal bests through this agonizingly painful strategy. If we could chart it, it may look something like this:
Red Line = RPE Green Line = Pace/Speed
RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) starts out feeling easy, but is in fact too hard. The athlete only trains hard, so they only know hard, and therefore can only race hard. Failure to train rested and at low RPEs results in the inability to accurately judge pace. They start out too fast, often faster than they have ever trained. At a race, starting RPE may feel low because of the energy of the event, but it isn’t necessarily so, leaving little room for RPE to climb. Already at or near max RPE the athlete is maxed out by the mid point of their event. As their effort level climaxes, their pace starts to crater.
Click here for a Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Chart
Click here for a RPE Chart with Heart Rate (HR) Zones
Click here for a RPE Chart matched to Speaking/Breathing
Mentally and emotionally this approach to competition is equally depleting and demoralizing because the athlete has to exert more and more effort only to see themselves fail to improve. At times like these, athletes often fall into negative self talk loops – only worsening their state of mind – by blaming themselves for not being mentally strong, that they are undeserving, or simply aren’t athletes, misinterpreting the true errors in their training. Prior to competitions, the anticipation of the pain to come results in performance anxiety, doubt, and in the worst of times, a return to the negative self talk loop. These death marches in competition are marked by positive split times (i.e. second half is slower than the first half), and in some cases a DNF or a DQ.
To solve this problem, athletes and coaches conclude that their training ‘wasn’t hard enough’, so they return to even harder training, hoping that they will be able to hold their initial pace longer. Problem is that at their next race they repeat the same pattern, starting out even harder because their training was harder, resulting in even greater suffering and pain. In time, this training and racing pattern leads to dissatisfaction and frustration, with themselves, their coach, and the sport. Inevitably, athletes quit because the disappointing results of training harder and harder are undesirable, with disappointment eventually becoming anticipated.
Personal bests are possible with this form of training for awhile, but the cost at which they come – the exponential rate of effort required to sustain momentum – leaves a trail of injured, maxed out, and burnt out athletes.
If physical activity and participation in sport is supposed to generate health and wellness benefits, then athletes and coaches should seriously reconsider whether ‘hard training’ is really all that healthy to start.
A Smart Training Solution: Race Pace Training
One solution is training at a specific pace repeatedly until the athlete can deliver that pace irrespective of how they feel: when fresh, when a bit tired, when having to work to sustain it, and when its all they’ve got left. If your goal is to compete, to explore your potential, then learning to run one speed at all levels – from fresh to fatigued – is fundamental to consistent peak performance as these are the exertion levels that you will experience during competition.
Why do many athletes not have this capability? Simple. They don’t train across a range, they only train hard, all out, all the time. They train only one or a few RPEs, believing that true competition occurs only when effort is 10/10. Therefore it is no wonder that they have difficulty tapering, don’t taper, and when they do are unable to integrate a full recovery to delivering a personal best in competition.
Example of Smart Training
If your desired 5k personal best is 20 minutes, then your race pace for 1k repeats is 4 minutes. Not 4:01, not 3:59, but 4 minutes even. In fact, to truly train a 4min pace, each 200 meter split during 4min/km pace should each be exactly 48 seconds.
How do runners train such a session? Their 200m splits for a 1k repeat may look something like this: 44, 47, 48, 50, 51 seconds. It adds up to a 4 min/km pace so they believe they are training 4k pace BUT there are a few problems. First, starting out way too fast even in this one interval teaches the athlete to do exactly what they don’t want to do in a competition: go out too fast, only to die another slow miserable death.
Training is dress rehearsal for competing, therefore train the way you intend to compete.
Second, the above 200m splits cannot be classified as training 4min/km pace because a 4 min pace was only held for 1 of the 200s (i.e. the third 200). The first 200 at 44secs is a 3:40/km pace, the 47 is a 3:55 pace, the 50 is 4:10 pace and the 51 is 4:15 pace. If your goal is to run a 4min/km pace, then training means training your body through repetition (and loads of it) to hold 4min/km pace irrespective of how you feel.
Consistent peak performers have a portfolio of paces, a range and sub-ranges of RPE, with awareness of how much time they can spend at each speed and effort level. They can adjust pace to meet head winds, to take advantage of tail winds, when going uphill, downhill, when in a pack, when solo. They know what pace to use to attack, and what pace is available to recover. They have trained to develop the widest range of abilities so that they are a force to be reckoned with regardless of conditions, competitors, or their own state.
Consistent peak performers do train hard, but it is within the context of smart training. Training smart arises from evaluating race performances and dissecting errors and mistakes in strategy, and then developing and training solutions for the next event. Training hard is simply what it sounds like: hard training. The metric for success in hard training is whether or not you hurt at the end of a workout (which is no indicator of performance improvements, and most definitely not synonymous with health and wellness). The metric for success in smart training is whether or not you accomplished a specific objective… can you hold a specific cadence, a pace, a cadence at a specific pace, can you hold form, execute a specific skill, routine, a strategy on cue, and so forth.
When training is appropriate for an athlete, and executed with the specific intent on learning how to deliver effort consistently, then competing can look and feel like this:
Red Line = RPE Green Line = Pace/Speed
What many athletes don’t realize is that if they actually worked on pacing alone – without training harder – they would see consistent improvement in race times, race after race as their consistency in holding split times improved.
If we are getting into sport to enjoy ourselves, to improve our health, then training needs to be enjoyable, a learning experience, a rewarding time spent problem solving specific issues in technique and strategy, a process of developing skills. There is so much more to training then just training at hard, harder, and puke effort. There is an art to sport and if athletes and coaches spent more time on the art, they will realize that the offerings of sport are much deeper then they ever imagined.
This past competitive swimming season saw several of the Burlington Masters Swim Club members achieve personal best times not because they trained harder, but because they trained smart: able to hold a consistent pace. Two particular athletes come to mind:
One athlete who competed at Provincials who after racing the 200m FR event reported that because they paced well, they even splitted the race, and when they came off the wall at 125m instead of being spent, they had another gear (i.e. higher RPE #), were able to kick it up a notch, and raced swimmers in other lanes into the wall. Their excitement and exhilaration with their success displaced any fatigue that they may have felt, motivated them instantaneously, and set them up positively for their next event. Over the remainder of the swim meet, this athlete competed with renewed confidence as they felt control over their application of speed and power, able to deliver on cue.
Another athlete competed well at Provincials and wanted to improve further by Nationals. This athlete chose an event, identified two specific technical aspects of that event – turns and breathing cycle – and trained those two aspects almost exclusively. With 4 weeks between competitions, and only 1 week to fine tune race pace prior to tapering, the swimmer successfully applied their training to take 2 seconds off their 100m FLY time.