Recently, I was asked to speak to the high school cross country team at Gabrielino High School in San Gabriel, CA. I was delighted to meet the coach and his surprisingly large team of 75 runners! I only say surprisingly, because my walking partner at work, Paula Mark, made all the arrangements at this school, where her son goes, and even she did not realize how large a team they have. What a delightful audience they were, asking great questions and so respectful of the “old school” runner, me. I’ve said it before, but if Joan Benoit Samuelson is considered a “pioneer,” then I must be a dinosaur! To these kids, mentioning my peak years must have sounded like I stepped out of an Encyclopedia! Excuse me, encyclopedias are obsolete, so I’ll just say “history book.”
The questions I answered that night are good reminders to me, as a coach, that I can never take anything for granted, and I cannot overlook the smallest of details. After all, John Wooden was known to spend valuable practice time with his UCLA basketball players (need I say NCAA championship teams?) teaching them how to tie their shoes properly. In fact, I always do that with any and all my athletes. One mistake, one shoe falling off, one equipment failure could mean one bad race outcome.
Today, I was with the runners at St. Bernard’s High School in Playa Del Rey, where I am currently coaching, and sure enough, some of the same questions do come up. Let’s see if I can recall the top questions runners usually ask me:
1) Do you get nervous before a race start? But of course! It’s to be expected. In fact, if you are not nervous, I’d be worried. Being nervous is a sign that you have a healthy respect for what you’re about to do, and you are not overly confident. You respect the distance and you respect the competition, and I trust you’ll try harder. You have to trust me that when the starting gun goes off, all that nervousness dissipates, and you are free to run like you do every other day at practice.
2) Do you breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth?
Honestly, you breathe every which way you can to get all the oxygen you can. While we are on the topic of breathing however, I will say that it’s very helpful to focus on a breathing pattern, if only to relax and enable you to run faster. Think about a comfortable pattern, one that will change depending how fast your leg turnover is. It might be take two strides, breathe in, then two strides, breathe out. It might be three strides, or four, and it’ll vary depending on your speed. Relaxing is the key to distance running. It allows you to cover long distances, and it enables you to accelerate.
3) What do you eat before a race?
There is no one answer to this question, except to describe my eating habits when I was competing. The answer lies within you and what you enjoy eating, what you digest easily, what you are familiar with on a daily basis, and it’s different for each of us. There are some generalities that we can each choose from. In general, running requires mostly carbohydrates for fuel, but it is still important to balance that with some protein and even fat has its place in a diet, just in smaller amounts. So, depending on how well you digest food, some runners can run within a couple hours of eating, and others might take as much as four hours to run after a meal. It also depends on the size and content of that meal. So that pre-race meal, for me anyway, would be mostly carbs, some protein, but it would not include dairy, or roughage (no raw fruits or vegetable), and not too spicy (just bland), nor would it have much fat if any. I want my last meal to be easily digested with no after effects. And don’t forget to keep hydrated all day before race day. Dinner example: my usual choice was chicken and rice with cooked vegetables, bread on the side. When my athletes are at a day long track meet, with races on and off all day, since they have to eat, I would pack bagels, rice cakes, bananas, some energy bars and water plus replacement drinks. Post-race, it’s important to replace your nutrients, also balanced with protein and carbs, so turkey sandwiches work well, but so do peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
4) What is your race strategy?
I have always had one race plan, one that I share with my runners. I divide my races in four parts. The first part is to “get out” off the starting line (which is a good reason to do a good warm-up before every race). Don’t get blocked in, but don’t lead. Just position yourself where you ought to be (and this could be in terms of where your teammates are). The second part is to go on “cruise control,” running comfortably and maintaining the position you obtained. The third part is by far the hardest. It starts at the halfway point, when your body naturally wants to slow down. This is where you dig deep for strength because you have to work harder even just to maintain the same position. This is where you can make or break your race. The fourth and final part is the finish. You just let go, run flat out, pass as many others as you can, and leave everything on the race course.
I have much more advice to share, and there were certainly more questions, but since I like things in four parts, this is a good place to call the finish line.
Please feel free to ask me running related questions and I will oblige in an upcoming blog.