Thursday, 10 October 2013

Run with your legs and your brain: what to do when things go wrong

Sometimes things don't go to plan and it can be easy to dismiss it as failure, a write off. The reality couldn't be more different.

Rather than my usual race report ramblings on last weekend's Red Bull Steeplechase I will focus on analysing what happened and why so that I can perform better in the future. If you've had a similar experience to this in your training & racing I hope some of this might help you too!

The sun rises over the Hope Valley and the start of the Red Bull Steeplechase 2013

I can safely say that the Red Bull Steeplechase was one of the hardest and equally most fun races I have ever taken part in. The 21mile course is divided into four sections - separated by three knockout checkpoints. These checkpoints whittle the 500 starters down to 30 who complete the full course. It might sound easy but when you have some runners just gunning for the 1st/2nd CP's you're forced to push that bit harder to keep in with a chance of finishing. Starting under the shadow of Mam Tor the course takes in some real highlights of the Edale and Hope Valleys, with the up/down hill to match a rugged Fell race. At the finish a hog roast, bbq and open bar are available to competitors, ALL included in the entry fee! - If you can eat it/drink it, they'll give it to you! Even though things didn't go to plan for me this time I had a really great day and I will be back next year, no question! Outstanding. There was even a trumpet player on the ridge between Hollins Cross and Loose Hill! Red Bull really know how to put on a show. I'd also like to add congratulations to Buff Athlete Sarah Gardner-Hall who nailed it, taking 6th pos in the womens race.

Right - now down to business... (in no particular order) For each topic I've highlighted the areas I need to improve and then followed up with some food for thought.


Hills are your friend, what ever the weather!
You can always train more, everyone knows that but in terms of specifics there were a few areas I've nailed down. To cope with long, steep fast descents consistently through a race you need a strong core - I could feel my abs trying to tear themselves apart. I have neglected core work recently so I'll be back on that with a vengeance! Next up is interval training - one of the massive advantages of this type of training is making your body learn to recover on the go, even when you're still suffering. With a race like the Red Bull Steeplechase there isn't really a rest period so you've got to train your body to recover even when you're chasing the never-ending trail.

Climbing is great core training
The first thing is without a doubt - be aware of your surrounding runners. Notice how people compare to you on different sections, uphill/downhill/flats/technical terrain etc. If someone is going faster than you then there is something that you can do about it in training. Don't give me that "It's because I'm old/or young!" chat either - you're never too old/young to win. When you identify these areas you can highlight them in your training - that might mean doing more hill reps for example or finding some really rugged terrain that's hard to cover quickly.
The second thing is quality - it doesn't take long to create a structured plan about your training - even if it's working out a route that includes hills etc. I'm a strong advocate of recording training, be it Strava, Suunto MovesCount, Garmin Connect... there are plenty more! The more you record the easier it is to find out what works and what doesn't. Quality training is worth it's weight in gold - don't just use your legs, use your brain!
Thirdly I would consider what cross-training could work for you, personally I cycle and climb to compliment my training. This combination helps improve the strength of leg muscle groups which may not get fully utilised, improve core strength, balance and agility. I've also noticed that since doing more cross training combined with quality training I've (touch wood) not suffered from any injuries.


This was probably the killer blow for me, I had planned to take two small Salomon Soft Flasks with me but in the end I just went with one. Mistake, BIG mistake. Coming into what was to be my last section I was already pretty dehydrated and the heat was kicking my butt. I'd used all my water and it was a serious drag to the water station. Although the re-fill put me back into life it was too little too late. Next time I'll be carrying more water onboard - probably two larger Salomon Soft-flasks and refill when needed.

For this area a balance must be searched for - how much water to take. This obviously varies from none upwards. The heaviest part of your kit, getting this right will make a big difference to your speed, equally getting it wrong will put the brakes on big time. You might not instantly recognise dehydration but think back to how much you had to drink - was it really enough? Work out from your training how much you use in different weather conditions/different terrains etc and then apply that taking into account where water stations are. There's no need to lug round a huge bladder full of water - take what you need.


Suunto Ambit 2 Sapphire
Before racing I always like to take a look at the previous years finishing times - and ideally the Strava data so I can see at what points were people strongest and where they suffered the most. With the set out of the Red Bull Steeplechase you had to make sure you were in the pointy end the whole time or face getting knocked out - no matter what the pace. Basically I screwed that up by going a bit too fast at the start and then going a bit too slow at the finish.

Be smart - check your own data from your GPS - or work it out from a watch. Did you steam it off the start (easy enough to do, I've made that mistake enough times!) or leave it too late? (also guilty of that!). Pick a training route and practice different timings on it - try holding back at the start and then winding it up - choose focus areas to crank it up and "rest" area (not really rest, but just not like a cat with it's backside on fire). See what works, it won't all work but something will so don't expect it to change over night!

Race Route

Get to know your route like the back of your hand!
Knowing the race route is worth it's weight in gold, in fact, in raw uncut diamonds the size of a coconut. I messed this one up by not spending time checking the route out in full on the ground fully, which is totally disgraceful as I live only a few kilometres away from it! Even though I've now done the course, for next year I'll be training on the course, learning and re-learning every up, down, turn and bridge.

This is another area that I cannot emphasise enough for it's importance and it's not just for the bloomin obvious reason of "you'll know where you're going". Knowing the route will make you much more comfortable and confident, you'll know when you can push a little more, as well as when to reign it in a bit. Also I find it helps prevent the almost inevitable feeling of the last few miles of an unknown course dragging out like its the last 20 miles.

There are obviously many more areas which you can address (nutrition for example) to improve your speed and performance, perhaps something for a later blog but hopefully these four will make you think about any event you previously put down as failure and now see them as an opportunity to learn and improve.

You don't need to be the fittest person to win the race, you need to be the fastest - use your brain as well as those legs carved from the finest steel to maximise your performance. 

Coming soon... Salomon S-Lab Fellcross 2 review, possibly the best shoes ever made.

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