Scientific or Emotional - What Kind of Runner Are You?
In this, the late 20th century, most all of the mysteries regarding how to train for and run your best race have been unearthed. By following a scientific approach and running even splits, you will be able to achieve an optimal performance. If that is the case, why is it that so few of us actually execute such a strategy?
Posted Friday, 10 October, 1997
In this, the late 20th century, most all of the mysteries regarding how to train for and run your best race have been unearthed. By following a scientific approach and running even splits, you will be able to achieve an optimal performance. If that is the case, why is it that so few of us actually execute such a strategy? Stephen Peckiconis has no idea why not, and furthermore, he does not really care. He is perhaps the most "scientific" runner I know in his approach to racing. Regularly consulting his heart rate monitor, Peckiconis knows exactly just how much energy and effort he can parcel out over a given distance in order to extract his best performance. He says "Every world record I've ever seen has been set with the runner doing even or negative splits." So why do so many non-elite runners always run positive splits? I don't know, but I don't care, since it means I can beat other runners whom I wouldn't otherwise be able to beat!"
So why indeed don't we all use such a scientific approach to racing? It certainly is not due to lack of available evidence or research. Rather, I think it is because some of us are simply not meant to be "scientific" runners. Rather, we are "emotional" runners. Despite all of all the available research, we fly in the face of this evidence and start off races at a fast pace, almost always too fast to achieve our best possible time. We would like to believe that if we want it bad enough, we will be able to pull out a "once in a lifetime" performance. Proponents of this theory say that by digging deep into our emotional reserves, we will find something that will allow us to out-run other competitors, or achieve that time that has proved so elusive. This despite the fact that all scientific evidence suggests we cannot possibly sustain such a fast pace over the entire distance of the race.
Those in the emotional camp cite examples of runners who have been able to "run out of their heads" in certain circumstances, beating other runners whom they would never have been able to beat under normal circumstances. Team events such as relays or school championships are examples often cited where this "running out their head" phenomenon can supposedly take place.
The reason many of us run races is so we can run a faster time that we do in training. Races are special situations, in which we can withdraw from our reserves in order to exceed out normal performance. In order to facilitate running faster than we normally do, we need to summon up the extra energy in our bodies. This is done through the "magic" of adrenaline. Even the scientists will agree that adrenaline will let us go faster in a racing situation than we normally do in training. What they insist however, is that we need to carefully control the adrenaline flow so that we allocate all available energy reserves over the entire distance of the race, not just at the start.
Peckiconis says, "I have one simple philosophy in racing. I want to run as fast as possible, meaning I want to end up with the fastest possible time. I believe that to run as fast as possible, it is 95 percent due to generating even energy usage (running an even pace). The other five percent is getting the adrenaline going competing with someone else."
Five percent? That's it? Many of us sure place a lot of importance on that five percent, often throwing the 95 percent out the window in the process. All you have to do is to stand at the one mile mark of any road race and check times. Then go to the finish and see how few of the runners have maintained that one-mile pace. At the recent RoJack's five mile race, which featured some of New England's best and supposedly most intelligent runners, there were nearly twenty women under 5:30 at the mile. By the finish, only five had run 27:30 or faster, 5:30 pace for five miles.
Why do we do it then? Why do we go out so fast, when we should know we can never maintain such a fast pace? There are several reasons why, I think, that make us become emotional runners, sometimes against our better judgment.
* First, we simply can't control ourselves. Running even splits often means starting out at a pace that feels too easy. Many of us simply cannot accept the fact that this is the proper pace to run a fast time. Many of us like to believe that "putting time in the bank" and then "hanging on" is the best way to run a fast time.
* Another reason is that we are competitors at heart. The only way we will allow anyone else in the race to get ahead of us is if we just can't keep up. When the starting gun fires, all of our natural instincts tell us to stay ahead of as many runners as possible. We just don't trust the theory that says we will catch many poorly paced runners at the end, if we follow the scientific approach.
* A third reason is that we let our egos get the better of us and overate our own ability level. We all like to think we belong a little farther up in the pack than we actually do. It's always fun to be "up front" in the field, especially when there are cheering crowds on the side of the road.
* Finally, in order to get the most out of ourselves in a race, we need to follow tried and true routines to get "psyched up" for the race. In the days before the event, we think about the race and how we are going to run strong and hard. The body receives these messages from the brain and prepares by sending a steady adrenaline flow, in order that we can exceed our everyday performance level and run faster. It's difficult to ignore all of these signals the body is sending out at the start of a race, especially if we are feeling rested and eager to run.
So, which method of racing is the best? Should we let our emotions take over or run a carefully calculated race? It's hard to argue with the scientific experts, but it is also difficult to override our natural response. Almost everyone would agree that the longer the race, the higher the penalty one will pay for poor pacing. In marathons or ultra marathons, it is crucial to keep emotions under control and run well under the aerobic threshold. The primary reason for this is due to our limited ability to store muscle glycogen. By starting out too fast in a marathon or an ultra, a runner will waste precious muscle glycogen. Our bodies can only store enough to last for 20 miles or so. By ingesting carbohydrate in liquid or solid form, we can boost muscle glycogen, but it is still critical to use our stores sparingly.
In a shorter race, there is more room for "attacking" a race with emotion. An even-paced strategy is always best, but some of us need to tap into our emotional side in order to run fast. Generally speaking, those who run a multitude of races usually come to learn what pace is best. On the other hand, running so many races can lead to a blasé attitude. After all it is hard to run a "once in a lifetime" performance every week. As Peckiconis says "The most non-scientific part of my running is my race schedule. If I wanted to have faster times, I would taper more and race less. That's an emotional decision made to enjoy being out there and racing a lot, while still being relatively competitive."
Thus, there seems to be room for both emotions and science in racing. If you are just going through the motions without any feeling, you might as well stay at home. On the other hand, letting our emotions get the better of us will surely lead to disaster. The trick is knowing how to balance to two properly, and when to emphasize each side of the pendulum. We can all learn more about our body's ability, by studying our pace and/or using a heart rate monitor, which all running scientists will tell you is a device you simply cannot live without. But if we really want to dig deep for a premium performance, we just may be able to do so, by tapping into our emotional reservoir. This approach is best used for shorter distances, and very infrequently. For the marathon and beyond, proper pacing is everything. Parceling out energy reserves in a miserly fashion will always yield the best possible performance.
Even for the most scientific of runners, there is a time to become emotional about a race. Peckiconis says "Only at the end (of a race) will I race someone, and when I do I always try to go all out an never give in. I'm still waiting to see another guy who won't give in. Every close finish (in the last 10 to 20 percent of a race) I'm in lasts for no more than twenty seconds. The other guy always says "good race" and packs it in." Presumably, this is because "the other guy" spent his emotional reservoir somewhere down the road earlier in the race, and wasn't ready to do battle with the scientist, who had a full emotional tank left as the finish line neared. Hey, that theory sounds pretty goodI'll have to try it sometime. But probably not anytime soon.