by Laurel Park, Dec. 30, 2002
Certainly one of the most important aspects of racing involves strategy. How am I going to approach this race? When should I make my move? How will the course, the weather, the competition and my fitness come into play? Part of good coaching involves teaching runners how to assess a racing situation and formulate an effective strategy/response. With a few exceptions, good runners become adept at successfully implementing a number of different strategies. In contrast, some runners stick with one technique regardless of the circumstances: "I'm going to go out hard and hang on until I crash." That's not a strategy - it's self-fulfilling prophecy.
Strategy is not just being able to assess the situation, but actually being able to act or react to it, sometimes at a moment's notice. While most coaches would probably argue that runners should never completely change their strategy mid-race (and I agree), I think sometimes the situation requires small adjustments. And unfortunately, experience is by far the best teacher for strategy adjustment. We've all seen high school and college runners who toss aside their coach's strategy in the heat of competition, and end up paying dearly for it in the end. "But coach, I was afraid that if I didn't stick with the leaders I'd lose them!" As the runner matures and gains more racing experience, however, he learns how to react, when to react, and the extent of the reaction. He also learns to scan the environment for important information. How strong is that wind along the backstretch? Is the runner on my shoulder breathing hard or is he comfortable? Does the leader look smooth and strong or are his arms starting to flail? Is the weather deceptively warm despite that cool breeze?
The concept of "race strategy" invited some discussion after the 2001 Detroit Free Press Marathon. The eventual winner stayed tucked in behind the second place finisher for the majority of the race before out-sprinting him to the line. Some saw this as dirty tactics (drafting and not doing his fair share of the "work") while others saw it as a beautiful example of strategic and tactical racing. Fair play aside, some people also pointed out (rightly, in my opinion) that lack of preparation ultimately cost the second-place finisher. He had no strategy to fall back upon when he found himself in that situation. I bet if/when that situation occurs again, his reaction will be much different.
Employment of strategy is not confined to the heat of the battle. Strategy is essentially a psychological phenomenon that is physically manifest, and it begins when a person decides to enter a race. The levels of commitment and the effort put forth can differ widely, but every competitive event, from Olympic final to neighborhood fun run, involves some amount of strategy. World-class athletes parse and examine every aspect of strategy, from daily training to diet to shoes worn for different training techniques to where they will live during the winter. Recreational runners are more likely to be concerned with eating an appropriate breakfast (no surprises in the finish chute, please), how early to leave for the race, where to line up at the start, and how fast to run the first mile.
Psychological strategy (commonly known as "mind games") is interesting. It includes words, actions, and appearance. Remember Michael Johnson's gold racing spikes in Atlanta? Apart from marketing hype, don't think for a moment that the psychological impact of those shoes on Michael's competitors was not considered in their design. Warming-up, taking strides, even the kind of sports drinks used all contribute in some small way to the athlete's overall competitive strategy, as do the words and actions of an athlete's coach. People who are familiar with sports know that comments and assurances about an athlete's illness/injury/fitness are to be taken with a grain (or block) of salt. Serious injuries are trivialized, and on occasion, minor injuries aggrandized.
A few weeks ago I was speaking with a friend of mine who coaches high school cross-country. He mentioned that he rarely forwards meet results to the local newspaper because he doesn't want his team's conference foes to know how his athletes are performing. I didn't understand his logic at the time and I still don't. I've always said - and firmly believe - that aside from physical interference, the only person who can influence how a runner performs is the runner himself. Whether the opposing team thinks he can run 15:00 or 18:00 for 5K should have no bearing when the gun goes off. I can see how such "non-information" can create a kind of psychological shield, but it sure seems flimsy to me. I'd rather teach my athletes to deal with a variety of race situations - underdog or overwhelming favorite. The only way to develop psychological racing tools is to deal with reality, and the reality is that there are some very fast runners out there and everyone has a bad day now and then. Plus, it's always nice for a kid to see his or her name in the paper.
Strategy is no substitute for training and preparation, but it can make the difference between a stellar performance and a disappointing one. Smart runners spend a considerable amount of time honing their mental skills during workouts or even easy runs. Practice makes perfect, and strategy is a valuable tool at all levels of racing.