Race Shape

With the indoor season underway, a lot of track athletes are already in panic mode, realizing that, in spite of all the training they’ve been doing, the positive attitude they’ve been cultivating, and the high expectations they had entering their first meet, they’re nowhere near close to being where they had hoped to be. “God I suck,” is how one of my athletes put it after the first indoor meet. For all hurdlers like her who have gotten down on yourselves very early in the year, I have four words for you: calm the hell down.

As I said in an article I wrote last year about indoor track, I really don’t put much stock in the winter season. I view it as a time to train, to raise the fitness level, and, particularly for hurdlers, to work on flaws that need to be corrected. Also, if you’re going to make any significant changes to your technique, the winter is the time to do it. With all that in mind, the winter season is not a period in which to expect fast times from yourself, it is not the period in which you should expect all the hard work to pay off.

What a lot of athletes who expect instant results don’t understand is that there is such a thing as being in “race shape,” and that’s a topic I want to get into in a bit of detail in this article. Race shape has nothing to do with being “in shape” in the sense of being in good condition. Race shape is just as mental as it is physical, just as instinctive as it is analytical.

Any hurdler who has taken off time from the event will tell you that getting into race shape is the most difficult part of returning to competition. While this observation is more obvious in cases where the hurdler has taken off for several years (Rodney Milburn in the 1970s, Renaldo Nehemiah in the 1980s, for example), it’s true for any hurdler at the beginning of a new year. I would say that it takes about five or six meets to get into good race shape. By that time, you should have worked out most of the kinks in your technique, your body should have a clear understanding of the rhythm it wants to maintain, and your muscles should be able to perform the correct movements with hardly any conscious instruction from the mind.

But in the early part of the season, the body still needs to be informed by the mind of what it’s supposed to be doing. That’s why it’s okay, for example, to consciously remind yourself before an early-season race to remember to whip the trail leg through. That’s why it’s okay, and even essential, to use the indoor meets and early-season outdoor meets as glorified practice sessions in which you have a chance to work on the things you’ve been doing in practice in an actual meet. The question you should be asking yourself is, Am I improving on the things I’ve been working on?, not, What was my time? or What place did I come in?

I urge all hurdlers who read this article and visit this website on a regular basis to approach hurdling from the perspective of a student, not of a competitor. When you’re thinking like a competitor, you’re happy when you win, even if you’re making tons of mistakes, and you’re upset when you lose, even if you’re doing a lot of things right. A student focuses more on the process of improving, of moving toward the ultimate goal of attaining mastery of the event, whatever mastery for that particular individual may entail. A competitor has a huge emotional investment in the final result, and therefore every loss, every subpar performance, every disappointing race is looked upon as a failure. Victories boost the ego, but provide only a fleeting satisfaction because the next loss is always right around the corner. A student learns to become emotionally detached from the final result, and therefore is freer to progress gradually throughout the training process, and to let each race build on the next.

Another aspect of being in race shape has to do with the mental preparation on race day. In workouts, we have plenty of opportunities to “get it right.” Even when working on your start, you’re going to do multiple reps, so if you mess up on the first one, you can do better on the next one. In a race, you have one chance, and that’s it. If you have a bad start, hit a hurdle, get twisted in the air, sail too high over a hurdle, you can’t go back to the starting line and begin again. This element of meets has caused much trauma and stress among athletes. Again, that’s why you need a good five or six meets to get yourself together. By then, the pressure of the one-and-done meet scenario should be something you have adapted to. That mental aspect of learning how to get your mind ready in the days and moments leading up to a race is an integral part of the training process, no less important than hurdle workouts, 200 repeats, and weightlifting. If you don’t develop a routine for dealing with the pressure, the pressure will always get the best of you, no matter what kind of shape you’re in, no matter how fast you are, no matter how good your technique is.

So if you had a wack first meet, relax, keep training, keep working on improving your flaws. Like I told one of my athletes back in the day, hard work always pays off, but not always when you want it to.

© 2009 Steve McGill

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