Most athletes base their goals around specific races. For some runners, it is about qualifying for the Boston Marathon. For others, it is simply setting a personal record at their local 5K or 10K.
However, one thing is certain when preparing for competition: every race is different. Some races feature challenging, tight turns while others challenge athletes with demanding uphills and downhills. There is nearly always a unique challenge athletes should spend time preparing for in training.
There is another unspoken truth in preparing for a running race: most training plans and structured workouts do not account for the unique challenges runners might encounter on race day. It can be difficult to find a training plan that is built to prepare you for a specific course. Instead, most training plans and workouts are simply designed to help you build the proper fitness in order to run the race distance. Proper fitness and conditioning can get the runner mostly ready for the race, but this is not the full solution to having a great race. A runner must develop course-specific skills so they can conquer the unique challenges that the course will throw at them.
Is there a solution?
The solution to building race-specific skills seems straightforward, right?
A runner should begin emulating and training in the exact conditions that they expect to see on race day if they want to be prepared. For example, if a runner expects a marathon course to contain rolling hills, they should plot out their long run to encounter more hills in training. If a runner expects tight turns in a course, they should begin to work that into their training routine, too.
While this solution will help prepare the runner for the course, it is likely pulling the runner away from their training plan and structured workouts. The training plan did not call for repeated hill running so the runner may be left wondering how to incorporate that into a comprehensive plan.
There may even be some risk involved because this additional effort could be adding too much additional training load on the body. Now, the runner is stuck in a tough situation. Do they try to prepare for the course by simulating race conditions or do they try to maximize their fitness by sticking to the training plan?
How to find the balance
There is a way to solve this dilemma. If the runner can comply to their structured workouts while still emulating race conditions, coaches can be confident that they are building the fitness and the skills necessary. An emerging solution to this problem might be running power.
Simply put, running power helps the runner normalize their effort under varying conditions. If a runner chooses to run by power, they can comply to their structured workouts while having the freedom to run on varying terrains.
Let’s take a look at how this works in practice:
First, a runner sets power-based training zones. This process is similar to establishing a set of pace-based zones or heart-rate zones. The principles of run power training should be familiar to anyone who does structured training.
Then, the runner sends a structured workout created on TrainingPeaks to either their Garmin watch or Apple Watch, using an app such as Stryd’s Apple Watch app. A workout may tell the runner to run 16 miles in an easy zone for their long run. Since the runner knows that they have a hilly race coming up, they may choose a route that features a lot of hills. The key difference is that, before running power, a runner may have had a difficult time staying in an easy pace-based zone on the hilly terrain. It is even challenging to use heart rate as a guide if the hills were rolling due to the delay between the runner’s effort and the heart rate value reflecting that change in effort. However, a runner using power could accurately maintain their effort in an easy zone.
What else can you do with run power?
Runners can easily extend the power-based training concept beyond hills, too. Let’s say we have a runner who is preparing for a race with many tight turns. They could emulate this challenge while performing a regularly scheduled interval-based workout. Choose a race level power target for the workout and set up cones to emulate a turn in a race. As the runner slows during a tight corner, they can use their power as a guide to quickly get back to the right intensity and stay compliant to the workout.
This training strategy helps during race day, too. Runners typically slow down and may struggle to find rhythm leaving a tight turn, but training with power helps them learn how to recover and maintain their pace.
In conclusion, structured training is key to achieve proper fitness. However, you do not need to sacrifice structured training when building race-specific skills. As you have likely experienced from your own racing, the unique challenges presented by a course can be endless, and runners will have no issue meeting these challenges if they are willing to design their structured training around these constraints. Running power is a great tool to balance both fitness and skill development when preparing for challenging race conditions.