Before I start talking about the main topic, I have to confess this time of year, with a lead-in to another Olympic Games, is a sports junkie's dream. It has been good for my recovery. I’ve initiated my own little ‘occupy the couch’ movement with the US Olympic swimming and track/field trials, topped by the Tour de France as the background.
While many of the participants of the larger ‘occupation’ movements were nebulous in what they desired, I have two goals: The first goal is to let the lingering tendonitis in my ankles and knees completely heal. It’s simple: The only way to recover from an overuse injury is not to overuse what gets injured. The second goal is to motivate myself into a frenzy of smart training once the Olympics are over. It’s still going to be infernal, but I have a gym membership and a flexible schedule, so early morning and late evening training is not a problem.
Track and field events, and the Tour de France cycle race, have more in common than the average television spectator might guess, for a number of reasons: When there are preliminary and semi-final heats at a track meet, the goal of most every athlete is to finish either in a position where they automatically qualify for the next round or in as fast a time as possible to be selected. Does the athlete necessarily want to finish in first place? All they need to do is exert just enough energy to qualify, save their energies for the final heat when a win means something.
During the years when Lance Armstrong won seven Tours de France, he didn’t win every single stage. He’d win a mountain stage here, and a road stage there; he would finish consistently close enough to the front of the pack every time he was on the road.
There were races during the Olympic Trials, like the final of the women’s 5,000-meter run and the 3,000-meter steeplechase, where the leading runners not only had to win (or finish in the top three) to qualify, but also had to push the pace of the race in order to make the Olympic qualifying standard. Some of the athletes collaborated with training partners and co-competitors to ensure a fast pace. Others felt the need to go “off the front” and do it alone.
Road stages of the Tour de France (and other cycling races) are a collaborative effort between teams and individual riders, both to push the pace or to hold the pace back…depending on their own best interests. But there also is what is known in cycling as the race of truth. Many stage races, including the Tour de France, begin with a short prologue individual time trial and also have one or two longer individual time trials during the course of the event. The ‘race of truth’ sorts the good from the great athlete. A rider can win a grand tour without being a great individual rider but there’s no way to win without being a good individual rider. The time trial exposes every weakness in training, more so than the typical mass-start race. There’s nobody to hide behind; no teammate to help pick up the pace should they falter.
For runners, it’s more difficult is it to run a race going off the front alone without a supportive pacer than as part of a pack of individuals with near-identical fitness.
I trained under a coach who (i know) adjusted my training efforts based on recent racing results. I never did time trials on my own because I ran at a level where I was out of reach of the really good runners and ahead of the slower ones…after the first mile of a race I was usually in “no-man’s land.” But, when training a runner who is focused on, say, the half-marathon or the marathon, I like to schedule a 5,000-meter time trial on the roads to judge their fitness and make adjustments to their training paces. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an organized 5K race (although I prefer a certified course), and it might not be until somewhere around six-to-twelve weeks out, but I prefer a course which resembles the terrain or conditions for their target event.
The goal of the time trial is either to run it at a slightly faster pace than the previous time trial, or to run it at the same time, but with a lower perceived effort. If the athlete’s previous 5K time trial was at a pace where a few seconds of improvement will move them to a higher Daniels’ VDOT score, and subsequently faster training paces, I prefer the “same time at less effort” result. Just like “heat racing,” the goal is not to light the fuse for a fantastic short race effort six, eight, or ten weeks out from the longer target event, but to develop the runner’s confidence; hiding an “extra gear” inside their head which they can save for race day. It's the sum total of good runs, rather than a single great workout surrounded by a bunch of crappy ones, which are going to help define a running performance.