Your best races are the ones when you're running smoothly and the miles pass by almost effortlessly. You feel simultaneously relaxed and fast—in fact, you're fast because you're relaxed.
Unfortunately, plenty of runners undermine their own abilities by following habits that seem correct, but are actually counterproductive. Although road racing is unpredictable and any number of things can cause a runner to have a bad outing, the following five missteps are totally avoidable if you know how to steer clear of them.
1. Following Your Training Plan Too Strictly
This first point applies to all the weeks leading up to race day. Runners think they are supposed to follow a training plan, but really, the plan should follow the runner. The piece of paper prescribing a 7-mile tempo run today doesn't take into account that you had to stay up until 3:00 a.m. with a sick toddler the night before.
Plans are helpful, but they should not be viewed as hard-and-fast instructions that must be obeyed to the letter. Empower yourself to make adjustments to your plan based on how you feel and what's going on in your life.
2. Comparing Yourself to Another Runner
Keep this in mind throughout your training and after the gun goes off. A small minority of runners have a realistic chance to win a race, whereas most of us are competing only with ourselves. Training with running buddies is a proven way to improve your time; however, it can be counterproductive if you're constantly comparing yourself to a fast friend and feeling frustrated about your own ability as a result. The only person you should be comparing yourself to is yourself.
That rule applies on the racecourse, too. It's an unwritten rule that at some point every runner gets passed. Sometimes, the person passing you looks less fit than you do. If you find yourself wondering how that guy with the bulging belly just blew by you, stop and remind yourself: The only person I'm racing against is myself. Maybe jelly belly used to be an Olympic marathon trials qualifier. Or maybe he's running beyond his ability and you'll pass him as he upchucks half a mile later. Either way, your only concern should be whether you're giving the race your best effort right now.
3. Swerving Through Traffic
"Traffic" in this instance refers to the swarm of people at the start of a race. No one likes to get bumped or jostled, or feel trapped, but it's a huge waste of energy to try and wind your way out of the crowd. In a straight-line race, every step to the side is a wasted step. If you're worried that the pack is holding you back, hang tight for ten strides, then another ten. The crowd should start to break up around you. If it doesn't, wait a little longer. If you must make a move, look for a lane that will allow you to run several steps forward and hopefully break free.
4. Surging at the Finish
If you're in a neck-and-neck battle for a podium spot and the finish line is in sight, let 'er rip. But for the great majority of racers, surging at the end just makes you look like a giant jerk-bag. Neither the spectators nor the runners around you will be impressed when you blast past a couple of grandmothers in the final 100 yards to clinch 132nd place. If you were feeling good enough to run faster, you should've started doing it a mile earlier.
5. Wearing the Wrong Footwear
Really, you should have figured this out long before race day. Most runners know this tenet of the racer's creed: Never try anything new on race day. But at every race, without fail, some people strut to the starting line in fresh kicks—maybe because they want to look good, or maybe because they think a lighter shoe will cut their time. Whatever. They end up paying the price. And what currency is that price usually paid in? Blisters.
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