I have traditionally had only one strategy for running races: run as fast as I possibly can over the given distance. Kenyan style. Either you set a personal best or you crap out. While there’s something to be said for this, for just ‘going for it,’ there’s also wisdom in having some variety in your approach. You can’t be at the top of your game week in week out, throughout the year. By definition, you can only ‘peak’ once in a given time period, whether that’s season or year. Sometimes part of ‘peak performance’ involves actually holding back.
This can be more challenging than going for it. It can apply to training as well as competition. Red-lining every session with high intensity interval training will not be productive in terms of performance gains and will ultimately lead to burnout and injury. If you put more than one race on the calendar, you will inevitably be faced with one or more competitions for which your fitness is not peaking. These competitions can be used as training for more important competitions later in the season or year.
When you get in the crowd and start soaking up the race atmosphere, however, it’s easy to get carried away. When David Goggins went to the starting line of the Las Vegas Marathon, he intended only to accompany his wife to the start. He had tried to run in the lead up to the race, but injury had hobbled him. Caught up in the roar of the crowd, he began running and didn’t stop. He ended up completing the marathon in 3:08 and asking himself, “What am I capable of?” The question propelled him to seek out new challenges and become a beast of an ultramarathoner. It’s a great and inspiring story. But there are times when we want to curb our enthusiasm and learn different lessons from the race.
When I signed up for the Harper’s Ferry Half Marathon, it didn’t naturally fit into my training cycle. The other half marathons I had done were relatively flat by comparison and all on roads. The Harpers Ferry Half, by contrast, took place partially on grass and trails, and boasted 1300 feet of elevation. I saw it as an opportunity to develop my trail running game as well as practice a mental skill: the discipline of restraint.
Working hard every day requires a certain discipline. But holding yourself back requires another. When the starting gun goes off, could I take off at a pace well below what I knew I could handle on a flat course for that distance? With an out-and-back style route, it would be easier to measure out my effort over the course. With a straight up hill off the starting line, it was easy to start slow, not as easy to avoid huffing and puffing. In the third mile, we started the longest downhill of the race. I increased my cadence and opened up a bit, letting gravity carry me forward, but also making a mental note that I would need reserve available to climb back up the same hill near the finish. Running with restraint, I was able to soak up the breathtaking beauty of the surrounding scenery: mountains draped in verdant foliage, climbing abruptly up and away from the Potomac River. I smiled at the cameramen. I waved at the small groups of spectators. I wasn’t too shattered at the finish line to sweep my daughter off her feet for a hug. I finished more than 10 minutes slower than a PR time, but importantly, I didn’t feel wiped out by the effort and was able to continue my triathlon training the following week.
Whether it’s slowing the pace on a training day, skipping a workout in favor of recovery or treating a race as a training day, the discipline of restraint can help you remain injury free, which is one of the keys to longitudinal performance increases as well as longevity in sport.