3 Lessons from 2018 Commonwealth Half Marathon

The 15th year of the Cardiff Half Marathon acted as the inaugural Commonwealth Half Marathon Championships. The event was packed with talent and numbers, but there were three important pieces of advice demonstrated throughout the 13.1 miles.

#1 Execute an Individual Race Plan

In the men’s race the story was dominated by five Africans competing against the Australian Jack Rayner.

However, even from the early miles the four Ugandans and Kenyan struggled to settle. They frequently exchanged positions, veered across the road, and accelerated suddenly only to soon be rejoined by the lead pack.

They could have been forgiven due to nerves, but surprisingly this erratic behaviour continued throughout the race. Despite the Africans’ impressive mile splits their surges and glances over to one another were a constant distraction. As I watched the televised coverage I imagined the coach of the Ugandan athletes confused and annoyed; they appeared to run with a lack of composure and self-assurance.

I wonder whether the team title (which they won emphatically with their four runners finishing in the top six) was their priority because they had used up all their reserves, unable to respond to Rayner’s timely surge over the final section.

Rayner’s strategy of staying at the back of lead pack, concentrating on a smooth rhythm and not getting drawn into competitors’ tactics secured him the win.

#2 Stay Focused throughout the Race

In contrast to the men’s race, Juliet Chekwel lead almost from the start line, never looking back and pacing herself consistently. After each 5km she dropped only 3-4 seconds per mile on her overall average pace. She ran alongside top male club runners for long stretches, then later by herself.

Like Rayner though, the Ugandan focused on her own race, pumping her arms across the body in a powerful lifting motion, which reminded me of a boxer practising uppercuts. Her head was still and relaxed, with her mouth slightly open, taking advantage of her lofty stride.

As Tanni Grey-Thompson, the decorated former paralympian, observed during the race Chekwel was “running on feel”. This performance was all the more astonishing because it was the longer distance race she had completed. Her running future appears bright.

#3 Running is a Demanding Sport

Sadly, soon after the event finished news broke that two runners had passed away. Two men under the age of 35 lost their lives, with cardiac arrest the causes.

Although these men had varying training histories, it remains true that regardless of athletic experience death is always a possibility during exercise.

Running is highly impactful and requires the heart to work efficiently and in synergism with every other system in the body.

This tragic news should remind us to never take the challenge of an endurance event for granted and that, if and when we feel pain in our chests during running we should seek medical assistance immediately.



Avoid Over-Racing

In Alex Teuten’s article for this week’s Athletics Weekly1, the BUCS cross country champion cautions against racing too often. The article, entitled Losing the Love, details Teuten’s recent struggles to maintain mental sharpness for races.

It’s apparent that racing calendars can become too packed even for international athletes.

I’ve noticed even runners at my running club race too frequently. I was surprised as a runner, and concerned as a coach, to find this to be so prevalent. I’m extremely doubtful that racing often, sometimes every week, is a beneficial strategy for long-term success. It simply requires so much mental and physical energy. That’s why I’ve never done it myself.

Listening to certain runners’ upcoming schedules has made me more stoic. I can’t rid myself of rational questions like “How can you get the most out of yourself if you don’t allow enough time to recover from peak performances?” and “Can running at a sub-optimal level for too many races ever truly satisfy an ambitious runner?”.

I remember reading that renowned professor Tim Noakes2 advises runners should limit their racing to a maximum of 100 miles per year. If runners exceed this, and in my opinion get close, there is a real risk that the enthusiasm for the sport will lead to either two outcomes. Injury or mental exhaustion. Most likely both.

It’s true that I’ve never been an incessant racer. The most races I’ve competed during a calendar year is five, back in 2016. Although it was a breakthrough year for my running I found that by the end I needed rest. I had only accumulated 70.5 racing miles. On reflection I feel I was fortunate that my performances reflected my high ambitions at the time, and that I suffered no notable injuries.

But don’t mistake my focusing on only a few races per year as a sign of weakness or lack of love for the sport. As a competitor I can relate to many of the runners in my club. I would love to race more if I knew it could help my running. On a purely emotional level, I would certainly try. But a subconscious fear of over-racing has always been a factor in my choices as to when to give my best efforts.

Spending more time experimenting in training and pursuing two or three important race goals during the year has been a far more effective method for my improvement in the sport, both mentally and physically.

As a coach I know that sustainable, incremental progress best avoids long-term lay-offs, which should be the overriding aim of all runners. It’s this knowledge that prevents me from joining other highly motivated runners on the start line most weekends.


 

Published on 26th April 2018.
2 Lore of Running (2003, 4th ed.) published by Human Kinetics.