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February 13, 2013

Rough Patch During a Race? Survive It and Thrive!

Written by Dena Evans

tired_runnerYour legs suddenly feel dead, your breathing is labored, the weather seems too hot, too cold, too windy to possibly make the whole distance at the planned pace.  Now here comes a side stitch, and your knee suddenly feels weird when it never has before.  When the watch is consulted, the pace is the regular pace, a pace you know is well within what training has predicted.  Unfortunately, it is still just a few miles in to a long race.


Welcome to the rough patch.


A “rough” patch or a “bad” patch – whatever word is more familiar – is a common occurrence during a long workout, run, or race.  Sometimes, for various reasons, things just don’t seem to be going as easily as they should, even when justified, late race fatigue is clearly not the reason.  While experienced racers can lean on previous races where they have been able to emerge from tough stretches to have a good day by the end, the rough patch feeling can be scary for a first timer.


The first thing to know is that these periods can and will occur, sometimes for a mile or two, sometimes for even 5K.  The second thing to know is that a calm demeanor and confidence in your training will carry you even as you don’t feel as fresh as you wanted.  Afterwards, you’ll realize that 10-20 minutes later, you began to feel like your recognizable self again. Next time out, you will feel better about the eventual passing of these rough patches.


While you are “keeping calm and carrying on,” here are a few tips for actions you can take to weather the patch.


Reset your posture

If you feel like you are slumping, your core is mushy, and your posture is dropping, raise your hands above your head straight up for a moment, stretching the spine and engaging your core and upper body into a taller position.  Drop your hands back into your normal arm swing, and enjoy a more efficient and taller body posture, and hopefully a few minutes of easier running.


Focus on slowing your breathing pattern

Deep breaths from your diaphragm make a much bigger impact on the distribution of oxygen to your muscles than shallow panting.  To calm yourself, and distract from the temporary rough patch, focus on slowing your breathing pattern into a 2 or 3 beat slow and deep inhale (in-in-in-out-out-out) rather than a quick in and out pattern.


Focus 10-15 meters ahead of you

When the race suddenly seems way too long for how you currently feel, avoid focus on an intimidating horizon ahead or a mile marker you can barely make out in the distance.  Keep your head neutral (chin is level, neck extending naturally from the shoulders) and focus on the road going by 10-15 meters in front of you.  Before you know it, you’ll be arriving nearer to the next mile marker, where a quick glance won’t seem as defeating.


Consume some calories

Sometimes, a rough patch might occur due to a drop in energy or dwindling hydration.  If this is the case and things are going south quickly, it may be tougher to regain your normal energy level in a timely enough fashion to fix things (it may be more than just a rough patch).  However, sometimes a gel packet or a cup of electrolyte fluid can cause significant improvement in how you feel.  Obviously, the best bet is to consume enough on schedule so that type of rough patch can be avoided. If you have missed the mark in your race day nutrition execution, don’t discount the chance to right the ship at least partly.


Force yourself to think logically

If you did your longest runs in training at a pace faster than what now feels way too fast at mile 5 of a marathon, remind yourself of how your body is physically prepared to handle the stress of the current pace, regardless of how you currently feel.  You have empirical evidence on your side.  Don't let some nerves, some spotty race day nutrition, some lethargy from tapering, or another reason have you questioning your capabilities.  Remind yourself repeatedly how well you have done in training to lead to this point and how your body has come through before and will again.  By the time you win the argument, you might already be feeling a bit better.


Go for the small wins

If you are going through a tough stretch 3-4 miles into a half marathon or 8 miles into a marathon, thinking about the remaining miles can be daunting.  Consciously focus on a nearer term goals to help you build mental momentum.  If you are at 8 miles, focus on getting to 10, at which point you can focus on staying in it mentally until the half, at which point you can remind yourself you are over halfway home.  If you are at a race with a turnaround, commit to arriving at the turnaround before reevaluating whether or not you can continue at your current or planned pace. Many times if you refrain from evaluating your situation (currently a bummer) right then, you will find yourself in a more hopeful spot in a while, after which your desire to finish strong will help carry you toward the banner.