Running, particularly racing, is full of decisions. Knowing when to kick and when to back off can be a fine art in any distance, but how do you develop these skills?

As someone who has been boxed in by a 12-year-old at the start of his only ever 3000m track race, I’m not the man to tell anyone how to run tactically. Saying that, next time, there’s very little chance of that kid getting in the way.

In the lead picture with this article, bad decision making was made during that race. I set off too fast in the heat and it was the day’s folly. The pace was fine, but the messages from the body at 30+ degrees were ignored. Easing back in the first few miles should have been an easy decision.

I am not the only runner to have found themselves in this situation, but importantly, this experience and lessons learned can help in the future.

Should I stay or should I go?

Basic race craft is often overlooked when we talk about running. Technology means you want to measure and quantify everything, yet how do you measure something like race tactics?

It doesn’t just have to be the back and forth of a 5000m race that a runner needs to think about. Even in individual runs and events we need to be able to make decisions, should I push harder, do I eat now, should I ease off a little. Making good decisions matters to all of us.

How do we make good decisions?

The ‘naturalistic decision-making model‘ shows that a person builds experience over time and the accumulation of this experience helps when making tough decisions. If you have been in a similar situation beforehand then your mind can process potential outcomes.

We might not have the best answer in the instant we need it, but the mind finds the first workable answer. The more previous experiences you have to reflect on in that instance means the better this ‘first workable solution’ is. This is where you can relate it to running.

Take a novice 5000m runner and the experienced pro. When a gap opens there is often a millisecond to response, do you go with or sit back? If you have competed in 100’s of races then your mind can quickly decide, but if you’re a novice then there just isn’t the ‘data’ to compute.

Same with a marathon runner. You might necessarily be in a race but there might be the starting of a ‘bonk’ or a niggle in a certain muscle. If you’re experienced you’re more likely to know what do. You have more case studies to work with and find the best solution.

If you’re making your race debut at whatever distance you are more likely to make a poor decision at this stage (or not make one at all). Avoiding a decision can be a disaster too, on the road and the track.

The brain goes back to previous experiences and if the end result was good your brain will suggest the same solution. Again, not always the best, most rational decision, but when you need to decide in a hurry it’s the first workable decision.

How can we practice?

Now a 5k or 10k runner might be able to build up that experience by doing multiple races each season, but a marathoner doesn’t really have that luxury. Not if you’re trying to get the best out of yourself in the long-term anyway.

Even for 5k runners, there are limits to how many races you can run in a season. So how do you build up the experience to help with making the right decisions?

This is where training can be used to simulate racing as closely as possible. By mirroring race moments in training it can help you build up that bank of knowledge and experience before the big day.

As a marathoner, it might be running on tired legs and adding marathon pace effort in to see how everything feels. How does your body cope? If you do bonk then what are the signs you should look out for?

You might even aim for failures in training so that you can foresee them on the big race.

Same with shorter distances too. Setting training that always guarantees success might be the scientific way to progress physiologically, but does it teach you everything you need to know?

Reducing the rest between 1k intervals to an unsustainable level means that your body will start to rebel, but it could teach a valuable lesson.

Now regularly ‘going to the well’ isn’t good for your body; Don’t hammer yourself on every session. Yet with sufficient recovery, a session to failure may help the mind, as well as the body. You start to feel those indicators that you’re over the red line.

You learn what it might feel like in a race, so better to get your ass handed to you in training (or a parkrun) than on championship day.

Don’t be afraid to fail

As an ultra runner making mistakes are part of the long-term development. Hell, it’s why I’ve had some success in this sport. If you’re not making mistakes then you’re not trying hard enough. In a previous article I wrote about self-reflection after an event happens, but just living through the experiences is also helping your mind make future decisions, you just mightn’t know it yet.

Don’t be afraid to overstretch in training or a race. It’s all part of the long game. Be aware of your body’s recovery, but don’t avoid failure, embrace it.

Your mind is a powerful tool, but it needs fuel for decision making. If you can build up your racing experience then do so. Don’t look at every race as the be all and end all of your running career. It’s just another step on the journey. Every failure prepares you more for the next adventure.

Whether it’s bonking on a marathon, blowing up on your last rep or getting boxed in, every one of these instances can help you make the right decision when it counts. Feed more information into the computer inside your head and it might just surprise you next time.