So many strive for that perfect race. You train and sacrifice and when it gets to race day you demand perfection from yourself. Here’s the news flash though, perfect doesn’t matter.
It’s a message that comes through regularly on Steve Magness and John Marcus’ ‘On Coaching’ podcast. The two US coaches are responsible for guiding the careers of a lot of elite and collegiate athletes where the pressures can be huge.
Yet both coaches preach that you don’t need to chase perfection. In an insightful interview with Lauren Fleshman, the US 5000m champ and finalist at the World Championships, they speak about how that ‘perfect day’ comes to fruition.
Athletes want to do everything perfectly before an A race and the focus can often mean the main objectives and simple things are overlooked. We want to be as fast as possible, but forget to turn up rested. Training is ‘perfect’ in the build-up, but we’re moving house two days beforehand. Suddenly perfect becomes unattainable and the mind cannot cope.
Perfection on a hot day
Watching the Highgate Harriers’ Night of the 10,000m PBs you saw hundreds going for personal bests. The whole day of competition was stacked with races starting early in the day with fast runners throughout.
It turned out to be quite hot for the early races and the goals set by the runners in their pre-race estimates were almost certainly based on a ‘perfect day’ not considering the conditions. Make or break. Now or never. The weight of anticipation is piled onto the shoulders of athletes by themselves.
This is often heightened when a medal is up for grabs which we sadly saw with Callum Hawkins at the Commonwealth Games.
However, it is when we stop searching for those perfect days or the perfect training session, that we achieve our best. Take Stephen Scullion’s interview after running 62 minutes for a half marathon at the start of 2018. Scullion said the penny dropped that he didn’t need to smash every session, that just easing off a little allowed for the consistency to build.
At the London marathon this year, in very high temperatures, it wasn’t a perfect day for anyone. Those who chased the perfect race, take Jonny Mellor for example, suffered. Yet Scullion ran a big PB and had a great race. Certainly, the Irish athlete can go quicker than 2:15 in the future, of that we are sure. However, dealing with adversity and not chasing perfect led to a perfectly paced run.
The consistency of training is often affected when chasing perfection. Giving every last drop of strength to hit your time splits on your mile reps or doing an additional midweek track session for that bit extra. Understanding when to ease off is a difficult skill. There is certainly a time and a place to give it your all, but it isn’t every single Tuesday down the track with the lads and gals.
2:19 marathoner Carl Hardman, who trains with the Sale Harriers group under Norman Poole said it that it took an experienced coach to tell him to slow down and think of the big picture.
“I’d be gunning the 3000m track workout on a Tuesday and Norman would want me to think of Saturday’s session as well,” said Hardman is a recent interview with Fast Running. “The consistency of marathon training was so important and not smashing every session meant we were ready for the next one.”
Especially with marathon training, no one workout is more important than the next. It’s the combination of training that produces a great result.
How can you avoid chasing perfect?
Take a leaf out of the Stoics’ philosophy. They realised that nothing is ever perfect, so expect the challenges and take them in your stride. Lily Partridge certainly didn’t plan to fall over at the start of the Great Manchester 10k, but she did and dealt with it like a pro.
Be prepared for the unexpected. Expect your day not to be perfect and when something happens, like a shoelace snapping, forgetting your favourite gel or a hot spot appearing at mile 16, understand that it’s now part of your day.
The world is watching on Strava, apparently
Strava can be a wonderful training tool, but too often many worry about what people will think about their workout. Interval sessions look super fast because athletes stop their watch for the recoveries, but then miss out on vital feedback from the session because of vanity.
They want to look perfect, but it might actually hinder progress. A recovery is part of a workout. How well you recover, how quickly you float between intervals or if you just stay still can be a mark of progression. You might do 6 x 1km once a month, at the same speed and not see improvement if you don’t watch the recovery.
6 x 1k reps with 45 sec jogged recovery is a huge improvement on 6 x 1k reps with 3 min static rest. With the goal of looking perfect this can be missed.
Yet race day is when chasing perfection can be most damaging. How many great success stories have hiccups too? How many have overcome adversity? Mo Farah has fallen on the track but still won Olympic medals. Paula Radcliffe took a toilet stop on the way to winning the London marathon and Daniel Wanjiru didn’t get his drink at the 2017 London Marathon, but still went on to win.
Adversity will happen and it can still be part of your best ever day. It may even be the reason for it. At the 2015 World 24hr Championships, I had stomach issues in the first six hours.
It caused me to have to slow down and let the sun go down before picking up the pace again. That sounds like a nightmare but it most likely led to my best ever performance.
Had I not slowed, then I doubt I would have been able to finish my final 26.2 miles in 3:23, clinch third and help the British team to a gold medal and team record. A ‘perfect’ start to my race might have been a hindrance.
So take it easy
Don’t chase perfection. The pressure it puts on you is probably worth 10% of performance. Lift that weight off your shoulders, aim for your best day and accept that perfection really doesn’t happen.
Focus on doing the best you can on the day, because that is all you are capable of doing.
Whatever idea in your head is perfection, might well be unachievable, but that doesn’t mean you can’t set a PB, win a race or even an Olympic gold medal. Just realise it doesn’t need to be perfect.