A Lesson in Plan B Races

For years I have advocated a couple specific elements to enhance distance racing success.

1. Always have a second, third or even fourth back-up race in line in case something goes wrong on that ONE big day you’ve targeted all your training for months.

2. Always have tiered goals to increase opportunities for success. (See next post on this.)

Element #1 is much more specific to distance running – half-marathons and beyond, yet most commonly the marathon itself. It is a distance that requires months of training and a target date to prepare for with a planned couple weeks of tapering into that big day. Your objective is to have a great day – the perfect day – a PR day – on that one day four-plus months in the future. Shorter races like a 5K allows for many more opportunities for “redos”.

So many months in advance you do not know what the weather will be like. Historical data is nice but anything can happen. There are no guarantees. Heat, head winds, rain, or snow could adversely affect your performance. Just look in recent years at death-marches in Boston and Chicago.

You also do not know if you will catch an illness in your final weeks leading into the race (a very common occurrence due to your immune system depletion from hard training). That sure would throw a monkey wrench into running your best wouldn’t it?

And what about an injury that derails your training. So now you either go in under-trained, or you modify paces. In either case you are not set up for that big performance are you?

You could simply have a vehicle flatted tire or breakdown on the way to the race, a bus that is late or a train that isn’t on time and you miss the start.

Then again, there could be catastrophes (New York) that wipe out your race entirely. Now what?

For so many runners it means huge disappointments and they are left scrambling for a back up race and then trying to figure out how to train for it.

If you are serious about running your best marathon time and not just completing another marathon then we need to get smarter. When I talk  to my runners about marathons I’ll introduce options for back-up races should any of the previously mentioned issues arise or if simply, training itself hasn’t progressed as well as planned or anticipated. This is about getting smarter with our marathon racing

Note: Please be clear I’m addressing runners who want to race, set PRs, and improve and not for someone trying to complete another marathon. This is about setting yourself up for success instead of leaving so much up to chance.

Here’s how to use this practically:

  1. Plan and train  for your “A” Race. Have a “B” Race lined up 2-6 weeks after. And have a “C” Race another few weeks after that.
  2. Follow your A-Race training program. Should there be issues (illness, injury) that derail your training significantly enough then you go to the B-Race and extend your training plan.
  3. If on A-Race day the weather, or nature, your own bodily functions choose to not cooperate for an optimal performance then do one o the following:
  • Use the A-Race as a training run. Run it as an easy long run – or pace a much slower runner (This is quite gratifying actually – try it sometime) preparing for your B-Race.
  • Use part of the A-Race as a training run. Don’t complete the whole race. Race or run some portion of it mostly at your goal pace. Use it only as a test run.
  • Bag it – call it a day and move your focus to your B-Race.

This is where age-group runners need to take a lesson from elite runners. If elite runners are falling apart, off pace, dying, or otherwise out of it most of them will drop out – yes – the dreaded “DNF” rather than trash their bodies and take more time to recover. Instead they retreat to fight another day AND save their bodies for that day! Their attitude is that they want to run fast, not just complete another marathon.

4. Have your training plan set up so that you know exactly what you will do in the event you’re now training for a B-Race or C-Race.

The important lesson is that you do not have to approach marathoning (or distance running) as an all-or-nothing, win-lose, succeed-lose venture. If PRs are what you seek, take more control over your destination and set yourself up for success. Having a back-up plan is not just a sound business practice – it’s sound marathoning practice.

(Next I’ll address tiered goal setting as a method to increase success.)


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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5 Responses to A Lesson in Plan B Races

  1. EJ says:

    You just saved my week. I’m a beginner runner and was looking forward to my 2nd 5K in a few weeks. Then I got the email that it was being canceled! I got into a funk, but your post reminded me the things happen and that I can seek out a Plan B race. I don’t have to give up!

  2. Gary Smith says:

    Such good stuff here, Dean. Having a “Plan B” btw, is an important concept not only in running, but in just about every facet of life. Well said.

  3. Mike Kichler says:

    Personally, I struggle with pushing through adversity as part of my mental toughness training and DNFing because it might not be a PR. I feel that if I were to DNF enough times I may never PR. Mainly because I mentally won’t have what it takes to push beyond my old limits. If that makes any sense from an average age grouper.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      What you describe is a common feeling. However, it is contrary to breakthrough running. I’m not talking about the average race that you are trying to push through and things are a little difficult and you DNF. I’m talking about the true PR effort and being able to be smart enough and disciplined enough to save it for another day. That is in fact one attribute of mental toughness. ONLY if you allow your own thoughts to “build up” against you would DNFing ever be something “bad”. It is all in how you frame it. Frame it as failure – you’re right. Frame it as being a smart racer – you’re right. That is a key difference in mentally tough people. They will always frame things in ways that serve them… not break them.

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