Time Trialing to Measure Fitness and Build Mental Strength
What are the workouts you dread? Or at least that make you nervous beforehand? For me, it was always time trials. A time trial is essentially a race, but without the fuss and fanfare. You turn up at the track, or one of your regular running courses (e.g. a loop of MacRitchie, or a stretch in East Coast Park), warm up a bit, hammer ‘til you feel like you’re gonna puke, then hammer some more until you complete your planned distance (e.g. 5K) or time (e.g. 15 minutes). When you’re done, sometimes you do puke. It’s definitely happened to me.
Why bother to time trial when you can just enter a race? Good question, and if a race is an option, that’s certainly my preference. But at the moment, racing is not an option. If you want to benchmark your fitness, plus inject a bit of painful speed endurance into your training regimen, time trials are the way to go.
If you’re preparing for a half marathon, for example, you might run a 5K time trial once every two weeks. If you’re prepping for a 100K, you might bang out a 25K (again, once every two weeks is probably often enough). And if you’re improving your fitness (which if you’re training consistently and remaining injury-free, you should be), your time trial results should be getting better and better.
But measuring your fitness is not the only benefit to running time trials. Time trials can also give you the opportunity to practice pushing yourself to your (physical and mental) limits. Your Sunday morning long run with friends can and should be a relaxed session, at a comfortable (i.e. slow) pace. Time trials offer a chance to put the pedal to the metal and keep it there, minute after long minute, focused only on your pace, your form, and the finish line. Oh, and keeping down your breakfast or lunch.
If you’re serious about your racing, your aim is to run your best, to leave nothing on the course. Which is different to finishing. There’s nothing wrong with simply aiming to finish a race, or to enjoy running a race socially with a friend, or friends, bantering at length with volunteers at aid stations and stopping to snap photos for your Instagram, but … that ain’t racing.
Racing is about pushing as hard as you can, all the way to the finish. And pushing right up to your limit means you will occasionally get it wrong. Sometimes very, very wrong. In my 100-kilometre road race debut I was running comfortably to my 8:00 target finish time when I blasted through a food stop at 62K (there was a bag drop, massage tent, dozens of Japanese volunteers shouting “Gambatte kudasai!” and I didn’t see the food), ran completely out of gas at 65K, then took nearly 90 minutes to cover the next 7K (to the next food stop). I pulled it back together, sort of, but finished in 9:45, extremely unhappy. I’ve got lots more experience getting it wrong: in the six times I’ve run under 2:30 for the marathon, I have never not had to stop to walk.
The point is, racing means pushing through pain, and preparing not only your body but also your mind to be able to do that. When I’m time trialing in training I’m imagining myself in a future race. And I’m definitely not imagining myself stopping to walk during the final 5K of a marathon, but instead, overtaking my competitors and leaving them in my dust.
When I’m fit it’s easier to keep the needle close to the red line. When I’m less fit, like now, just back into training after suffering a broken ankle, it’s easier to wimp out. What I do then (now) is break my runs into smaller, more manageable chunks. Yesterday, for example, after 6K of a planned 12K run, I felt my lack of fitness start to take its toll. So I told myself I would push “until that bridge” (it looked to be around two kilometers away). After the bridge I told myself I would push again “until the waterski park” (another kilometer). After the ski park I was nearly home, so I succumbed to temptation and backed off my pace.
The point is, to paraphrase baseball great Yogi Berra, “Running is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.”
Time trialing is a great way to work on the 90 percent. And the other half.