The numbers game

Are you numbers obsessed?

On Sunday I am running the California International Marathon in Sacramento. I have a goal time, 2:40, which I have broken down into pace/mile, 10k splits and the half marathon time. Any way I look at it, the times are intimidating; I need to hold 6:07/mile, 38:00/10k and hit the half way point in 1:20. Just writing this makes my heart race a little. It is hard for me to wrap my head around these times for that long, even though my training and racing tells me this is not an impossible task.

And that brings me to my point. As athletes, we tend to get caught up in the numbers, creating a phenomenon that we have all experienced: number anxiety. The numbers can come from anywhere: the watts you want to hold on the bike, pace on the swim or run, a time standard that needs to be achieved, a finish time that will put you in contention to qualify for Kona or Vegas, breaking a barrier, such as a 3 hour marathon.

A concrete goal with an appropriate action plan has positive and negative ramifications. On the positive side, a tangible goal directs your training so that you can train with properly and race accordingly. The negatives? Well, that is the over planning and over thinking that invariably occurs.

There are ways to manage number anxiety in training and racing so you get the most out of your electronic devices without making yourself crazy.

The foremost way to prevent number anxiety is by not becoming number obsessed. By this I mean, don’t constantly stare at your numbers during a training session or race. Once you have established your number goal, look at your GPS or power meter periodically to make sure you are on target, but do not constantly check. The numbers are going to vary depending on the terrain, stride rate and pedal stroke. Take a peek now and then, but don’t fixate. It is distracting and can ultimately derail your workout or race. There is no way to hold the exact number, the best you can do is keep it in a tight range.

Download your power files and GPS data and analyze them after your workout or race. Since you only get a snapshot of your numbers during the workout or race, it is imperative to look at the whole picture afterwards. You can determine if you put out too many watts up the hill or if you ran a certain section too fast. Look for peaks and valleys in your workout or race and then try to smooth it out next time. There is a lot to learn from a data file and this is a process most athletes overlook.

If you are doing a longer race or workout, number anxiety is exacerbated by the very fact that you must hold those numbers for a very long time. A way around this daunting task is to break up the race or workout into intervals of a predetermined length. For example, an Ironman bike leg can be broken into 30 minute segments at a particular goal wattage with a 2-3 minute reset in between at 20-30 watts less. This short rest period is mentally and physically reinvigorating and should not have a detrimental impact on your overall bike time, especially if you can prevent the inevitable fade that happens to most people at the end of the bike.

Finally, it is important to learn to pace yourself by “feel”. With enough training by the numbers, you should be able to dial in your pace without even looking. Today I ran 2×2 mile race pace tempo efforts during my run. I checked my watch two or three times during each interval, but mostly, I wanted to make sure I could feel the pace without looking. My efforts were within 2 seconds of each other and were directly on goal race pace.

I recently went back and looked at my data from when I raced the California International Marathon last year. During last year’s race, I mentally broke it into 5k segments and checked my time and pace roughly at those intervals. I felt like I was holding a constant, comfortable pace throughout the race, and when I checked my watch it seemed like I was holding between 6:10 and 6:20.

My run file from CIM last year. Lots of ups and downs, but ultimately, I kept it fairly tight.

When I finally looked at the data file, I was amazed by the way my pace jumped around. Even though my 5k times were right on target, there was quite a bit of variation in my pace. Many of the low troughs are when I ran through a water stop; I took my time and made sure I had enough to drink. The other peaks and valleys correspond to the hills. The point is this: prior to the race I knew the pace I needed to hold to achieve my goal. I dialed it in with my training and on race day I ran the pace that felt right, periodically checking in with my GPS to make sure I was on target. Had I been a slave to the numbers, I would have been incredibly frustrated by the constant changes in pace throughout the race and this might have undermined my race. I avoided number anxiety by having confidence in my race plan, not relying on my GPS to carry me through the race, and breaking the race into manageable segments.

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4 Responses

  1. misszippy says:

    I have never been a big GPS fan and just tried it for the first time recently in a race. It sucked, quite frankly. I found I was surging and resting, which is just the way to wear my legs out. Won't be wearing it on Sunday!

    Ok, you'll be showered and lunched by the time I finish, but would love to see you there this weekend. Email me if you want:

  2. Greg M says:

    I find that the speed/pace recorded by the Garmin always jumps up and down wildly like that. I suspect it has something to do with the accuracy of the GPS itself. I have never seen it smooth – not even when running steadily over a flat (track or similarly flat) surface.

    Regardless, I agree with you – checking the watch ever two minutes will make you crazy. It's also a good idea to avoid checking on the uphills.

  3. I always use a GPS to race. And I was number obsessed as you say, constantly checking my pace. But in my local turkey trot on Thanksgiving day, my watch never acquired a signal in 10 minutes of searching before the race. So I had to use the stop watch function – meaning I could only check in on pace about every mile. I ran the race super fast – faster than I thought possible! I was not constantly checking in on my pace and making judgments about how that pace “should” feel. It was a great lesson! Definitely going to take your advice in running the Vegas Rock N Roll Half this weekend! Good luck at CIM!! Kristen

  4. Good luck this weekend!