All the small things...
Some of the best runners on the planet will soon be arriving in Rio for the Olympics. The journey for them has likely been an arduous one. Any runner competing on the Olympic stage has likely made numerous sacrifices, overcome a litany of obstacles, and spent innumerable hours preparing for this moment.
Talent and a ruthless work effort have brought many of these runners to Rio. But, there's much more to competing at the highest level than simply doing the work and having talent. The best runners on the planet 'sweat the small stuff'.
When everyone you're competing against is likely doing the same kind of training that you are and they are likely as talented as you are, all the small things can make all the difference in the world. Whether your goal is notching your first 5K or punching your ticket to Rio, it behooves you to pay attention to all the small things listed below (in no particular order).
When you're training on a regular basis, your body needs more sleep. This only makes sense. Running is a physically demanding activity that generates 3-5 times your body weight in impact force per footstrike. Running creates microtears in muscle fiber, depletes your glycogen stores, and temporarily weakens your immune system. Getting quality sleep is one of the best ways to help your body recover and adapt. Your need for sleep will increase as your training workload does.
Without getting too graphic (or personal), the general rule of thumb around staying hydrated is 'clear and copious'. This is what your urine should look like. If your urine is a darker yellow, this is likely an indication you are not well hydrated. To be clear, staying hydrated is not 'just' about drinking water.
When you sweat, you're losing key electrolytes (sodium, magnesium, potassium). Part of staying hydrated involves replenishing these electrolytes via consuming electrolyte tablets or consuming salty snacks, sweet potatoes, or bananas. The pros sweat hydration and you should too.
Your average pair of running shoes is good for 300-500 miles. After 300-500 miles, the midsole (the thick foam layer in the middle) can get compressed. This means the shoes you're wearing are likely not providing the cushioning, stability, and support they once did.
Get in the habit of replacing your shoes every 300-500 miles. If you really want to emulate the pros, have 2-3 pairs of running shoes in your arsenal and rotate them throughout the week.
Think of your body as your 'vehicle for life'. In order for it to run smoothly, you have to take care of it. This is particularly the case if you're running on a regular basis. You should be doing self massage via foam rolling every day you run.
Here's a link to a great article that illustrates how to use a foam roller effectively. Additionally, invest in a quality sports massage every 2-4 weeks of training. There are numerous benefits to doing so.
Rest & Recover
The 'no pain, no gain' mentality is one that can get you into trouble. It's during the rest & recovery phase that your body heals, adapts, and gets stronger. Even the best runners on the planet have light run days or complete days of rest sometimes. Sometimes, this is exactly what is needed.
Listen to the messages your body sends you
The best runners on the planet have detailed training schedules mapping out exactly what they should be doing every day of the week. But, even the best runners on the planet are human. They can fall ill. They can suffer from jetlag. They can have 'off' days like everyone else.
When this happens, they will do a lighter run/workout or perhaps take the day off entirely. If your body is sending you clear messages that you're not 100%, LISTEN and respond accordingly. A lighter run or a day off may be exactly what you need.
The best runners on the planet spend time mentally preparing for race day. A big part of this involves visualizing the race. This could involve visualizing the start of the race, the middle of the race, or the latter stages of the race when fatigue begins to set in. It likely involves all three.
It is now common knowledge that we stimulate the same brain regions when we visualize an action and when we actually perform that same action. So, visualizing yourself running confidently and enduring whatever fatigue or discomfort you might encounter is likely going to make things easier for you on race day.
Mix it up
If you look at the training plan for an 'average' professional runner, it will include all kinds of things. You might see long, slow runs on Saturdays. There might be tough track sessions on Tuesdays. Thursday might be a tempo run. In short, you'll see a variety of workouts designed to challenge all the relevant physiological systems required to run at a high level.
Additionally, their schedule likely includes drills designed to improve biomechanics and running economy. Employ a similar approach with your training. If you're simply doing the same thing over and over again, this can lead to stagnation. Having a variety of workouts will make you a better runner and also help reduce the chances of burnout.
Dial it back periodically
The best runners on the planet train HARD for their key races. Their training cycles could be anywhere from 8-16 weeks. This is a LONG time to stick to a plan, but that's what is often required for a peak performance. Once their race is over, most elite runners will take a little down time.
This may include a week (or more) of no running at all or it may simply be a couple weeks of unstructured running. It's important to do this after a tough training cycle to recharge mentally and physically. Give yourself some downtime between training cycles.
Run 'your' race
When you find yourself surrounded by hundreds or thousands of anxious, amped up runners on race day, it's easy to get swept away by the energy of the masses. It's easy to find yourself running faster than you ever have. This is a mistake.
While the energy of your fellow runners and adrenaline may put a little additional wind in your sails, it's not going to turn you into a superhero. It's not going to enable you to do something you've never done during training. Stick to the pace that you've employed during training. Run 'your' race, not someone else's.