I went to the Triton Invitational on Saturday and I watched my alma mater (UCLA) compete in a number of events. UCLA has a good crew of distance guys, but not all of them performed as well as hoped at the meet. One athlete in particular, a 5k-10k guy running in the 1500m, simply never got in the race. He's a thoughtful runner with very strong fitness (reminds me of me), but his racing has been average this season.
This post certainly isn't going to solve all his problems. But his experience does make me think about the relationship between risk and reward in terms of performance. It is an axiom of business that high risk and high reward go hand in hand. The same goes for racing. To a point.
If you look at the above chart, you'll see there are three sections, Conservative, Risky, and Reckless. You'll also see a couple performance measures, Good Enough and Breakthrough. The blue line is the potential reward for the amount of risk you take on. I want to take a moment to address each.
When I talk about being conservative, I am not talking about "not going out too hard". I am talking about the notion that eliminating the downside is always more beneficial than taking on higher risk. In the long-term, being conservative includes not increasing your mileage, not entering races against superior competition, and setting only "realistic" goals. In the short-term, it means running a comfortable pace, not chasing the leaders, or making sure you run a Good Enough race.
There is a time and a place for a Good Enough race. But running a PR or beating someone for the first time (or any performance breakthrough, for that matter) requires you to do something new, something you've never accomplished before. To do that, you have to first put yourself in position to do it. When you are too conservative, or too focused on tangential concerns, you often fail to give yourself a chance.
We often set (or agree to) goals that we don't truly expect to accomplish. They require of us something we're not mentally ready for. In this case, we will then stop preparing and start coming up with reasons why we need to be more conservative. The worst of these excuses is this one: "I don't want to have a bad race." This is the conservative runners mantra; conservative runners settle for "Good Enough" and never give themselves the possibility of running a "Breakthrough".
How to tell if you're too Conservative:
- You constantly expect the worst in your races
- You don't take a chance in a race that isn't going well for you
- You use your feelings in practice to affect your expectations for your race
- All of your races can be described using the words "decent", "ok", "average" and "not that bad"
- Your training log shows the same mileage for this year as last year
- You use last year's workouts as your measure for success in this year's
- You know you can accomplish all of your goals
Switching to the other side of our risk spectrum, we find the Reckless runners. In the long-term, Reckless runners over-train, set unrealistic goals (and only unrealistic goals), and tend to train by emotion rather than reason. In the short-term, they enter races with no strategy, run at the front no matter who is in the race, and approach the day's race with an "all or nothing" mentality.
Whereas Conservative runners tend to overthink their races, Reckless runners sometimes don't seem to think at all. As soon as the gun goes off, they get swept up in the moment. When they reign that emotion in, they can produce excellent results. When they can't, they tend to be the people getting passed by everyone in the field. Perhaps most frustrating is their typical response when you call them on it: "You don't understand, I felt so good out there. It wasn't until the end of the race that I felt terrible." Duh.
When it comes to racing, however, Reckless runners have an advantage over Conservative runners. Reckless runners put themselves in position for a breakthrough performance every time. (They actually believe every time is that time.) Most of their performances will be far better or far worse than those of Conservative runners, with a few being Breakthroughs and a few being complete disasters.
How to tell if you're too Reckless:
- You lead every race, but blow up in many of them
- You never know if today's the day for a PR or DNF (but you accept these as likely outcomes)
- Your teammates give you a nickname that includes the word "rig"
- Your teammates wager on which lap you will fall apart
- You don't stick to your training schedule because you often "feel good"
- You run to prove that you are faster than everyone (even in practice)
Doing something risky can be exhilerating but a little bit daunting. It can be hard to see the difference between Risky and Reckless, especially for those of us stuck in a Conservative frame of mind. But there is a difference. You can plan for Risky. You can acknowledge that a Risky race is what it will take to achieve your goal, and you can prepare accordingly. When the day comes, you can have spent the past weeks or months getting ready for it.
Does this ensure everything will go as planned? No. And if it goes bad, it will probably go worse than if you'd run Conservatively. But if you've really prepared for it, and you believe you can do it, then you will at least be able to put yourself in position to have a breakthrough. And that is about all you can hope to do. If it doesn't happen, you chalk one up to experience and try to learn from it for the next race.
Unlike Reckless racing, Risky racing is very rational. You can determine whether or not you are likely to blow up, and you can create a contingency plan for it. You can determine the likelihood that the race will go differently than you expect, and you can create a contingency plan for that, too. You can give yourself the opportunity for a Breakthrough, while ensuring that your worst performance is still Good Enough.
How do you know you're a Risky runner:
- You often run personal or seasonal bests, and never have terrible races
- You are willing and prepared to make a bold move in the middle of a race
- You know exactly where you want to be in a race and have a plan for getting there
- You are seen to as an aggressive runner who is always in control
- You seek to increase your mileage and intensity over time
- You have borderline unrealistic goals, but you have a plan to achieve them as well
- You refuse to settle for "Good Enough"
I know I was too conservative when I was racing competitively. And many of my teammates were certainly too reckless. But I didn't think about things like this back then. I don't think they did, either. Perhaps if we'd really considered the relationship between risk and reward in our performance we would have been able to change some of our tendencies.
Here are a few ideas that may help you overcome your tendency to be either too conservative or too reckless, to find that happy (risky!) medium.
- After you set your goal, commit to making it 4/5 of the race at your goal pace or in your goal position. If you can't make it 4/5 of the way, then you shouldn't have set that goal in the first place.
- Practice risky behavior when it doesn't matter. The Triton Invitational was a great place for athletes to do something new because nothing crucial hinged on the results.
- Then again, when everything is on the line, there is a lot of opportunity for someone willing to take a risk. The more important the result, the more likely people are to try and play it safe. Upsets are created by underdogs realizing they have nothing to lose and taking a big risk.
- Anticipate and accept the possibility of failure. Risk and failure unfortunately go hand in hand. So evaluate your performance on your effort and execution, not the final time or place.
- Don't equate how you feel in practice today with how you will feel in a future race. (Rarely a problem for Reckless runners!)
- Consult with your coach and develop a racing strategy you can believe in. Try to utilize your strengths (i.e. thoughtfulness for Conservative runners, aggressiveness for Reckless runners) but make sure they don't dictate your strategy.
- Talk to teammates who seem to have figured it out. Ask them how they approach their races.
In the end, for those who want to be excellent, being conservative is often the riskiest thing you can do. I hope UCLA's runners will be ready to take some risks this weekend at the UCLA-USC dual meet!