"In nature, shelter helps to keep you alive long enough to get more oxygen, water, and food. In that vein, these activities aren't so much extensions of the previous categories, but complementary to them. Like shiny rims on your car, you can get from point A to point B without them, but it just doesn't feel as good. This category includes wearing appropriate gear, developing tactical race strategies, following a pre-race routine, utilizing visualization techniques, and relaxing/meditating before a race.
Some people try to skip Oxygen, Water, and Food activities and go straight to Shelter activities. This is the runners equivalent to a Meatball Sundae.
(In other sports, having a cool nickname would belong here, too. Never underestimate the power of a good nickname. Can anyone tell me why this is not more popular in running? Is "Pre" really the best we can do? I mean seriously.)"
It's an opportune time to write about this topic. There have been a few articles I've read recently that deal specifically with the topic of "Shelter" as it pertains to Optimal Training. Dathan Ritzenhein, for example, wrote a blog post on the use of his "Alter-G" treadmill. And Wired magazine just profiled a number of cutting-edge new products being designed that may benefit runners, from a Smart Bra that reduces breast bounciness to Cool Shoes that...literally keep your feet cool.
The key thing about "shelter" level activities is that they are helpful, but not necessary.
Wearing appropriate gear: Usually, the first thing you see about a runner is their gear. Particularly the quality of their shoes, the length (or lack thereof) of their shorts, their watches and heart rate monitors, and of course, their nipple Band-Aids. Some runners warm-up in a t-shirt and shorts, others in their Team USA warm-up suits. But does any of this even matter?
Honestly...no. Not really. Not even your shoes. Abebe Bikila, the great Ethiopian distance runner and winner of back-to-back Olympic marathons (he's #5), won the 1960 Olympic marathon running barefoot. And as the guys at the Science of Sport blog have documented in this series, there may be no benefits from running shoes at all.
As for warm-up gear or spikes or GPS-positioning-heart-rate-monitoring-shock-you-if-you-slow-off-pace-electronic-gadgets, those are pretty obviously not necessities. They can benefit your training, and assist you as you attempt to add sophistication to your training, but they will not make-or-break your career the way, say, eating right will.
The only allowance I will make in this category is for wearing Band-Aids on nipples. Until you've been derailed by "nipple chafing", you just wouldn't understand. (Note: I may have to put nipple Band-Aid wearing up to the Water level. I'll think about it.)
Developing tactical race strategies: Doesn't this really belong up one level? Has there really ever been a great champion who didn't develop tactical race strategies?
It's a good question, and it is possible that this is more important than I've made it. But then I think of people like Steve Prefontaine and Said Aouita, who were known to move to the front and make every race a barn-burner. Can you really be said to run "tactical race strategies" if you always go out and run on a pace to set your personal record? And were those guys not incredibly successful?
I suppose I'm playing a game of semantics here, but I think tactical race strategies are actually complementary to success, not necessary. When you are in a field of superior runners, they may become necessary. But if you've trained yourself to the point that you are the superior runner, maybe not.
Following a pre-race routine: I know people who do exactly the same thing before every race. Some of those people are consistently successful. Some are far from consistent in their results. Some follow a basic outline of activities (stretch-walk-jog-stretch-strides, etc.), while others try to make their warm-ups carbon copies of each other.
I even had a teammate who used the same "lucky" water bottle on race days, for years. Obviously pre-race routines lend themselves to superstition as much as to repetition. Yet is this truly necessary, or just a bi-product of other necessities?
Many athletes, particularly those at the high school level, do not warm-up nearly long enough before a race. Why? Because they are following a pre-race routine prescribed by their coaches or developed by teammates past. In this case the routine is the problem. If they didn't have it, they might stumble into a better pre-race warm-up!
I would argue that what a routine provides is the ability to focus on the race and not what you are doing pre-race (because that's defined by the routine). This can certainly be helpful.
Utilizing visualization techniques: I'm a big fan of this, actually. To do it right, you have to be really disciplined. You have to really focus and visualize yourself not just crossing the finish line, for example, but going through the entire process of getting there. It really does make it easier to do something extremely difficult if you have already prepared for it mentally.
But I didn't start doing this until I was in college, and I had plenty of very good races where I didn't utilize any visualization techniques. At best, this increases the likelihood that you will have more success. And once you start doing this, it can be hard to stop, because you really do feel a difference. But really it's a difference in consistency and pre-race tension, not just time.
Relaxing/meditating before a race: It seems like a no-brainer to me that everyone would want to rest immediately before a race and simply think about something neutral. I always felt better when I did. But I was talking with an old teammate and he thought he ran best when he spent his time before the race really engaging in the other races, and the meet itself. Of course I told him to prove it by showing me the stats, and he couldn't, so therefore we don't have to believe him...
This goes along with visualization, I think, in that those who do it feel much more confident and prepared when they step onto the track. But it's an intangible thing, for us. It helps with the pre-race jitters, builds confidence, and probably does help conserve that little bit of extra energy that the person being active throughout the meet will lose.
Starving in the Shade
There are a lot of runners, especially recreational runners, who spend a lot of money, time, and effort on these activities and not so much on the activities that are really going to make them great. I'm always amazed when I see people who are decked out in all the gear but don't do sit-ups, for example.
There's nothing wrong with buying something like shoes that keep your feet cool, or a brand new running outfit or the next generation GPS watch. Just so long as you recognize those for what they are: shiny rims on a car. They might help marginally, but the real performance gains will be made by working on more important areas.
Finally, as I wrap this up, I just want to point out that I'm serious about the nickname thing. I ran against a guy in college named James Nielsen. His nickname was "Beast". He still signs his emails with it. The funny thing is, that nickname isn't necessary at all to his achievement. But at the end of a long workout, I really believe he garners some benefit from having it. It's like it makes him pot-committed in a poker game. If he doesn't finish the workout like a "beast" he'll disappoint.
Anyway, silly logic for why our top runners should have nicknames, perhaps, but I'd still like to see that a little more. That and sideburns. More top runners need chops, too. Nicknames and chops. If everything else in this post is a shiny rim, I think nicknames and chops must be racing stripes!