Uncomfortable – Running your best 5K

Posted: August 3, 2010 in Pace and Racing
Tags: , , ,

Have you ever had one of those moments where someone describes something so succinctly, so perfectly, with so few words that you want to smack yourself on the forehead and say, “That’s it!” 

I had that moment on Sunday as I was thumbing through the latest issue of Runners World.  I was reading an article about how to Not race your best, where they pointed out some pretty obvious no-no’s.  

What not to eat, not to wear new clothing, don’t start too fast, don’t start too slowly.  The typical advice you would expect to see in a magazine that is read by everyone from novice runners to elite champions. 

There was a follow-up comment that really hit home.  

It said the key to racing your best was learning to run while you feel “uncomfortable”

Smack – palm to forehead. 

As I watched my 5K time drop this summer over a series of races from 19:43 to 19:30 to 19:15 to last weekend’s new PR of 18:12, I was struggling to put into words what was happening to me as a runner. 

Sure Tempo Tuesdays – where I cover 6+ miles :30-:45 seconds/mile faster than marathon pace along with Hill Training on Thursdays has paid dividends this summer.  My legs are better defined, my calves are stronger and I’m able to squat and press more weight in the gym. 

I definitely feel like I am a “faster” runner on day three of 43 years old than I was one year ago. 

But as I was talking about racing and pacing with a fellow runner the other day, I was having a hard time articulating exactly why my 5K time had improved so much so quickly. 

The answer is that I have learned that it is O.K. to feel “uncomfortable” when you are racing. 

This is a very different approach than preparing to race a marathon, where a smooth, even pace rules the day. 

For a 5K or 10K race – to really reach your potential – you need to be prepared physically and mentally to run some miles that “hurt”.  You need to find the confidence that just because your legs are starting to ache, your lungs are burning and your breaths are coming much more quickly than during any training run, you are still O.K. 

You are actually better than O.K. – you are on your way to a new PR. 

It just depends on how much you are willing to sacrifice to get there.

Just this week photos arrived from the Cougar Country Classic 5K race.  As I was reviewing the images the above really started to click for me. 

The first photo shows all of the runners in the chute just moments before the gun.  The top four finishers are across the shot wearing bibs:  110, 128, 5 and 13. 

Starting Chute - Cougar Country Classic 5K


Moments later at the start of the race – it is “go time” and the seriousness on the faces of myself and the other runners really hit home.  We went from laughing and joking around to RACING and racing is serious business. 

It's On.


As the race was underway over the first mile although the pace was fast (5:40/mile pace) I was feeling strong and in control. 

Mile 1 - Feeling Strong


On the second mile after a little over 11 minutes at that pace – the race was getting more difficult.  This is where learning to run while you feel “uncomfortable” becomes a critical.  Don’t panic, just keep pushing. 

"Uncomfortable" is setting in.


Sure, dropping back to a 7:00/mile would have felt a lot more comfortable at this point, but to hit that max-performance, you need to welcome the pain a bit – as soon enough you will find yourself coming through the tape with a new PR. 

Battle of 18:12


That is the thing about racing short distances, there simply is not enough time over a 3.1 mile or 6.2 mile course to make up for a split that has you “pacing” yourself or “saving something” if you are hoping to post your best time. 

I’ve found that for me my best 5K strategy is: 

Mile 1:  :10-:15 faster than your goal race pace. 

Mile 2:  Right on your goal race pace. 

Mile 3:  :10 seconds off of your goal race pace. 

Finish:  Leave just enough left in the tank to sprint the finish. 

I am very grateful for all of the great race experience I have been able to acquire this summer.  A good friend told me that if I wanted to improve as a runner I needed to race and race a lot.  It was the best piece of running advice I have received in a long, long time. 

So don’t be afraid to get out there and push it a little bit in your next race – Steve Prefontaine said this about racing 35 years ago: 

“A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more. Nobody is going to win a 5,000 meter race after running an easy 2 miles. Not with me. If I lose forcing the pace all the way, well, at least I can live with myself.” 

Sounds about right to me.

  1. David H. says:

    I have discovered that being comfortable getting to the uncomfortable zone is a big key to having a good race. I think you have a great approach to racing and one that others should follow.

    • joerunfordom says:

      David – thanks so much for the visit and the message! Seems so obvious when you think about it – but I really wasn’t racing very “hard” several months ago. Really looking forward to that 10K in October when the temps. cool a bit. – Hoping to “Go Low!”

      Best from Austin, Joe

  2. onelittlejill says:

    You are so much cooler than Dylan McKay.

  3. Brian Cass says:

    Great post! The last time I tried to really rip it up at the 5K distance I got through the first two miles in 6:42 and 6:28 only to lose it over the final mile. I was just unable to push through the uncomfortable. I’ll be breaking into the big leagues with a new PR in the teens once I do…but I know, that is better left for Running 301 and I still have to pass Running 101 and 201 first!

    • joerunfordom says:

      Brian – you are learning a lot this year and improving leaps and bounds. Stay patient, as that IT Band is telling you to slow down a bit and take those improvements a bit more “incrementally”.

      In my opinion one of the hardest things to learn as a distance runner is patience – I’m still learning that lesson week by week and it’s been five years now.

      Keep doing what you are doing Brian – you’ll be in the teens in no time.

  4. Leslie says:

    Great post Joe! I’ve run a couple of 5k’s this summer and even though training has been going well, I couldn’t work out why I wasn’t seeing my PB (in Scotland we have Personal Bests!) come down. I’m just not getting to the uncomfortable stage and managing to keep the pace up.

    • joerunfordom says:

      Leslie – You are a tremendous runner – my advice is to really start believing that and push to that “uncomfortable” pace early. You will be surprised how little you lose over those final 2 miles.

      PB will be not a matter of if, but by how much.

      Best to you from Austin! Joe

  5. Stephanie says:

    I keep thinking about this post during my runs recently. It completely makes sense. I will sure keep it in my during my half marathon this weekend. I repeat to myself, I’m not in pain, I’m just uncomfortable, you can do it! Learn to run when you are uncomfortable, I love it!

    • joerunfordom says:

      Hi Stephanie! Thanks so much for the visit and the message. So glad that you have found this helpful! I’ve come to realize there is a big difference between “training” and “racing”. You are going to do great this weekend! Here’s to an “uncomfortable” new PR!

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