Wednesday, July 9, 2014

How Rivalries Improve Performance

I love racing. Actually, let me rephrase that statement. I love to compete. My unyielding desire to test my abilities against other talented athletes is something I grew up nurturing. Though I think its deeply instinctual now, I have a pretty good idea where it came from.

Try growing up with a brother who is 18 months older than you and more physically gifted. For two active boys who loved sports, it was a recipe for daily competition. We grew up competing against each other in everything: one-on-one basketball in the driveway; wrestling on the living room floor (I have the scar on the back of my head to prove this one); and soccer training sessions when we played for the same team.

Soccer often got pretty intense. I dinstinctly remember one session where my brother and I went up against each other in a particular one-on-one drill. The offensive player had to break free from the defender, receive a pass from one of the other 4-5 guys surrounding the small box, and then pass the ball to a different player on the perimeter. Each pass I attempted, or if I held possession just a little too long, whack! I can't recall the number of times I ended up on the ground during that drill. His strength was overpowering. Ok, I'll be honest, I often got roughed up quite a bit. But it didn't matter. I fought harder. All I wanted to do was win. After each battle between us (during soccer and otherwise), I'd walk away hoping one day I could beat him.


"You're one of the most competitive players I've coach," my longtime club soccer coach once told me a number of years back. I can recall those hot summer evenings training with my NJ Rangers club, the flood lights on, sweat pouring over me like I just got out of the pool, and always wanting to play for one more goal. If my side came up on the losing side of "next goal wins," it wasn't even a question, "one more," I'd always respond. Some nights we didn't have enough time to keep playing. Those were the sessions I left in a sour mood contemplating the ins and outs during an often silent ride home.


Competition, and more specifically, rivalry, is a unique ergogenic aid. Pick your favorite sport and rivalry - Magic vs. Bird; Duke vs. UNC; Mo Farah vs. Kenenisa Bekele; or Mark Allen vs. Dave Scott - these battles seemingly bring out the best in both sides. I just finished reading Iron War, an account of the best triathlon ever run between two legends of Ironman, Dave Scott and Mark Allen, both six-time World Champions. What did rivalry produce between the two of them? In 1989, the two ran the marathon leg of the 1989 Ironman World Championships step for step until mile 24 when Mark Allen broke away from Dave Scott to win by a mere 59 seconds and set a run course record of 2:40:04, which still stands today.

There are good reasons to compete and seek out rivalry, that is, if you're goal is continual improvements in performance. A recent study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science researchers analyzed 112 race results from 2007-2009 (3k to half-marathon) of 72 runners from a northeast runner club and found that runners ran significantly faster in races where a perceived rival also raced. In fact, races times were roughly 4.92 seconds/km faster, or about 25 seconds over the course of a 5k race. That definitely is significant!

journal Social Psychological and Personality Science - See more at:
This is why many find it beneficial to train with a partner or in groups. I personally don't think it's necessary for every session (the logistics of training alone are much simpler and I like the mental toughness that's developed as a result), but strategically placed "competitive sessions" within a training cycle could be the ticket to breaking through a plateau. These can be hard sessions with a training partner, or a local 5k. Both will do the trick.

I took the latter route this past weekend. With some degree of success, I've tried to incorporate some of these local races as a way to gauge fitness. More importantly, because I do almost all of my training alone, these races are about competing. It's the drug: waking up, knowing I'm about to force my body to suffer, all the while trying to go faster then the person next to me. I want to walk right up to that edge, but not fall over it. And sometimes that edge is a little further than what we originally thought.


Going into this 5k I knew my run endurance was pretty solid, thanks to my Boston training earlier this year. But, this endurance focus has somewhat come at the expense of improving top-end speed. With a fairly good base for the year, I've recently starting doing a more focused block of speed work for my run (hello track sessions!).

The 5k was in Reston, VA, where my wife and I live. So, knowing the course wasn't an issue. What surprised me most was the number of people who came out on the morning of July 4th - about 2,000 runners in total. Not bad for a local race. The race also featured some pretty solid middle-distance talent from the area, many of whom run or ran in college. I was no match for their 4:45 pace, but jumping into a race with high-caliber runners forced me to up my game. I ran a 18:19 (5:55 pace) personal best (!) and finished 12th in my age group and 39th overall. Not bad at all after doing a hard hour and 15 minute hill repeat session on the bike the evening before.

After the race with my "Support the Troops" wristband given to all finishers


What does all this mean? Seek out opportunities to regularly compete, and even embrace developing a friendly rivalry with a training partner or fellow race competitor. You just might see your performance improve.

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