This blog is a good follow-up to the last entry about the hilly, rolling terrain in the DC area.
What is a Breakthrough Performance, and why the capital letters? In a nutshell, a breakthrough performance is a workout or race that exceeds an athlete’s own expectations and is usually an invigorating experience that changes the mental approach to training/racing. These only happen every once in a while, hence the term. However, it’s possible to increase the likelihood of a breakthrough performance depending on how the program is planned. Every now and then I encourage a runner to find a flat course so that she can really put the pedal to the metal without hills becoming a factor. For instance, when was the last time you did an entire long run on totally flat terrain? Long, flat paths allow a runner to feel fitter after several weeks on rolling courses. In turn, that may be the breakthrough performance being sought.
Similarly, after racing a flat 5k, a runner might think, “Wow, I had no idea I could run that fast!” After returning from a trip to Boulder, CO (high altitude) one year, I would have been a fool not to race that next weekend. I had a great race, a huge 8k PR on a flat course and I rode that Rocky Mountain high the entire race season. There’s no substitute for that kind of confidence boost. So if you haven’t done so in a while, go long on a flat course and maybe you’ll exceed your own expectations. In the end, you know you've had one of these performances when you can reach your arms to the sky above and think, "YES!" like Rod Dixon in the image above after winning the 1983 NYC Marathon in dramatic fashion. This is my favorite picture associated with running because I think it embodies the idea of the Breakthrough Performance.
On a related note, when was the last time you trained somewhere new? Have you memorized every crack in the road on your routes? Have you ever run your favorite route in reverse? Are you using different options for hill repeats? Tried running on a different track or driving to a new course/trail? Changing paths or taking a new side street is something I encourage to help break out of a mental training rut and/or a physical plateau. If we are not overly concerned with the exact pace or exact miles for most of our distance runs, then we can break up the monotony and explore new grounds. Sometimes it will lead to a hillier route, which we shouldn’t fear. This could also mean running at a different time of day. For example, if you always run at home after work, try jogging around the office neighborhood before work, at lunch, or afterward.
Having a route or track that consistently produces good results is a good idea when seeking a breakthrough performance. Everyone should have a go-to place for when they want to have a stellar workout. Call it a haven. Some people have a race they do every year for this reason because they always seem to race well there. Others only visit such grounds every now and then as to not abuse the privilege. I try to schedule my hardest track workout of the year for a weekend I know I can swing by my alma mater, and once per year I have my best workout on a track where I love to run. Some of you may now be thinking, “Shouldn’t the goal be to replicate that feeling all the time…at every workout?” Correct! You’re on to something. However, I will only point out that by definition, not every workout can achieve the status of “breakthrough.” It’s similar to the old adage, “If everything is special, then nothing is special.”
Although it can be a subjective experience, the take home message is that even as we have great workouts on a frequent basis, only a few can, by definition, be considered breakthrough performances.