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Any Plan is Better then No Plan

It's a oft discussed topic in the world of ultras with firm opinions on both sides. To have a plan or to not have a plan?

The no plan camp says that a detailed chart can lead to more mental anxiety then not if things don't go according to that plan. There is truth to that statement - how many times in a race have you targeted specific goals and then struggled when the goal times weren't met? Seeing goal times at checkpoints slip away can have a devastating effect on a race. Athletes either push too hard trying to make up time or just give up because the goal is gone. Pushing too hard often has the opposite effect. Instead of making up time, there's too much energy expended and the athlete loses more time in the end. On the other end of the spectrum is the athlete who simply gives up and stops. This athlete isn't hitting the goal splits and doesn't see the big picture that while one segment of the race might not go according to the plan, there's miles left to go. Another issue with having detailed plans is feeling like they need to be matched exactly. If the plan says eat this and the athlete feels like eating that instead, there's another area for mental anxiety. It is too much food? Not enough food? Or if there is crew involved, will they actually be able to help the athlete if they are just sticking to the plan? These are all excellent points and some good reasons to not get completely invested in a plan.

At the same time, if an athlete doesn't have a sense of how long the miles between aid stations will take, how will they be able to estimate how much food or water to carry? If they don't have an idea of when it gets dark and what drop bag location will be before darkness fully arrives, then will they have the lights and warm clothes needed to keep moving? If the crew doesn't have some idea of the options the athlete might want at different aid points, will they best be able to help? These are the points that the Have a Plan camp bring up in response to all of the concerns of the No-Plan camp. If you don't know what you are doing, how can you best prepare for the event?

Me? I am firmly in the Have a Plan camp - but with the cavate that you need to be willing to abandon the plan or move to plan B at any time in the race. It's one of the things I provide to my athletes - a simple spreadsheet based on the target event. I highlight the important sections - miles between aid stations for instance - and provide estimated splits for those sections. The splits are based off the terrain and the training each athlete has done, but the key is always estimated. In the spreadsheet, there's room for planning fluids, food, gear and any notes such as crew points, cut-offs and other important information. Why is all that information important? Because in a race, I want my athletes to be prepared - but I don't want them carrying around the kitchen sink! If the goal race is a trail marathon with aid stations every 4 miles or so, then the athlete doesn't have to start the day with 2L of water and a full pack. However if it's a 125 mile bike race with stretches of 5 hours between aid stations, then the amount of food and fluids need to be carefully assessed - as does the gear required. Having those splits between aid points helps with the food and fluid planning. If the race has crew access, then the crew needs to know a range of when to be at the first crew point. The crew also needs to have a sense of when to have fresh shoes or a new pack ready for the athete. These are things that need to be thought about in advance.

Which is another reason why I ask my athletes to sit down and make a plan for the race - it makes them think about the day in realistic terms. I don't write the plan for them. I want my athletes to reflect on the hours of training for the event, considering what kinds of drinks worked best for training runs, what foods sat well on the stomach and what were some treats or motivational tricks  that always got them going at the end. While race day will be different with the increased adrenaline and intensity, the training standbys are good starting points. If on a hot day, the athlete is drinking a liter an hour, then that needs to be considered into how much fluid is carried. The history of training provides the  framework for successful racing and there is no better way to learn from history then reviewing it and preparing from what was learned. This goes for gear as well. Perhaps one pair of shoes is really comfortable for Hike-a-Bike but not so comfortable for hard pedaling? Maybe the pack that is super comfortable when empty has some horrible chafing after adding some extra gear. Now is the time to think about this - before the race starts. If there are drop bags, then I want my athletes to write down what and when they will be exchanging things. Again - it makes them think. Why am I doing this? It also gets into the brain so when the athlete is tired and delirious from hours of running, the steps at the aid stations are second nature and nothing is forgotten.

The biggest take away I give to my athletes though? That the plan is just that - a plan to help prepare for the race, not a firm set of instructions or times that have to be met. And like any plan, things change. Flexibility is one of the most important factors for success in any sport. Running a little faster then you thought? Maybe you don't need quite as much water then. Going a little slower? Have your crew give you warm clothes and lights a little sooner in the day then anticipated so you aren't caught between aid stations in the dark. Have the plan for the crew so they have an idea of what to do for you, but realize that when you come into the aid station - they are in charge. Ask for what you want if there's something specific, but be willing to let them help you if things are changing. The plan is for before the race - not during. It helps my athletes prepare for the event better then not having a plan ever would. But during the race, live in the moment. Don't stick to the plan at the detriment of the end goal - which is finishing.