I Feel a Need, a Need for Speed

Whether it’s a 5k or a half-marathon, I love to race, which means I’m always looking for ways to run faster.  So it was with great interest that I read a copy of Ultimate Speed Secrets by Ross Bentley.  To be sure, this book was not written specifically for runners.  Rather, it was written for high performance and race car drivers.  But no matter what the sport, you’d think speed would depend on the same principles, or at least similar ones.

Credit:  allracingcars.com
Credit: allracingcars.com

What is the secret to becoming a winning race car driver?  According to Ross Bentley, the secret is to drive consistently “at the limit.”  This means fully utilizing the traction of the tires.  Or put differently, driving as fast as possible just short of losing control.

There’s a lot of technique that goes into driving at the limit:  you’ve got to enter corners at precisely the right speed, exit them at maximum acceleration, keep the car balanced, sense traction through sound and feel, and manipulate the brake, throttle, and steering wheel smoothly.

But the overarching principle is that you need to be right at the limit, otherwise you’ll be too slow.  And to get to the limit, you need to experiment, which means sometimes going over it.

Develop a mental image of the perfect race driver— you— as being able to drive over the limit at times, bring it back, hang it out there, dance with the car at the ragged edge.

— Ross Bentley, Ultimate Speed Secrets:  The Complete Guide to High-Performance and Race Driving

In footraces, shoe traction isn’t typically an issue.  But the concept of racing “at the ragged edge” has a parallel to pacing.  Run too slow, and you leave time on the table.  Run too fast, and you tire yourself out, creating a deficit that can’t be recouped.

Ross makes another point that seems relevant to running.  He argues that race cars must be driven at the subconscious level, not the conscious level.

Trying to go fast never works. Race cars are way too fast to drive at the conscious, trying level. They must be driven at the subconscious level, with the conscious mind observing and being aware. Often, what you may need is a way to “distract” your conscious mind from trying to drive fast. And what better distraction than having the conscious mind focused on providing the brain with more quality sensory input?

— Ross Bentley, Ultimate Speed Secrets:  The Complete Guide to High-Performance and Race Driving

This passage caught me by surprise.  I had always associated speed with conscious effort.  I had always believed that to run just a little faster, I needed to try just a little harder.  Like the way Steve Prefontaine describes competing:

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.

— Steve Prefontaine

Typically, I have Steve Prefontaine in mind when I run high-intensity track workouts, like 400-meter repeats.  However, after reading Ross Bentley’s book, I decided to head to the local track with slightly different goals.  Specifically, instead of trying to run fast, I would focus on the sensory input from my muscles, breathing, and posture, with the goal of feeling what it’s like to run at my limit.  And I’d provide quality sensory input to my brain by glancing at my GPS watch for a read-out on pace and heart rate.

The local (running) track

The results were very interesting.  I ran twelve repeats between 1:15 and 1:19, of which the seventh split was the fastest.  At 1:15.2, it was a personal record for me.

The seventh split was interesting for a couple of reasons.  First, my fastest split was also the easiest.  As the chart below illustrates, my heart rate started out a little slower than the others (I had taken a slightly longer break after the sixth) and it never reached the highest peak.  Maybe if I had listened to my body, instead of trying so hard, I would have taken a few extra seconds between the other splits and run them all faster.

Instantaneous heart rate (beats per minute) for ten 400m splits.  Fastest split highlighted in bold.
Heart rate (beats per minute) for ten 400m splits. Fastest split (number seven) highlighted in bold.

The seventh split was also interesting because I started out much faster than the others.  You’d think there would be a price for starting too fast, namely that I would run out of steam by the end — but this didn’t happen.  I might be running well below my limit.

Instantaneous pace for ten 400m splits.  Fastest split is highlighted in bold
Instantaneous pace for ten 400m splits (minutes per mile). Fastest split (seventh) is highlighted in bold

Thanks to Ross Bentley, I’ve got a lot to think about.  Now I can’t wait to go back and try those 400-meter splits again.  The focus will be listening to my body and giving it the freedom to perform, with less conscious trying.

Credit:  allracingcars.com
Credit: allracingcars.com
I Feel a Need, a Need for Speed

8 thoughts on “I Feel a Need, a Need for Speed

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