Natasha Wodak is one of the fastest all-time Canadian female 10K finishers and, after her race last month in Berlin, the fastest all-time female Canadian marathon runner. How does she do it? And, equally important, how can you? Obviously she’s inherited preternatural gifts and her work ethic and ability to endure pain can not be duplicated. But there are other things—her preparation, her mantra, her race plan—that can be imitated by mere mortal runners. After returning home from Europe to her place in BC, we caught up with Wodak and asked for her ten racing tips that anyone can use.
10. Visualize your race.
Before lacing up her sneakers, Wodak has mentally put herself through the race course. “Picture different scenarios—you’re halfway and not feeling well, visualize how that will feel,” she says, and, after she’s placed herself throughout the course and imagined both the good and the bad, she prepares her responses. “Positive affirmations that you actually write down are extremely helpful,” says Wodak, whose affirmations are Yes, You Can, and This Is My Race. She says she has no problem with other runners telling themselves the same things.
9. Handle your logistics.
How are you getting to the race? What will the temperature be like in the corral? Where are you meeting your family afterwards? Please lord tell us you’ve decided before race day on your shoes. All of these decisions, these choices, are stressful, and competing in a race is stressful enough: “You don’t want anything taking you out of your zone on race day,” says Wodak, adding that the universe is jam-packed with surprises, but where the start line is located and which shoes to wear are not one of them. “You don’t want to feel anything stressful,” says Wodak, whose family and friends now know that she puts up boundaries on race day: Wodak is good-natured and friendly, but when it’s time to go to work, she works. “Let everyone in your circle know before race day what you need.”
8. Go easy on your watch.
Wodak competes in the Olympics and to set Canadian records and when she races, she doesn’t check her watch every K. In Berlin, it was the 5K splits, not the single kilometre times, that she was interested in. “You don’t need to know every single kilometre time and it’s best when you organically feel the pace,” she says, adding that racing within five or even ten seconds of a per-split-kilometre is OK. “Analyzing every second stresses me out,” she says. “It’s easier, and more accurate, to check the clock on the timing mats, and those generally appear every 5K.” Don’t get hung up on your watch. Relax.
7. Settle in.
“At the start of a big city race, it’s very easy to go out too fast and also very dangerous to get stuck behind a big group of people who are slower than you,” says Wodak, who adds to her race day prep both where she wants to line up and who she wants to be pacing with. “Without a pacer, I would go out too hard, so I stick with someone I trust,” Wodak says, adding that by 10K in Berlin, she knew it was going to be her day. “I was hitting Tony’s heels and saying, ‘Are we going too slow?’ And he said, ‘You’re on pace,’ and that’s how you want it to feel—settle in, and save your big effort for the end.” In Berlin, Wodak increased her speed at 30K and maintained her 3:15-per-kilometres even at 35K. “I started passing women then and then it was like: ‘Let’s go!’” Wodak’s speed and strength are generational. But that race approach will produce universal results.
6. Have your checklist for the pain.
Wodak knows, as we all must, that racing at sometime is going to be painful. We’re pushing our limits and that hurts. So, when that happens, how will you respond? Wodak has a checklist of six things she does when the pain sets in.
- Relax you arms
- Breathe in through your tummy
- Let your pacer help you
- Quicken your stride
- Take a few deep breathes
- Shake out your arms
“Even if those things don’t work for you, after you try them all, you’ll probably have passed half a kilometre, and that’s good!” Wodak says. The main thing you want to do on the race course is avoid panic. “Staying calm is the trick employed by every racer,” she says. “Don’t freak yourself out, and so when you feel that sensation happening, have actionable tools in your toolbox to talk yourself down.”
5. Take your fuel.
In Berlin, Wodak took six gels. And at the Olympics, she and Malindi Elmore took their uniforms to the seamstress, to sew in pockets to hold their gels. Gels are serious. You need the energy. “Have gels on you and also practice taking gels on the course,” she says, and mentions that now, as she coaches runners, she’ll stage race rehearsals where her athletes pick up water from tables in race simulations. “I advise a gel every 5K,” she says and this is important: practice with your gels and use them.
4. Trust your community.
One of the best things about our sport is the people. Wodak, in Berlin, couldn’t find a gel. She didn’t panic. She yelled out her predicament to her pace group and, magically, a gel was produced. “Work together with the people around you,” she says, and this is for pacing, for sharing nutrients, for pumping each other up. Wodak, after receiving a gel, shared one of her bottles. At the end of her race, a runner approached her with a hug and started to cry. “Everyone out there is doing this together,” she says, “Spread the energy, and good vibes, around.”
3. Hold nothing back.
There will come a moment when it’s time to let loose and go like mad. This is what the speed work is for, the long runs—race day is time to lean in. “If you can get to 35K in a marathon, that’s when you can pick up the pace,” says Wodak, and here she differentiates from a mortal runner, but it is universal that also in a 10K or half marathon, when you see the finish line or bear down at the end, leave nothing in the tank. “Be prepared for the hurt and have the confidence to know you can take it,” she says, “Trust yourself and discover how long you can take the hurt for. Race day is when you show what you can do.“
2. Celebrate your race.
In Berlin, after breaking Malindi Elmore’s Canadian marathon record, Wodak had lunch with her parents and then champagne with her athletes. “Even though I was crippled,” she says, with a laugh. You’ll be tired after your race and let’s just assume you won’t set any records, but completing a race while half the country is sleeping is an extraordinary achievement and, after you’re done, it should not be like any other day. “It’s a feeling like no other,” says Wodak. “It’s why we do it, so drink it in.”
1. Do it again.
Not immediately. Wodak says she has no clue when she’ll race next and she enjoyed taking two weeks off before returning to training. All of that is important for avoiding burn out. But here’s the thing: stick with it. You get better at it the more you do it. And the beauty of our sport is that there’s always another race. “It always comes back,” says Wodak, of her will to compete. “I like to wait for it to come back organically, no pressure—there’s always, thankfully, another race to be run.”
“Good luck to everyone racing this weekend,” says Wodak, “and congratulations everyone who has recently raced. There is nothing better than our running community and I thank everyone for their amazing support.”