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Winning performance

Paula Radcliffe, the queen of the mid-length distance, shares her formula for a 10K, a half-marathon and anything in between

By Martha Corcoran

  Paula Radcliffe Radcliffe (right) trains several hours a day, with only every eighth day off.  Michael Steele/Allsport
With her knee-high white socks and her blonde pigtails, long-distance runner and two-time Olympian Paula Radcliffe is not the vision of an intimidating eat-my-dust track star; she looks like an escapee from The Sing-A-Long Sound of Music. But in the year following her devastating þameout at the 2000 Olympics -- she led 24 of the 25 laps in the 10,000-meter event, only to be passed by three runners in the final turn -- the 27-year-old Briton has made it clear that she's back with a vengeance.

Since last November she's mopped up a European half-marathon record and two world titles -- including the World Cross Country Championship she struggled for nine years to win. Then, on June 9, she broke a 21-year-old course record in the New York Mini Marathon 10K Race, a mark that event coordinators had deemed unbeatable. Just eight seconds shy of a world best, her 30:47 finish is the second-fastest time for a women's 10K. Oh, and did we mention she also suffers from exercise-induced asthma?

This is a woman who can teach you a thing or two about how to perform in a race of any length. Take heed, but remember: Braids aren't for everyone.

Know the course. "Especially in road races, it's important to look at the terrain beforehand to see where the inclines and downhills are and which way the wind is blowing," says Radcliffe. For anything longer than a 10K, Radcliffe gets someone to drive her through the course, so that she can concentrate on making mental notes. If she has the time, she jogs the entire route at a leisurely pace. At the very least, she says, familiarize yourself with the key sections -- the start and the finish.

Establish rituals. A prerace routine can help keep your mind focused. When not sporting her Great Britain national-team uniform, Radcliffe always wears the same clothes, a custom-made Nike Lycra top and briefs, same jewelry (including her lucky Olympic-rings pendant) and even uses the same safety pins to fasten her number on. "It's not to the point in which if I lost any of those things, it'd be a major panic," she says. "It just makes it easier because it's one less thing to worry about on race day."

Eat heartily. While many athletes can't stomach more than a small meal before a race, Radcliffe tends to pack it in. "Most people can't eat when they get nervous," she says. "I'm the opposite. I actually eat more." For an afternoon race she has an energy bar, a banana with cereal and a yogurt for breakfast, then about 3 1/2 hours before the race, she has a few pieces of toast with honey and an energy drink to keep her carbohydrate and blood-sugar levels up. For morning races she pares down the quantity and makes sure she's up early enough to allow three hours between eating and running to avoid mid-race cramping.

Drink, but don't gulp. "If it's an early morning race, you need to drink enough the day before so that your muscles are well hydrated before you even get up," says Radcliffe. "It's a big factor come the last third of the race." Radcliffe carries a three-quarter-liter water bottle with her at all times and is constantly taking small sips throughout the day before and day of the race; she drinks about two liters the morning of a race. Although she usually doesn't stop for water during a 10K, for longer races or in hot weather she says it's a must. Avoid chugging: A full belly tugs on your diaphragm and can cause painful cramps.

Wear the same old shoes... That is, shoes that you've raced in before, not the pair you bought last week. "I know it sounds really obvious, but even elite athletes make this mistake," she says. "It's terrible to get into the first mile and realize you've got a blister and another fives mile to run." For long races Radcliffe slathers Vaseline on her feet to alleviate friction. She races in Nike's Air Streak and trains in the Nike Air Pegasus or Nike Air Althea Triax.

...and socks. Last year, while testing compression sports socks, Radcliffe noticed a big difference after her long, hard runs on the road and track. Her calves were less prone to tighten up. The hosiery of choice for the elderly, compression socks are designed to apply graduated pressure -- more at the ankle and less toward the knee -- with the purpose of improving circulation and providing support. "They help the lymphatic system drain lactic acid out of the blood system and legs," she says.

Ignore everyone. "I've never really been psyched out by what other people are doing, because I'm too focused on what I'm doing," says Radcliffe. A common mistake, she says, is running too fast too soon. Stick to your own pace. The first mile is crucial; it determines how you settle into the race both mentally and physically. Radcliffe uses visualization techniques to help keep her focus inward. "I rehearse how I'm going to feel during the first mile and at the finish," she says. "When I'm actually running, my mind can bring back those feelings of being strong and relaxed, and that can really help."

Attack the hills. "My strategy is to run hard up the hill, over the top and keep running hard down the other side," she says. "A lot of people get to the top and take a breather, but downhills are a good way to cover a lot of ground." Radcliffe's downhill form: Lengthen your stride, let your arms drop loosely by your sides, land on your heels. "You'll end up running faster for the same effort," she says.

Respect the elements. Wind, more than anything, is going to affect your race, says Radcliffe. "It's a lot easier to stay with the pack for as long as possible on windy days and then make a break near the finish." In hot weather Radcliffe stays in the shade prerace, scales back her warmup and concentrates on stretching. Right before the start she tips water over her head to stay cool. If the day's wet she warms up in rain gear in order to stay as dry and comfortable as possible before the start.

Find a mantra. "When I hit a tough stretch, often in the last third of the race, I count in my head -- one-two-three, one-two-three -- to the rhythm of my pace," says Radcliffe. "This helps relax my breathing." During the last five minutes of each race she counts slowly to 100, three times. "[One hundred counts] takes about a minute and a half," she explains. "If there are no markings on the road, this helps me know where I'm at in the final mile." It also helps take her mind off how tired she feels. If numbers exhaust you, try humming or chanting. Namaste, sister.

 
For more from our Sweat Equity section -- including the skinny on hornet juice and other new high-octane fuels, an illustrated guide to the science behind "hitting the wall", and more -- check out Sports Illustrated Women's September issue, on newsstands now.


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