There are three crucial aspects of long endurance races or training sessions. The first is pace or effort, the second is nutrition and the third is your emotional or mental energy. The longer a race is the more important it is to flatline. Flatlining simply means avoiding any extreme spikes or dips in your effort, nutrition intake or mental energy. Shorter races are a different animal, especially at the elite level. There are times when you must respond to changes in pace in order to be competitive. The longer a race is however, the more important managing your own individual parameters becomes.
When considering pace or effort, the fastest way to get from start to finish is with the most even effort output. Large spikes in effort inevitably result in having to pay back those exertions with a slower pace. Knowing what effort you can and should maintain over the long haul is essential and one of the primary reasons why coaching is so important. Establishing these parameters and practicing them in training should be a key part of your build into a long race.
When considering nutrition the same basic idea applies. The best way to manage your intake is to consume small amounts frequently. You never want your blood sugar or hydration or electrolyte levels to dip or it will lead to a decline in pace and your ability to sustain effort. Becoming intimate with the numbers you need to hit from a carbohydrate, fluid and electrolyte standpoint is as essential as managing your effort.
Mental or emotional energy is one area that is often overlooked because we tend to focus so much on the physical side of long endurance events. It’s important to develop a strategy both during training, in the lead into and during long endurance events. Anxiety levels for long events can reach extreme levels in some people. The anticipation of a race can be exhausting for some people and often worse than the event itself. Pre race anxiety can result in extreme mental fatigue before you have even toed the line. Likewise, during long events athletes tend to have emotional or mental highs during transitions or when they see family members or people cheering. This momentary high is often followed by a subsequent low. Repetitive bouts of this during an event can result in mental exhaustion.
In an odd sort of way, the best approach for a long endurance event is also the most boring approach. The more even you can be in terms of effort, nutrition and mental/emotional energy the faster you will be in the long run. You may not win individual small sections like a short hill climb but the patience, control and discipline will pay off.