A Recipe for Race Success

As Ruby showed off her design for a cookie selfie, I realized that the contestants on The Great British Baking Show have a tremendous amount in common with runners. If you watch this show (available on Netflix), you are familiar with how the competition works. (If you haven’t seen the show yet, you should definitely watch it. Be ready to binge.)

At its heart, GBBS is a competition between twelve bakers. In each episode, there is a theme and three rounds with time limits: the signature bake, a technical, and the showstopper. In the season Scott and I are currently watching (labeled “Collection 6” on Netflix), the theme of the first episode is biscuits (“cookies” to us Americans).

The bakers are tasked with making three different types of cookies. The signature bake is twenty-four regional cookies; the technical is eight wagon wheels; and the showstopper is a selfie made entirely of cookies. As bakers start working on their showstoppers, each baker describes what they’re attempting to make and an illustration is shown.

Ruby’s showstopper, described by the host as “taking ambition to the next level”, was made up of three layers and forty individual cookies. With a marathon to-do list, Ruby admits in the initial description that although she’s practiced at home, she’s never actually manage to finish.

Spoiler alert: Ruby wasn’t successful in completing her “Gingerbread Marathon selfie” that day either, although she did finish the London Marathon. But what I realized is that how the bakers approach the challenges is similar to how runners approach race day. On the show, the bakers know ahead of time what the signature and showstopper will be. They must prepare for both, but how they do so is entirely up to them. On that day, Ruby chose to do something that she’d never completed before without being timed, in a timed situation.

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Sound familiar?

Like those bakers, runners can prepare as much (or as little) as they want for races. Like Ruby, we can choose a complex training or race plan and try to execute it in competition. Or we can do something simple and beautiful, like Manon did in that same episode. (Her biscuit selfie was of a visit to Japan.) Her recipe wasn’t as demanding as Ruby’s, but the end result met the requirements of the showstopper bake.

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Each week in the technical challenge, the hosts offer up a recipe of their own to the bakers. But the catch is that the instructions are incredibly sparse. The bakers need to use what they’ve learned in order to successfully execute a recipe that most of the time, is incredibly obscure or difficult to make. The technical challenge tests skills and knowledge, as well as patience, flexibility, and tenacity.

Some bakers do great at these technical challenges; they have sufficient knowledge of baking techniques and desserts to go with the flow. Others crumple without a recipe.

Runners, too, often have incredibly sparse information. We usually have to make our own decisions regarding runs and races. Should I run with this cold? Is that twinge in my knee a sign of potential injury? Should I sign up for that race or this one? How many miles should I run this week for my long run? I belong to groups on Facebook where most of the posts are individual runners asking for help on making decisions like these. (There are serious issues with this approach, by the way, but that’s for another post.)

Like the bakers on GBBS, runners have to use their innate knowledge of the sport in order to make decisions that will help them in the long run (pun intended). In the technical, one small decision can screw up the whole cake. And so, too, can a runner make a decision (or more likely, a series of decisions) that screws up their training cycle, their race, or perhaps even their ability to run long-term. The bakers that succeed at technical challenges either get lucky, or have a wider breadth of knowledge and experience than the competition; I would argue that the same can be said for runners. The more you know about the sport, the more prepared you will be to make the decisions that can make or break a goal or PR.

If you don’t know a lot about running, look for opportunities to learn--from prominent experts, magazines like Runner’s World, your own experience, and of course, run coaches like myself (wink). That knowledge will undoubtedly help you prepare. As will practicing before race day. Like the contestants, we have the opportunity to prepare for our “signature bake” as many times as we like. At the starting line of any race, you’ll hear runners--just like the bakers-reference how much (or how little) they trained beforehand.

Either we show up at every race having completed our training or we don’t.

We either do the work of trying different training programs until we find something that works for our body, or we don’t.

We either run the miles easy, or we don’t.

We either show up to the track or to the hill for repeats, or we don’t.

Sometimes, we do all the preparation; sometimes we do none, and sometimes we just get lucky.

And usually, our approach determines whether we succeed in competition. Because, just like the bakers, we never know until we’ve crossed the finish line whether we’ve made a cake that wins Star Baker, or a cake that falls apart. What’s telling about The Great British Baking Show is how each contestant shows up on Day 1. How they handle that very first bake is how they tend to show up to every other part of the competition.

And runners tend to be the same way--for better or for worse. So, the next time you sign up for a race or begin training, consider how you are showing up.

Could you try a different approach - less mileage, more mileage, less days off?

Could you practice more?

Could you prepare more?

Learn more about yourself, the sport, or the race you’re planning to compete in?

Like Ruby, are you trying to complete something you’re not sure you can complete?

Or are you taking an approach like Manon, and executing something basic and beautiful?

Need help with your next race?

Meghan Stevenson