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Planning your race season

Why plan your race season? Why not just go run whatever 5k is happening this weekend if we’re feeling frisky and motivated when we get up on Saturday morning?

These are good questions. But a better place to start might be thinking about the difference between running while at race and actually racing or time trialing. Running at a race can be a great way to fill that social aspect of our training, while capitalizing on the race day atmosphere to get a good hard effort in. Having other folks around when we’re trying to get a hard workout in often allows us to push just a bit harder and get a little more out of the workout. But just like with any other workout, we don’t want to go all the way to the well and completely empty the tank. We still want to finish with just a little bit of gas left.

Racing (or time trialing) on the other hand, is a completely different beast. We’re looking to either place as well as possible or run the fastest time we can. This, by definition, requires us to attempt to run completely empty. If we execute the race well, that means we’ll run out of gas right as we cross the finish line, but that’s a different topic of conversation. Because we’re going all the way to our limit on these days, it’s going to take longer to recover, which means we’ll probably not be ready for a hard quality session for anywhere from a few days to a month or more, depending on the duration of the race. This is the biggest reason why most coaches really try to get their athletes to NOT race in practice. If you’re going that hard at practice, you’re not going to be ready for the next quality workout and you won’t improve as much over a longer time frame.

So we’re getting around to planning our actual races for the season. Which races should we sign up for? This will depend mostly on what our goals for the season are. If we can identify a key race (i.e. the marathon at the end of the training block, the big annual 5k in town, etc.), it will help inform us as to what we’re looking for in the races leading up to that big one.

Sitting down to plan out your race season can really help you be as successful as possible.

If we’re looking to have a season of 5k’s and 10k’s, then it makes sense to have the last one of the season be our target race. The ones before that are a combination of hard training runs that allow us to simulate race day. That means that we can get away with putting some really hilly courses in there if we need to work on our power output or net downhill courses if we need to work on our leg speed. Either way, the tune up races should be large enough that there will be some people running the race that have about the same level of fitness that we do, and some that are faster than us. The folks that are at roughly the same fitness level as us will give us people to work with. Having other races that are faster than us will guarantee that there will be someone to chase. If you are winning the race, you’re in the wrong race because you won’t necessarily be pushed to give a truly hard effort. These races, even though they may not be 100% all out efforts, they can be. Which means we can get more frequent updates to our training paces and more regular feedback to inform our training. This is nice if you don’t necessarily know what your particular strong and weak points are when it comes to racing these shorter races.

If we’re building our race season around a key long race (i.e. 90 minutes or longer), then we’ll probably be using the races before the target race as race simulations more so than true races in and of themselves. This typically includes a race in the 30-45 min duration range at the start, and then they get progressively longer. The first race we’ll typically actually race, trying to get a good measurement of our baseline fitness so that we can inform the training paces we’ll be operating at. The rest of the “races” that we may schedule over the training block will probably not be run at 100% effort, but rather closer to the effort level we’re anticipating for the target race at the end of the season. This allows us to practice race day strategy, and getting familiar with effort level and paces we’ll be using on race day. We may get PR’s along the way, but they probably won’t be quite at the level as if we had truly raced those events. The other aspect of these races is we normally want to target ones that have a similar course profile to the big race we’re building up to.

The big difference between these two approaches is that one is essentially a training block (the long race with several “tune-up” races) and the other one can be a true race season. The really long races are long enough that we can’t really race them every weekend without running a serious risk of injury. 5k’s and 10k’s are short enough that you probably can race every week or every other week for a month or two without running a serious risk of injury. Quite frankly, the longer the race, the longer the recovery you need to take from it.

If we’re looking for big performances in the long events, we can’t really race more than a couple of times a year. The recovery period from these longer races is just long enough that we get deconditioned enough that we’re probably not going to be able to race at the same level again right away. This means we have to get that full training block in to really peak our fitness before we’re really ready to make another A-class performance. And if we race too frequently, even with the shorter distances, we lose so much training time to recovery that we miss out on a decent number of training sessions that would help us improve. If we really want to reach our all-time fitness potential, we really can’t red-line it and run until we’re empty too frequently.

How we structure the races in our season varies based on several factors. What is the purpose of the race season? What kind of event are we targeting for that “A-class” performance? How long does it take us to recover from races? What is the purpose of those individual races? How familiar with the race that you’re targeting at the end, and do you need more practice and experience with that particular distance and effort level? So the next time you’re thinking about signing up for a bunch of races, sit down and sketch out the season. Make sure you’re setting yourself for success, however you define it.

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