How often can you go all-out and do yourself more good than harm?
Written by: Kevin Beck
Competitive runners race. A select few compete to win or place high, most of us race in order to lower our fastest times, still others of us enjoy the intrinsic challenges of mountain races or ultramarathons; some of us float between these roles depending on how old we are, our health and a host of other practical and psychological factors. But despite our differences, one element that virtually all competitive runners share is selecting a goal event or handful of events, training for a dedicated period of weeks or months, recovering, and starting the cycle anew unless injury or ennui intervenes.
Less clear to most people, however, is how often they can race effectively. Runners who are part of competitive teams at the club level often commit to “Grand Prix”-style race series in which racking up points based on age-group placings in a number of events determines where teams place at the end of the year. Some of the same runners set specific individual goals as well, such as a spring or fall marathon or a personal record at a given distance. In any event, most runners are pulled in more than one direction; even many elite runners must often commit to off-goal races as part of contractual obligations. But although you’ve surely noticed that elites train a lot more than other runners, they also race far less, and not for lack of potential rewards.
The question, then, is: How often can you go all-out and do yourself more good than harm?
Before trying to answer this question in the literal sense – that is, from the standpoint of human physiology – it’s important to explore external factors, e.g., your physical environment and your time limits, and psychological factors, such as whether you like to hammer every race as hard as you can or whether you’re okay training through them. In addition, the impact of your preferred racing distance or distances is obviously critical.
Serious runners know no bounds in terms of where they live. You’re as likely to find someone pounding away at 70-mile weeks in Maine as you are to see her in Phoenix. But few places offer excellent weather all year; New Englanders trade fair summers and spectacular falls for long and often brutal winters, while Texas and Floridians who can enjoy the holiday months in shorts pay the piper in a big way between Memorial Day and Halloween or so.
In any case, where you live may shape your racing schedule. Those farther north are usually busiest in the fall, while in the humid South, the racing season spans the months between October and March. This usually means that your effective racing period lasts about six months every year, with the rest focused chiefly on training (or in some cases, slacking off). On the other hand, if you live in, say, densely populated areas in Pacific Northwest or SoCal, you can in theory find races all year in favorable conditons, which is great – unless you’re prone by constitution to overracing. But for reasons I’ll get into later, you’re well advised to plan to pack your serious raving into about a three-month period, and not necessarily a continuous one.
One final consideration, albeit one applicable to comparatively few people, is high altitude. Although renowned for its red-blood-cell-boosting qualities, elevations above 4,500 feet or so are places where not even the most acclimated athletes can run as fast as they can at sea level. So if you live in the Rockies, serious races are apt to depend on your making trips out of the area and are hence not likely to be frequent.
Life Goes On
Most people are pretty busy these days, but many runners find that it’s easier to be predictably saddled with frantic schedules than it is to have see-sawing obligations that leave you with free time, but that may strike at random. That is, if you work 60 hours a week and have two young kids but a regular routine, you may find it easier to plan training than a business owner whose work and family schedules wax and wane with the seasons and the economy. At a minimum, you need to sit down at the start of every year and make an honest appraisal of the races you know you can count on not only attending, but being truly ready for. Tax accountants aiming for a certain New England marathon shortly after the April 15 filing deadline, for example, might want to consider what they could be inviting.
So far, I admittedly haven’t said a whole lot. In the next installment of this series, I’ll get more into relevant psychology and physiology before moving into focused advice about how to assemble all of the pieces I’m casting out there as food for thought for now.