How many times a year can you truly expect to race in peak form?
In the first installment of this series, I suggested that careful race-schedule planning is something a lot of non-elite runners do, typically to their detriment, and listed a number of factors that strongly affect how often runners can race to or close to their potential within a given year. In the next piece, I described a typical club runner’s dilemma — how to balance off the need or desire to participate in a number of Grand Prix-style races without compromising individual goals — and made a note of how the seasonal nature of the sport at the scholastic level tends to bleed into the adult road-slug ranks. Now, I’ll get into the nitty-gritty: Given only physiological concerns to consider, how many times a year can you truly expect to race in peak form?
The Numbers Game
Let’s start with four assumptions:
1. It takes at least 10 weeks of training to prepare to race well.
2. It takes several races to get into peak race condition.
3. When you get race-fit, you can achieve your best times at a range of distances (e.g., 8K to 10 miles).
4. Everyone needs a little recovery time after a series of races.
So say you train for 10 weeks, then do three races (one every two weeks) to peak for the fourth race. Then let’s say you need three weeks of down time (easy running without any hard work) to recover from this hopefully fruitful binge. This whole process therefore requires about 21 weeks. The upshot is that you can do this twice per year, presumably but not necessarily focusing on shorter races (5K to 10 miles) in one period and longer ones (20K and above) the next.
You could shorten the training-only portions to seven weeks and do two build-up races instead of three and therefore try to peak for three races in a year instead of two, since each cycle would take 16 weeks. But you would not likely see the same results as with the first option. On top of that, the race calendar may not admit of such an endeavor.
One more thing to consider is that it’s possible, even likely, to set personal bests at longer distances such as 20K/half marathon, 25K, 30K, and 20 miles while training for a marathon. However, setting personal bests at 5K, 8K, 10K, 12K, and 15K/10 miles in a continuous run is less likely if you’re an experienced racer. A specific block of training and build-up races is probably necessary in order to race at peak at any one of these distances. That is, you’re probably not going to hit top times every two weeks in these distances; you’ll need to pick the one that’s most important to you and set that as your fourth race and let the other three serve as strengthening efforts.
Obviously, none of this is ironclad, but if it’s good enough for Pete Pfitzinger — who helped me devise this scheme — it’s good enough for me.
So now, you should have enough information to figure out how the lay out your training and racing year. If you’re part of a club, figure out what races you’ll run for the team and whether they fit into the scheme suggested above. Chances are you’ll be able to come close. The two-week gap between races may now fit perfectly, but the take-home message is that you should be able to get the most out of yourself twice a year and enjoy some additional racing on top of that. As it happens, even the most avid racers should be able to work within this framework, while those who enjoy long breaks for recovery and training should be satisfied too.