This summer, I’m signed up to race a half marathon with a friend, a swim relay with another friend, and a 10K as a training run. None of these, though, are my target races for the year. So why am I doing them? And is it a smart idea?
“In general, using races to train for other races makes sense,” says Ian Sharman, a professional ultra runner and the head coach of Sharman Ultra Endurance Coaching.
There are basically two reasons to do races that aren’t your goal races: for fun or for training (or, maybe, for a little bit of both).
If you’re doing a race just for fun, it’s important that it actually be for fun. The swim relay I’m signed up for is more of an event than a race. It will probably be easier and involve more beer than even a normal workout. In these cases, if you say you don’t care about your time, then you better really not care about your time. “You have to have the discipline and lack of ego to say, ‘Today’s goal is ‘X’ and I’m sticking to that goal,’” explains Sharman, even if that goal is just to have fun. This can be difficult.
“Don’t compare yourself to the internet,” jokes Sharman. It’s common for athletes, he said, to run too hard at these for-fun races because they get out there and want to look good or they have expectations about what kind of time they want next to their name. That leads to burnout, fatigue, and injuries. “More people end up over-racing than under-racing,” he says.
But if you’re doing a race for training, instead of just for fun, you should also have intermediate goals that move you toward your big goal race. It can still be fun, but you’re doing it for a reason. Those intermediate goals can be things like practicing pacing, testing out nutrition, or just getting in a hard workout.
“It’s really important for athletes to understand the ‘why’ of a race,” says Sami Winter, a running and triathlon coach with Without Limits Coaching. She’ll tell her athletes to focus on holding a certain pace for a certain portion of a practice race, or to focus on taking in nutrition at a set schedule. If things go wrong, then you have plenty of time to fix them before your main target race.
To know when a training race makes sense in your schedule and what you should be working on in it, Jeff Gaudette, the founder and head coach of RunnersConnect, recommends that you plot out your season with A, B, and C races. Then you can figure out where a tune-up race fits, instead of “trying to force races to fit into your schedule.” Sharman agrees. “Plan your season out from the beginning,” he says.
“B” races, both Gaudette and Sharman say, are typically races that you still expect to race hard and do well in, but you’re not tapered or peaked. It’d be like running a half marathon 3-4 weeks before your big marathon race. You can probably PR in a half-marathon if you’re in shape for a marathon, but “you’re not likely to PR everything,” says Sharman. And, arguably, if you’re PRing in 5Ks, that actually doesn’t bode too well for your marathon, says Gaudette, because it means you’re not doing the kind of marathon training. “C” races are the small local races that you’ll probably just use as glorified workouts.
Both “B” and “C” races are often done to practice some specific skill (pacing or nutrition, for example) in a race atmosphere, to get used to the race experience, or to perform efforts and workouts “that you might not be able to do on your own,” says Gaudette.
When using a race as a workout, there are generally two schools of thought. Either use a shorter race as a hard effort. Or, do an extended workout around or after the race. Alberto Salazar has famously used post-race workouts in his protégé Galen Rupp’s training. You can do that too, says Gaudette, but only if you have some miles under your belt and a specific reason to do the workout.
While you can also use a longer race to prepare for another long race, it’s important that you have the mileage and experience to not get hurt. Sharman often uses marathons or even 50Ks and 50-milers to prepare for other 50-milers or 100-milers. But he’s been doing ultras for a while.
After these races, remember that they were still races, even if you didn’t PR, and you need to adjust your recovery and training accordingly, recommends Gaudette.
There are dangers with racing for training. Yes, you can get hurt or over-tired. But it can also get to you mentally. “There’s the potential to come out of a ‘B’ race in a bad mental space because you didn’t hit the time you wanted to,” says Winter. There’s also the potential to dull the edge, so to speak. If you’re always telling yourself that you’re not going all-out, then you risk not remember how to really go all-out when the time comes.
“There’s a different art to racing,” Winter says.
There’s a reason professional marathoners only do one or two peak major races each year. But, then again, they’re professionals. You might just not realize they’re not racing in peak form. “Their tune-up is most people’s PR,” says Gaudette. And, they’re definitely not signing up for a random half-marathon because a friend wants them to join.