When planning your running season it's important to answer a seemingly simple question: how often should I race? While the question might be straight forward, the answer is often anything but. In this article, run coach Matt Fitzgerald helps to solve the puzzle of planning your racing season.
The recent pandemic reminded endurance athletes of something that many took for granted: we train to compete. Mass race cancellations left us struggling for motivation, deprived suddenly of our biggest incentive for putting in the miles.
Thankfully, the races have come back, and we are free to compete as often as we like. But how often should an athlete race? There’s no single right answer to this question, but stepping back and reflecting on the important factors to consider will help you decide on the race schedule that makes the most sense for you.
Reasons to Race More
There are three main reasons to add races to your calendar. Let’s briefly address each of them.
Racing is good practice
The best way to get better at racing is by racing. Even low-priority “B” and “C” races give athletes opportunities to work on pre-race logistics, fueling, warm-ups, mental skills, and pacing, while also providing valuable exposure to the unique discomfort of competing. For this reason, it’s a good idea to do at least one other race before each high-priority “A” race. An example is running a half marathon as a “B” race five weeks before going for a marathon PR. Use that first race to try new things, work the kinks out of your race routine, and remind yourself how hard racing is ahead of your more important event.
Racing keeps you focused and motivated
Many athletes find it hard to stay focused and motivated in their training if they go too long without racing. I often advise athletes who are chasing big long-term goals to punctuate the process with intermediate competitive goals as a way to keep them focused and motivated. Suppose you need a year to prepare for your first 100K trail race. In this case, you might divide the year into three separate cycles lasting 16 to 18 weeks and run a shorter ultra at the end of the first two.
You specialize in shorter distances
Longer races require more preparatory time and take longer to recover from than shorter races. That’s why elite middle-distance track runners race as often as two dozen times a year, while their marathon-focused peers compete only a handful of times. If you prefer longer races but you enjoy racing, consider sprinkling the calendar with a few shorter events to scratch the competitive itch between longer races.
Reasons to Race Less
In my experience, recreational athletes are more likely to race too often than not often enough. There are two main reasons to avoid racing frequently.
It’s disruptive to training
Racing is the enemy of training. Each time you compete, you interrupt the flow of training by taking it easy for a few days beforehand to ensure you have fresh legs and by taking it easy for another few days afterward to recover. Peak race performance requires peak fitness, which in turn requires consistent and progressive training. Races thwart consistency in training, which is why I often say to athletes, “You can either race often or you can race well. You choose.”
The tables below offer examples of sensible 18-week racing schedules for runners who love to compete but want to avoid sabotaging their fitness and performance by competing too often. This information is offered for illustrative purposes only and should not be interpreted as a set of ironclad rules.
It’s emotionally draining
One thing about racing is that it is very uncomfortable—at least if you’re doing it right. And because racing is uncomfortable, it’s also emotionally taxing. An athlete can only visit the pain cave so many times before they struggle to muster the grit to go as deep as they did the last time. Even the most avid competitors have a limit to how often they’re able to produce a maximal effort.
You might need to experiment a bit to find your personal tolerance for competitive suffering, but whatever it is, try not to exceed it. There’s nothing worse than finishing a race knowing you didn’t leave it all out there because you went into it with a depleted emotional battery.
Again, there is no single formula for frequency of racing that’s right for every athlete, but now you know the important factors to consider when planning your competitive schedule.