Setting up a Racing Schedule

Joe Stilin deviated from his racing schedule to run his lifetime best at 3k.

Several years ago one of our ZAP athletes concluded his year with a 5k track race. As is often the case on the professional track circuit, the faster you run the more racing opportunities you get. His race went well that night, and the next morning he received an invitation to a 3k race that night. Typically, we would never entertain races on back-to-back days. But it was the last race of the season and he was scheduled to take a break afterward. So he decided to race. The result was the fastest 3k of his life. Now, I still would never advise that approach, but the optimal racing schedule will vary from person to person. However, there are some important concepts to consider when putting together a racing schedule.

There are two main types of athletes when it comes to racing. There are those who love to race frequently and view training as a means to an end. And those who are content to put their head down and train for long periods without racing. The latter tend to be well suited to longer distance races such as the half marathon and marathon. The former often gravitate to the 5k and 10k. While this isn’t always true these tendencies are fitting given the demands of each race distance.

5k & 10k Racing Schedule

The best way to layout any racing schedule is to pick a goal race and work backward. If your goal race is a 5k or 10k you want look at 3-4 races in the 10-12 weeks preceding that race. These will sharpen your racing skills and your body’s ability to tolerate high levels of acidity. The burning you feel in your legs, or throughout your entire body, at the end of a 5k or 10k is from the increased acidity in your muscles. Being able to effectively buffer this will allow you to push through those final minutes of shorter distance races. Racing a few times is the most effective way to improve your race tactics and callous your body and mind to the discomfort experienced in the final third of a 5k or 10k.

Mixing Up Race Distances

If possible, mix in an over distance and under distance race as part of those 3-4 races. Ideally, the longer distance race would be the first race of the build-up when you are strong but not race sharp. For a 5k race this could be anything from 8k to 10 miles. For a 10k race you could go up to a half marathon distance. However, I would recommend keeping it in the 7-10 mile range in order to minimize the potential of a longer recovery period that could interrupt training. Ideally each race should be 2-3 weeks apart in order to allow for proper recovery and for normal training to resume between races.

The final preparation race should be 2-3 weeks before the goal race. Ideally, this race would be shorter than the goal race. With a 5k this may not be possible, but for a 10k a 5k race would be ideal preparation 2-3 weeks out to sharpen up and recover quickly. However, let’s say you are a person who struggles with longer distance work and are targeting a 5k. You may be well served by racing a 10k 3 weeks before your goal 5k. This can help the 5k feel shorter and give a physical and mental boost to your endurance.

Half Marathon & Marathon Racing Schedule Keys

Race scheduling for a half marathon or marathon goal race requires a different approach. The needs of either race are far different than that of a 5k or 10k. In 5k and 10k racing the races themselves provide excellent specific preparation. Longer races require more recovery time and therefore create longer interruptions in training. And shorter races do not provide the specific preparation like they do in 5k/10k training. This is not to say racing can or should not be part of successful training for the half marathon and marathon. It is just important to be more selective.

The two major keys to successful half marathon and marathon training are consistency in overall running volume and consistency in the long runs. If you are racing shorter races every other weekend during training it’s likely those training principals are being compromised. 

Half & Full Racing Schedule Specifics

In preparation for a half marathon, aim for 1-3 races within the final 10-12 weeks. These races should be shorter than the half marathon distance and be scheduled at least 2-3 weeks apart. In addition to a quality workout and opportunity to run fast, these races keep you engaged with the emotional and logistical side of racing, something that can be overwhelming if not practiced. From a physiological perspective they are not as critical as in 5k/10k preparation. But it is still important to stay familiar with the uniqueness of race day: discomfort, adrenaline and all.

For the full marathon distance many runners choose not run any preparation races and instead focus solely on training. This can work for some athletes, but for the reasons listed previously, aim to race 1-2 times within the final 10 weeks of marathon training. One of these races should between 10 miles and 13.1 miles in distance and scheduled 4-6 weeks prior to the race. This race can be run for time or as a paced run, which we do a lot with the ZAP team. For the paced run, aim to run the first 8-9 miles at goal marathon pace and then pick it up bit by bit over the final miles.

If you opt for an additional race it should be a shorter race such as a 10k, scheduled 7-10 weeks prior to the marathon. A shorter race is a great for those who enjoy racing and prefer to break up training a bit.

Your racing schedule should reflect you as a runner and your goals. Just be mindful of balancing training, rest, and racing in order to put yourself in best position to succeed.

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