A few summers ago one of our ZAP resident athletes concluded his year with a 5000-meter track race. As is often the case on the professional track and field 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 3000-meter race that night. Typically we as coaches, and he as an athlete, 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 3000-meter race of his life. Now, I still would never advise that approach, but depending on the athlete and the race distance the optimal racing schedule will vary from person to person. However, there are some important concepts to understand when putting together a racing schedule.
Racer or Trainer
There are two main types of athletes when it comes to racing: 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 of time without racing. The latter tend to be well suited to longer distance races such as the half marathon and marathon while 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 Program
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 races 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 makes is from the increased acidity in your muscles. Being able to effectively buffer and clear lactic acid will allow you to push through those final several minutes of shorter distance races. An effective way to improve your race tactics and callous your body to the high levels of muscular acidity experienced in the final third of a 5k or 10k is to race a few times before your goal race.
Mix in an over distance and under distance race if possible in 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, but I would recommend keeping it in the 8-10 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 and should 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.
Marathon & Half Marathon
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, but it is 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 a 5k or 10k every other weekend during marathon or half marathon then one or both of those training principals is likely being compromised.
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 practice run where you run the first 7-8 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 a bit more and prefer to break up training and enjoy the race environment in the midst of marathon training.
Your racing schedule should reflect you as a runner and your goals, but be mindful of balancing training, rest, and racing in order to put yourself in best position to succeed.
*This Article Originally Appeared in the June 2018 Issue of Running Journal