By Ryan Warrenburg, ZAP Fitness

Are you a runner that prefers training to racing or are you someone that trains to race? These are two very different runners and when it comes to selecting when and how often to race these two athletes have different preferences and needs. When beginning a training plan with a goal race in mind finding the right balance between training and racing is a critical part of the plan. That balance is different depending on the race distance you are preparing for and should look different for a 5k compared to a marathon. Regardless of the type of runner you are and what event you are preparing for the question of when to race and when to train is an important one and can have a significant impact on performance.

In Marathon Training

Marathoners by nature tend to be well equipped to put their head down and grind out the miles for months without a lot of racing to break up the monotony of training. However, there are plenty of marathoners who like to race 5k and 10k races frequently in their marathon buildups. Training and racing during marathon prep is a difficult balance to strike, especially for those who like to race frequently. During marathon training the long run is the most important day of the week, as it most closely resembles the event for which you’re training. If you are frequently substituting races for long runs your training will suffer and your marathon performance will be compromised. Additionally, frequently racing on Saturday and doing a long run the next day is a dangerous combination of 2 harder days back to back. Even if you’re running the long run easily it is still a hard effort on your body simply based on the amount of time you are on your feet.

So is it wise to race at all during a marathon training cycle? Racing can help you monitor your progress and keep you engaged and motivated through all the miles you’re putting in, but you need to be strategic about it. Structure your long runs and weekly volume in a “2 weeks up / 1 week down” cycle where you have 2 higher mileage weeks with longer long runs between 15 and 22 miles, and 1 week that is 10-15% lower in volume with a long run under 2 hours. If you want to throw some shorter races in the mix, the down weeks are a great opportunity to do that. You can add a warm-up and cool down to your race so that you cover the distance of your planned long run. By doing the races on a down week you don’t compromise your longer, more important long runs, and you don’t overload your body by putting a race and a long run on back to back days.

Value of Racing in Marathon Buildup

For those runners who prefer not to race in a marathon buildup, it is valuable to toe the line at least once before your marathon. Getting in touch with the pre-race anxiety, the race morning routine, and just being on a start line with a bib number pinned to your chest, is an aspect of racing that should be practiced just like the running part of the equation. If you get too far away from racing, when it comes time to for the goal race those logistical and emotional details can sometimes be overwhelming. Try a longer race, between 15k and a half marathon, in the buildup between 3 weeks and 8 weeks out from race day where you run the first 65-75% of the race at marathon pace and then finish strong. This provides a great marathon specific training run, gets you accustomed to the race day environment, and allows you to recover much more quickly than you would if you race a half marathon from the gun. And most people I’ve had do this run surprise themselves by how fast they end up running.

5k / 10k Racing Schedule

When it comes to the shorter distance races like the 5k and 10k your racing strategy should be a bit different. The best way to hone your racing skills and improve your tolerance to the lung busting pain of the 5k and 10k is to race. Running some hard race efforts in the form of 5k-10k interval workouts and races is a critical component of peak performance. However, your training should still focus on developing your anaerobic threshold and improving your strength through tempo runs, progression runs, fartlek runs, and interval training. For most athletes it takes 2-4 races before they are ready for their best performance. There is a callousing effect that takes place in the 5k and 10k where your body gets used to the influx of lactic acid and how to better manage it and push through it. It takes a couple of races for your body to deal with that process efficiently. For that reason you should target 3-4 races in your training plan leading into a key race. Try to vary up the distances of the prep races so you have a shorter race and a longer race to work on both strength and speed.

While racing more frequently during 5k/10k preparation is a good idea, you do want to make sure you don’t overdo the racing. If you are the person that races every weekend you more than likely have found yourself plateauing and struggling to improve week to week. In order to see improvement through the training cycle you must develop your aerobic capabilities through tempo work and more moderate efforts, and racing every single week does not allow for that kind of growth. Targeting 4-5 races over the course of a 12-week buildup allows for the proper balance between training and racing.

Being selective and purposeful with your racing schedule, regardless of the race, will help you get the most out of your training and put you in better position to succeed on race day.

*This Article Originally Appeared in the October 2015 Issue of Running Journal