Many elite runners plan their racing calendars a year or more in advance. There are some right now who know that in order to be on the starting line of an Olympic final in Beijing in August 2008, they need to hit an A-standard qualifying time in a race in Brussels in August 2007, which means they have to run well at the Flora London Marathon at the end of the month.
And then there are other runners like Eric, who rolls out of bed on Monday and decides he's going to race a 5K on Sunday after running only maintenance mileage all winter. For all the Erics out there, here's what to do in the week before a spur-of-the-moment 5K to ensure you run well enough to want to impulse-race again.
Monday: A few easy miles
Take it easy today since you can't get in personal best condition in just one week. Peak running performance is the result of consistent training over weeks, months, and years - not minutes, hours, and days. If you try to cram three months' worth of training into one week, you're far more likely to end up in rehab instead of on the starting line.
Tuesday: Tempo run for the number of minutes it will take you to race the 5K
If you estimate that you'll be able to race the 5K in about 20 minutes, do a 20-minute tempo run along with a one-mile warm-up and one-mile cool-down. Running at this comfortable-to-hard intensity for the duration of the upcoming race will remind your body what faster running feels like.
Wednesday: A few easy miles
Keep your race expectations modest. As you prepare throughout the week, focus on using the race to assess your fitness. Don't even think about a personal best. Instead, treat this race as a test to see how far removed you are from your most recent personal best. The results will help you to determine future training and racing.
Thursday: 2 x 800m at goal race pace, with equal time jog recovery between
The goal is to run a mile's worth of distance at the pace you think you'll be able to maintain on race day. This short session will help you determine what your race pace should be without wearing you out. If you struggle to complete the two repeats, the race pace you're predicting is too ambitious.
Friday: A few easy miles or a day off
Whether you run easy or take the day off, it won't make a difference come Sunday. Do what feels right.
Saturday: 30-minute run followed by 4 x 100m strides
After running easy for 30 minutes, do four 100m strides at your projected 5K race pace to simulate a strong finishing kick. The speed will wake up your fast-twitch muscle fibres and make your early race pace the next day (which will be a bit slower) feel much easier.
Sunday: Race day
To avoid starting out too fast, divide the race into thirds. The pace for your first mile should be conservative: at least 10 seconds slower than your projected race pace. During the middle mile, find your groove and settle into race pace. By running the first two-thirds of the race conservatively, you should be able to push the needle into the red a little during the final mile, allowing you to finish strong.
As soon as you can after the race, spend six to eight minutes in a cold bath or swimming pool. Although it won't feel as comforting as a hot bath, the frigid water will combat inflammation and help you to recover faster so that you can start training in earnest - and in good time - for your next race.