Race Pace

The best way to prepare for a race might be to run one


Posted: 2 July 2004
by Ed Eyestone

You may think the stresses and strains of racing mean your competitive outings should be kept to just a few a season for fear of overdoing it. But regular racing as part of your training can be a great way to improve your times, and it can be one of the best ways to become a faster and fitter runner.

A former professor of mine used to say the most specific training you can do to race a 10K is to race a 10K. When you race a given distance you strengthen the specific physiological energy systems necessary to improve at that distance.

Even if you’re not interested in fast times, racing regularly can help you stay fit and lose a few pounds. Scheduling a race every couple of weeks may be just the kind of motivation you need to keep you going. Plus, the increased intensity during races burns calories at an even higher rate.

However, while racing makes you fit and fast, it also makes you tired. Lots of fast running without rest depletes muscle glycogen (the fuel your muscles need to keep working properly), and takes its toll on bones, muscles, and tendons. At the least, over-racing causes fatigue and staleness. At worst, too much racing will increase injury risk.

How much is too much depends on the distance of your races and whether your goal is speed or fun and fitness. Racing for speed means you’re training at a high level and want a good time at every race. Racing for fun and fitness means you enjoy the social aspect of racing and you want to get fitter.

If you race for speed you should race less often than if you race for fun, in order to ensure adequate recovery. For the same reason, the longer the distance the less you should race.

Here’s a schedule for speedsters and fun runners for the four classic distances:

Goal: Marathon for speed
How often: Once or twice per year.
Why: Racing one hard marathon during spring and another in autumn allows time for adequate preparation and recovery.

Goal: Marathon for fun and fitness
How often: Three or four times per year.
Why: If you’re not aiming to improve personal bests, you can safely run a fun marathon every quarter because you’re not putting as much wear and tear on your body.

Goal: Half-marathon for speed
How often: Two or three times per year.
Why: The hard effort can really boost your confidence for longer distances. Half-marathons are particularly good to race about a month before a marathon.

Goal: Half-marathon for fun and fitness
How often: Five or six times per year.
Why: There’s no problem with running an easy half-marathon every other month. And there are lots out there to choose from as this race distance has become extremely popular.

Goal: 10K for speed
How often: Five or six times per year.
Why: If you’re hoping to maximise your performance, running a hard 10K about every other month is a good goal.

Goal: 10K for fun and fitness
How often: Ten to 12 times per year.
Why: The 10K is a great training motivator. It’s long enough that you need to train regularly to complete it. Yet, it’s short enough that you can run a fun 10K about once a month and not risk injury.

Goal: 5K for speed
How often: Seven or eight times per year.
Why: It’s a good idea to run a hard 5K every few weeks to keep your racing sharp. In particular, it helps you work on your leg turnover and speed. Try running a fast 5K two or three weeks before a 10K, half-marathon, or marathon. The pace in these longer races will seem slow and easy by comparison.

Goal: 5K for fun and fitness
How often: Sixteen to 20 times per year.
Why: If you hate speedwork, run a 5K every other week or so. It will help to make you fitter without ever having to hit the track. Also, you’ll soon have enough T-shirts to clothe a small country.


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