These days, many top athletes race sparingly, waiting until their fitness is perfect before toeing the line. But it wasn’t always that way. In the months leading up to his time of 2:09:55 at the 1975 Boston Marathon, for example, Bill Rodgers raced everything from two miles on the indoor track to 30km on the roads.
He enjoyed racing, but he also used minor races as stepping stones toward his goal races each year. This approach has benefits that are hard to replicate in workouts: intermediate goals maintain motivation and the race atmosphere pushes you to run hard. For those with pre-race jitters, familiarity prepares you for adversity, says Camille Herron, a 2:37 marathoner who races 15-20 times a year.
Still, you shouldn’t sign up for a race every weekend and hope for the best. Here’s how to ensure there’s a method to your madness.
Practice makes perfect, but don’t just race the same distance over and over. ‘The shorter, competitive races are great for learning tactics, repeated surging and hurting in a different way,’ says Herron. ‘The longer races are more drawn-out, so you have to have greater patience and mentally and physically work through the highs and lows.’
Apply it: Find races that challenge skills you’ll need in your goal race. If you’re training for a hilly race, find an event with plenty of downhills to test your quads. Challenges such as early or late starts, hot or cold weather, and crowded first miles can – and should – be rehearsed at other races.
2/ Race tired
Rodgers raced 23 times in 1975, but used most as preparation for the Boston and Fukuoka Marathons. When he ran a three-mile indoor track race a few months before Boston, for example, it was part of a 20-mile day. You don’t have to go that far (literally), but resist the urge to be well rested for every race. If you’re racing a 10K or less, plan an extended warm-up or cool-down – or both.
Apply it: At secondary races, aim to run at least three miles before and after the race. Once that’s comfortable, extend the cool-down to five miles. Give yourself at least two days to recover afterward (three days for races of 10 miles or longer) before doing another hard workout.
3/ Pace yourself
When every race is important, it’s hard to take risks. Use low-key races to experiment with pacing and don’t worry if the results aren’t always great. You’ll develop a better feel for the differences between ‘a bit too slow’, ‘a bit too fast’ and ‘just right’ – and you may discover that a more conservative (or aggressive) approach works for you.
Apply it: Run the first half of a race five per cent slower than your current race pace, then finish as fast as you can, to learn to stay relaxed in the early miles of races. Alternately, run the first half five per cent faster than race pace. It will be painful, but you’ll be practising the hardest and most essential skill in running: hanging on.