Time for a tune-up

Chasing an autumn marathon PB? Make your next race a 13.1-miler. "Doing a shorter race three or four weeks beforehand is very sensible – most experienced runners would run at least one or two as part of their build-up," says endurance coach Nick Anderson, (fullpotential.co.uk.)

Typically about half the distance of a target race, these tune-ups let you test out pacing, mental strategy, fuelling, hydration and gear in conditions that simulate the big event.

"Racing takes your training to another level,"says elite coach Dennis Barker. "It’s more intense, you have different people to challenge you, and you can really hone your competitive edge.”

Timing will all depend on how far away the main event is. You need enough time for a mini-taper: Anderson recommends that you give yourself a "slightly easier training week in terms of mileage before enjoying the short race." Don’t forget to block in time for recovery, too.

As for the race itself, there are two possible approaches, says Anderson. "You could treat it either just as a harder version of a training run, or as a full-out race in its own right."

Many elites race tune-ups as simple fitness tests, to see whether they are on track to achieve their goals for their big races. Even more importantly, shorter races can pinpoint strengths and weaknesses.

If you struggle with hills, for instance, you know to ratchet up the strength work. If you run out of steam before the end of the race, you need to focus on long runs.

Alternatively, another approach is to run tune-ups to practise your planned goal race pace – in other words, running at the same pace in the shorter distance that you hope to run in your target race. This not only helps you become familiar with your goal pace within a race experience, it lets you rehearse critical racing logistics such as lining up at a crowded start, sticking to your pace in the exciting first few miles, and grabbing a cup at water stations without spilling it on your shoes.

All of which should add up to a happier big day, according to Mike Keohane (mkcoaching.com), who coaches recreational runners: "When you step up to the line of your goal race, you’ll be a little less anxious."

When to race for speed, when to race for practice

If you’re doing a tune-up race at least three weeks before your main event, you can race it hard to test your fitness. Races that are closer to your big day are best used just to practise your goal race pace.

Goal RaceTune-Up DistanceRun It HardPractice Goal Race Pace
10K5K or a 4- to 5-mile race4 to 6 weeks out1 to 2 weeks out
Half-Marathon5K or a 4- to 5-mile race4 to 6 weeks out1 to 2 weeks out
MarathonHalf-marathon6 weeks out2 to 4 weeks out