One of the most critical components to distance running success is developing your racing plan. Unfortunately, many runners do not put much thought into planning their races, and base their race schedules primarily on convenience, tradition, or “what everyone else is doing.” If you are passionate about racing, then it is worth taking the time to develop your racing plan for optimal performance. Here are a few guidelines to assist you in developing an optimal racing schedule:
1. Select your goal race(s): To reach your full potential, it is essential to select a specific race to focus on and prepare for. After you identify your goal race, the next step is to set a performance target that is difficult enough to be motivating but which is also achievable. You can then develop the rest of your racing plan to help you achieve your best performance in your goal race.
You may be able to set up your racing schedule for two goal races at different distances. This works well only if the shorter race comes first. For example, if you want to run personal bests (PBs) at 10 K and 10 miles, it would be ideal to have the 10 K race a few weeks before the 10 miler. You will recover relatively quickly from the shorter race and will have the sustained speed to help you set a PB at the longer distance.
2. Include several tune-up races before your goal race: If you train hard and consistently then you will get very fit. You will not, however, be optimally prepared to run your best race because you will not have developed “race toughness.” Tune-up races are races of lesser importance that you use to help prepare for both the physical and mental demands of your goal race. They help reduce your anxiety before your goal race by allowing you to practice a pre-race routine. Tune-up races are also an opportunity to learn to push yourself to your very limit.
3. Avoid the temptation to over-race: The most common mistake that runners make in developing their racing plans is to race too often. Each tune-up race should have a role in your preparation for your goal race. Running too many races in a row takes away the enthusiasm for racing so when your goal race comes along it is hard to put your heart and soul into it. It takes discipline to pick and choose your races, but that discipline will pay off in your goal race.
Racing every two or three weeks is often enough to develop race toughness but infrequent enough so you will not get sick and tired of racing. An example of a reasonable race schedule would be to include tune-up races two, four, six, and nine weeks prior to your goal race.
4. Find out everything you can about your goal race: If you arrive at your goal race hoping to set a PB and find it has an enormous hill, you have no one to blame but yourself. You can find out lots of information about races on web sites or from other runners beforehand. Since it takes so long to get really fit and there are so few chances in a year to race your best, you owe it to yourself to go somewhere with a fast course and good weather.
Of course, racing isn’t just about fast times so there will be races that you go to because they are challenging or interesting or have great competition (or a great party). Just be sure you know in advance what the race is like so you are not disappointed on race day.
5. Gauge your fitness before your goal race: If your goal race is ten miles or less, then racing that distance about four to six weeks beforehand provides a useful benchmark to gauge the effectiveness of your preparation. The results of that race will help you to fine-tune your training plan and racing schedule. If your goal race is a half marathon, then a 15 K or ten mile race provides a useful benchmark. For marathoners, a tune-up race of 20 K, half marathon or 25 K is long enough to evaluate your fitness while allowing you to recover fully for the main event a few weeks later.
6. Race shorter distances before your goal race: Racing at distances that are shorter than your goal race prepares you to run at, or slightly faster than, your target race pace for a sustained period. For example the ideal preparation for a 10 K race is to run a couple of 5 K races and an 8 K race. Avoid races that are longer than your goal race during the last few weeks because they will tend to make you strong but slow.
7. Conduct a post-mortem: After your goal race, learn as much as you can for the future by evaluating the effectiveness of your racing schedule and your training plan. What can you do better to prepare for your next goal race?
8. Give yourself a break from racing: Whether or not you achieve your performance target in your goal race, give yourself a few weeks break from racing. Racing requires a high level of mental commitment as well as physical energy. By taking a break from racing you will ensure that you will come back strong and motivated to achieve your next racing goal.
(This column originally appeared in Running Times Magazine.)