Planning Your Race Season


Around the end of the year we all look forward to a little downtime from running. Then after about five minutes, we get itchy feet and want to get right back at it. This is the time, sometimes even during holiday gatherings, that other family members hear frequent squeals of delight as the runner in the family receives good news about a (race) lottery, or finds out about a new race online.

Are there good guiding principles to bear in mind when putting together a season of races? Or is it better to just go with the f low through the year? I asked some of the top runners in the country how they approach their race choices, with varied and inspiring responses.

First, Mike Wardian, one of the most prolific racers out there: “I really try to race as well as possible at each and every race, and if I am on the start line I am going to run my guts out and try and win. I do have focus races, but that doesn’t mean I would not race close to them, as really I am about pushing my body and mind to the limits. I am also interested in seizing opportunities, as life is short, so that is why I do different things, like running in costumes, going after world records, entering races on trails, mountains, roads, etc. I enjoy exploring the world and meeting new people, so if I have the chance to compete in a different country or part of the USA and I can make it fit with work and family, then I try to say “yes.” One of my goals is to race in every country and also do a marathon in each U.S. state under three hours, meeting as many people as possible that share our passion.”

Known for his single-minded focus on Western States 100, Andy Jones-Wilkins has spent 10 years concentrating on running from Squaw to Auburn: “Typically, around November every year I take stock of where I am fitness-wise and begin preparing for the upcoming season. I have a major goal race set for late June so training begins in earnest in January. Since turning 40, I have mostly run tune up races in the late winter/spring as a way to gauge my fitness and attempt to simulate the goal race. For example, when prepping for WS I would seek races on similar terrain like Lake Sonoma or Bull Run Run. I find that I can only achieve peak fitness over six months and can only maintain it for about four weeks.”

Hundred-mile specialist Liza Howard writes: “I usually have one or two races that are really important to me, and they’re the focus of my season. Sometimes they’re races I love, like Leadville, or races I know I can run better, like Rocky Raccoon, or races I’ve heard wonderful things about and want to experience myself, like Comrades. I build the season around those races and then choose other races that will complement them and also fit in my family’s budget.”

Stephanie Howe, the 2014 Western States 100 champ, states: “Usually I plan about three/four big races, depending on distance, travel, etc. I need time to recover between each and there are certain times of year that work/don’t work for me to race. For example, an early spring 100 is not a good race for me to choose because getting myself that fit over a Bend [OR] winter is difficult. I love to travel and see new places, and running is a great opportunity for that. I may pick one or two that require a lot of travel or are based on location. The rest are mainly chosen off competition or prestige of the race.”

Finally, U.S. 100-mile record holder Zach Bitter: “I usually break the year into two or maybe three sections with each having an “A” race. If I’m training for a f lat road or track race, sometimes I’ll throw a trail race in just to benefit from the mental boost you get from a changing environment or simply the atmosphere at the event. However, I try to make my focus races ones that match my training environment as I am a big believer in race course specificity in training.”

These top level runners rarely need to worry about lotteries, but this is an extra random factor that needs to be allowed for when planning the next season. However, it’s worth considering the motivations of these runners when planning a season plus what available terrain you have locally for your training. Note that a common theme is focusing on three to four races that work as a cohesive whole for the year, but it’s not the only or correct method. Just ask Mike Wardian.


About Author

Ian Sharman is an ultrarunning coach with USATF and NASM certification. He is on the Altra Running Team and has represented England for ultrarunning. He only started running in 2005 but quickly got addicted to races and became a student of the sport, interested in all types of running terrain and style of event. In particular, Ian loves to explore the world through running and has raced in six continents with almost 200 marathon and ultra finishes. Some highlights include setting the record for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning in 2013, during which he won the Leadville Trail 100. He also set the fastest North American 100-mile trail time at his Rocky Raccoon 100 course record of 12:44.

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