Races can be very useful training arenas as alternatives to solo long runs. There’s certainly a tendency for ultrarunners to race a lot more frequently than the traditional spring and fall marathon, so what’s the best way to incorporate races for training purposes?
One thing I’ve always personally enjoyed is the experience of a race, from the buzz of the runners to the communal “we’re all in this together” vibe throughout the day (and maybe the next day too). However, that doesn’t mean that every time I turn up at a start line I have to treat it as a max effort to drain every last drop of effort from my body and mind. That just wouldn’t be feasible with 15–30 marathons or ultras per year for the past nine years. So how are these races prioritized and what different purposes do they serve?
I find a useful way to think of it is as “C,” “B” and “A” efforts, with a purpose to each:
These are races that are convenient, usually inexpensively local and can be used to fine-tune certain racing skills. They aren’t necessarily run slowly and there can be multiple purposes to them, but always with the aim of building toward a higher priority race. This practice makes pre-race nerves more manageable for the races that really mean something to you.
The first example of this is a shorter road or trail race, say a 10k or half marathon, to work on speed. When training for ultras it’s still important to have regular speed work and nothing helps you run faster than having competition to drive you on. The beauty of this type of run is you can race all out because it isn’t too far. Not only does it help to increase your running efficiency and speed, but it also provides a great benchmark of fitness. Even if training for mountainous races, choosing flatter options for these speed workouts allows for higher turnover and more comparability for the finish times.
The second example is distances of around the marathon or 50k that take the place of the standard long run. Mimicking the terrain of your target race is helpful, but not always possible (imagine living in the center of a city but trying to simulate the Hardrock 100 course in a local race). I like to use these distances regularly when training for 50-mile or longer events because it can be easier to remain disciplined within a race environment compared to a solo effort. You are forced to turn up at the start time, you can’t procrastinate and you can usually maintain a faster pace than on a group run. Be careful not to treat these as full-on races and to set targets in advance other than running as fast as you can – be disciplined. Personally, I like to make them into games, like aiming for a negative split or really anything that takes your mind off pure competition (save that for the “A” race).
I think of these as tune-up races where you’re closer to a full effort for longer distances. When focusing on ultras, these can be anywhere from a marathon to 100k, depending on your goal race distance. They don’t need to be as convenient as “C” races and could involve travel so you can practice on a course more similar to your goal race. Treat these as test runs for your goal race. The aim is to push about as hard as you can, but to use the race as a learning experience and test bed for tactics for your “A” race. Try out your planned nutrition strategy, hydration, clothing, shoes, etc., as if you were running your goal race itself, so that as much as possible remains the same and becomes tried and tested.
For example, if you’re one of the lucky few to get into Western States 100 at the end of June, then races like Lake Sonoma 50-Mile (11 weeks prior to race day) or Quicksilver 50K (seven weeks prior to race day) can be effectively used this way. The terrain and difficulty of these practice races is similar to Western, plus there’s plenty of time to recover then get back to hard training before tapering for the goal race.
The closer to the goal race, the shorter the distance should be for a “B” race, and your own individual knowledge of your ability to recover should be factored in. The table below shows the time frame range for different “B” races within the buildup to your goal.
Time frame for “B” races in the buildup to your “A” race:
These are what your training is geared toward and are the ultimate goal or target of the training races above. Depending on one’s fitness, health and commitment level, plus the distances involved and how close one wants to perform at their maximum potential, it is possible to have between two and six “A” races in a given year.
The difference between what I advise above and merely racing a lot is that each race in the buildup to your target event should have a purpose to it, other than going as fast as you can. “C” races can be used for shorter tempo efforts or as general long runs under max effort that have logistics taken care of. “B” races are where you test your plans for the goal race as well as getting a hard effort in that provides physical and mental benefits far enough in advance of your goal “A” race.
Unlike your “A” race, the training races should be more flexible with less risks taken, such as not running when starting to feel overly tired nor at the first hint of an injury. Don’t ruin your chances at your target race because you don’t want to miss a less important race.