How much should I race?

Racing season is so exciting. I know, you can race year-round but depending on where you live, there is that core race season when there seems to be multiple races every weekend and some even in the evenings during the week. Down here in the sunny southwest deserts that runs from September through May – similar to the school year – avoiding summer. In the cooler climes it’s April through October – avoiding winter.

Let me give you my definition of racing for the purposes of this article: Racing is the 100% effort to produce an optimal time given the race conditions, race course and athlete’s condition. Given those conditions, no better time could have been achieved.

The season hits us and we can’t wait to race without the adverse weather affecting our performances. The questions are how often, how many and how long should you be racing during this time. But, before I answer that…

[Ever notice how often I ask questions to answer questions? I do. This topic is no different. Every coach should. There is no simple answer to almost anything. It is always dependent on the individual. So, unless we know more details the answer will be more like the fluff they publish in Runner’s World. Helpful and useless at the same time. So often a runner will say something like “I have a quick question for you”. The question may be quick, the answer most often isn’t!]

Answer some questions:
How much weekly mileage?
How frequently do you run?
What percentage of your running is quality running?
Do you intend running the race for a personal record (PR) (or personal best (PB) if you prefer)?
Do you intend “training through” the race or tapering for it?
Is the race a stepping stone to another race?
What distance is the race?
Have you raced the distance before?
What is your primary distance/race you are training for?

Here are guidelines on tapering time (i.e. back off on training to be fully rested for the race):

(Here are some articles on tapering, rest and recovery.)
Tapering Table

As you can see from the table, tapering time is dependent on how established you are as a runner. Novice runners running low mileage in training (especially the ones doing the 12 and 16 week miracle marathon programs such as from Runner’s World) will require extended recoveries. That is not to say that more is better so go tag on more miles. However, longer term consistency is important. And just adding garbage miles won’t make the difference you need. This taper time has to be factored into the question of how often you can race.

Recovery time from a race is dependent on your weekly mileage, race distance as well as race effort. It takes a minimum of four weeks to recover from a marathon – sometimes much longer. In a race that was exceptionally hot, you depleted yourself excessively (the old Death March race) or you weren’t prepared for it in the first place, it can require extended recovery periods. If you hurry back too soon, it could take months to fully recover from a marathon!

Key Point: Taper and recovery periods will affect how often you should race in a year.

If you enter races for fun then the entire question is moot. Enter away! Use them as a training run with 10,000 of your closest friends. If you enter them and do not taper for them but run them “tired”, treat the race like you would for any quality workout. You will need some easy days bracketing this effort.

At the risk of oversimplifying the complex question – how much to race – I’ll offer some guidelines for the peak racing season. Remember, since racing impacts your training time through tapered easy days and recovery days; you should target your true “races”.

You can race the mile or 3000 weekly for 6-10 weeks.
You could run 3-4 5k races per month… for 2-3 months.
You could run a couple 10k races per month… but not year round.
You can build to 2 marathons per year with some shorter races strategically placed.
You can run 3-4 half-marathons per year with some shorter races strategically placed.

Now, before I get a bunch of emails and comments about these people who run a marathon a week or some such thing; these people are not racing. As far as I see it, they are merely going for a long run each weekend with 10,000 of their closest friends.

Can you race more frequently than these guidelines? Yes. And often we do. Individual differences are gaping. But it is rare that you will find someone “racing” so often year-round at any distance and successfully improving.

You will be more likely to set your personal bests if you are racing somewhat consistently. There is a difference between training hard and racing. So, plan on several races in your target distance to iron out pacing and tactics. Then pick a race that will optimize your opportunities for success.

As a final note, if your training is well planned, you should be able to get progressively faster with your personal bests at the end of your race season. It is unreasonable to think that in every race however that you will set a personal best.

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About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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