Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Racing During A Training Cycle

After my race report from the Urban Wildland Half-Marathon this past weekend, where I ran a personal best half-marathon in the midst of my full marathon training cycle, a reader, Bill, left the following comments that I felt were a great topic for a post ...

"You mentioned it's a recovery week but at the same time you were gunning for a Half PR, which can take weeks to fully recover from. Are we greedy as runners? I'm not trying to say you are, I'm just saying I've done this before and the thinking is a bit backwards; it's a week to run easy and recover and yet we have that mentality to go out and GET IT while our fitness is good. What's more important is your upcoming marathon and jeopardizing that at this point seems wrong. You agree?" 

Quite frankly, this is something I spend a great deal of time and energy thinking about and analyzing during almost every marathon training cycle ...

Do I race before the marathon .. or save it all for "the big day"?  If I race ... how hard do I go?  What distance is okay?  How far away from the marathon day should a race be?  And if you've read my blog for very long ... you know I usually mess the whole thing up.  I'm definitely guilty of racing a little too much, and burning up my best performances in training instead of on marathon day.  And I'm guessing I'm not alone.

For me, marathon training is a bit of a trap that I usually don't have enough will power to resist.  For starters, the bulk of the training is typically during the summer  months when I'm close to my physical peak compared to the rest of the year.  Plus, with all the miles, speed and tempo work, and strength training, I feel like I can run forever ... and usually at a fairly decent speed.  But that's precisely the point where my ego takes over.  For example, right now I'm undoubtedly in the best running shape of my life, and I've noticed my focus start to wain a little from the ultimate goal ...  my two Fall marathons ... to shorter races where I feel I can PR. Combined with the fact that I'm 45 years old and my window of opportunity is closing quickly, I've had my eye on more shorter distance "tune up races" than normal.  I think my body tricks me into grabbing all the PR's I can while they're ripe for the taking.

The problem is too many shorter races can really have an adverse cumulative effect on longer races.  And one of my favorite online coaches, Jeff Gaudette of Runners Connect, considers running too many "tune up races" one of top mistakes that runners make during their marathon training (here).  Gaudette explains that a half marathon can be fine, about 5-7 weeks out from your marathon, if you use it as a training tool or maybe just run at marathon pace.  Racing shorter races much more often than that, Jeff explains, can burn up your legs and take too long to recover to run at 100% on marathon day.

Jeff Galloway voiced similar concerns in an article (here) where he encouraged shorter "tune up races" before marathons, but warned that the inherent danger was injury.  Galloway explains that racing before a marathon, especially the half-marathon distance, is a great way for new marathoners to prep both  mentally, and logistically for the upcoming marathon.

While I agree with the premise of Bill's comments above, I've always viewed a half-marathon as basically an uptempo workout that I would be doing during training anyway.  For example, it wouldn't be uncommon to run a 13 mile Tempo Run, with 10 of the miles about 10-15 seconds below my projected marathon pace.  And isn't that basically what happens in a half-marathon?   However, while this appears to be logically sound in theory, I think there are some inherent pitfalls to be aware of.

First, for some reason the "intensity" of a race takes far more of a toll on my legs than a standard uptempo workout.  I've ran mid-week workouts very similar to the half-marathon race I just ran on Saturday, with very minimal soreness or adverse effect the next day.  But in all honesty, my legs were pretty beat up after this race ... however, I think the 6-1/2 hour car ride immediately afterwards played the big role in that too.  If we do decide to run a half-marathon as a "tune up race", it's probably wise to dial it down a little and not run the whole thing at maximum effort.  (And the first time I to have enough discipline to do that, I'll let you know, ha)

Secondly, I think the timing in our training cycle has to be right for a race.  We obviously don't want it butted up the weekend before the marathon.  And probably just as importantly, we don't to disrupt a long run or key workout.  Personally, I ran this half-marathon last weekend because it fell on a weekend when I was only going to be doing 16-18 miles for my long run, which I did in total at the half-marathon with warm up and cool down.  Bill's point about racing during a recovery is very good point, and something I really debated.  But personally I felt that if I recovered during every workout for the full week before, and then ran the race on Saturday, I would still reap most of the benefits of recovery.

For me, the main issue during marathon training  has never been "to race, or not to race", but how many miles and what kind of intensity to train with.  And to be honest, I've struck out a lot in both categories.  I've ran waaaaay too many miles during a training cycle, and I've also been guilty of working out a little too much at higher speeds (which I think I'm borderline doing right now).   Far too often I've stood at the starting line of a marathon without the bubbling excitement I should have felt.  Rather, I stood there in the chute feeling exhausted from weeks of training, with real doubts as to whether or not I could complete the task ahead of me.  And on many occasions I failed to make the finishing time I had trained all summer for.

I think I'm getting better in my approach to the whole marathon training process, simply from experience alone.  But frankly, so much of it seems to be individual and an inexact science.  I think if we race "smart" during a marathon training cycle, it's probably of some value.  But there seems to be a lot of risk, with not much reward.  I would love to hear everyone's opinions on the topic!  As always, it's okay to agree or disagree with me, I just love the discussion.  Hope your training's going well - have a great week!
... be great today! 


  1. In my opinion, tune-up races should sub for long runs rather than easy short distances on a cut-back week, and the cut-back week should follow the tune-up race.

    1. Yeah, I think that's the way you're actually supposed to do it Grace, but I was afraid I wouldn't get a PR if I didn't take a week to rest before the race - but I gotta tell ya, the Tempo Run on Tuesday was pretty tough, ha

  2. I agree with a lot of your assessments Jim. However, each one of us knows ourselves best. For some people, running a half marathon a few weeks out before a marathon works and fits nicely into our training, while others it would be extremely detrimental.

    I notice that you run your long slow distance runs a LOT faster than what is recommended. Many coaches would tell you to run them 90 to 120 seconds slower than planned marathon pace. Obviously your training pace has worked wonders for you and looking at your times over the years, you are still improving.

    What I found is that if I don't race often, I lose my racer's edge. I lose that ability to push hard when the going gets tough and I get used to just "jogging". Also racing can be rewarding and the icing on the cake if you will.

    I definitely think this is an individual choice and you know how long it takes to recover from a race. Your recovery will certainly be different than say Ryan Hall or a mid-of-the-back 40-something. You just have to budget your abilities in terms of being able to race, train hard and still put in those quality long runs that tend to sap your energy for the week and yet recover and not risk injury. It is certainly a fine line and most of the experts I think tend to be overly cautious.

    Good post and glad you gave this a lot of thought.

    1. I think that's a perfect explanation Eddie - it's just so individual to each runner and frankly, I'm still sorting through a lot of it myself. My wife and are I are a microcosm of your comments - she would race EVERY weekend if possible, but I prefer to save it for events that fit into my training, and where I'm confident I can produce a speedy result. Thanks for the response!

    2. Cool! Good luck in Pocatello BTW. If you are passing through SLC on your way back reach out to me. Would love to have lunch with you. I'll be out of town the tiime you are heading up, but on the way back, if you are passing though would like to meet you. Hopefully one day our paths will meet. Thanks for keeping up a great blog.

  3. I know I'm slow but I always used to run " fast for me" races as part of my training for longer races. My marathon and 20 miler PR's were both part of my training for a 100km circuit race. 3:49 and 2:45 respectively which was fast for me while in ultra training. I think shorter faster races are an importent part of training for longer runs.

    1. I agree Johann, if we incorporate them as part of the training plan, and not a substitute for training, they can be very effective

  4. Thanks for posting this. It turned out to be a FANTASTIC read. I love reading the different theories on it.

    I brought this up originally because I made some dumb mistakes last cycle. And I do my believe my approach was totally wrong. Leading up to my marathon I ran 4 races in a row (albeit small ones at times) but I did the following:

    Week 14: Tune up 5K (wanted to get a feeling for where I was before my employer's 5K in the coming weeks).
    Week 15: Half Marathon (and my last 20 miler, problem was I tried to PR this HALF by going at a far faster pace than my marathon pace. I SHOULD have just gone at marathon goal pace. I was completely shot at the end of this race. A bad sign)
    Week 16: My employer's 5K (I really wanted first employee through, a nice trophy was on the line. I got it! This meant a little too much to me. My focus should have been more on 26.2)
    Week 17: 5K (family thing, everyone was doing it so I felt like I had to. PR'd it, way too much effort once again.)
    Week 18: Marathon.

    I even moved long runs around to accommodate my silly goals. Come race day, I was poised to run a 3:30 and by the halfway point everything was on track but it all fell apart there. My legs didn't have it in them at all. My heart rate went way up (cardiac drift) and that's another thing; during my taper my heart race was inexplicably regressing. That's a sign that 1) my aerobic base was drifting. 2) my body was tiring and needed a break. Needless to say, the 2nd half of my marathon wasn't pleasant. But that's okay, I'm doing a Fall marathon (October 5th) and will not make the same mistakes.

    So like you said, it's a case-by-case thing. I think too much racing defeats the point of marathon training. We are training to peak for one race and everything before that race should have a role in that. On the other hand, some have made the point it's important to keep the racing juices fresh and I think there's some merit to that. Maybe the best compromise is striving for goal race pace and not asking too much of your legs.

    It's hard to argue with your recent results but it would be interesting to see how you would do going into these marathons with fresh legs. You might surprise yourself with the number you could put up.

    1. I think you hit on it Bill, it's just so specific to each runner - there are of course some general principles we should follow, but each of us knows our body and need to adapt training accordingly

  5. That's such a tricky one. It's all very well to say you're going to use the event as a training run but sometimes (most times) something takes over and the good intentions go out the window. I ran my best half marathon last year in the middle of marathon training and it really did take quite a bit out of me and I ended up sacrificing quality training for the next couple of weeks.

    1. I agree Char, the danger for me is burning up my legs in races, I think I'm okay this go-around, but it's something I have to constantly be aware of


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