It seems like a simple question: How often should you race? Weekly? Monthly? Twice a year?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to running and racing. For some, racing is a fun, low stress, social event or an opportunity to get a workout done with company. For others, racing requires long-term planning and laser-focused training.
It’s essential to consider your priorities and approach to racing when determining how often you should race. Equally important is the distance of your goal race, as well as your training history. Healthy runners with a long training history may be able to race more frequently, while new or injury-prone runners may want to target their races more strategically.
If your goal is to race well and enjoy the experience, you’ll need to consider three major factors to determine how often to race:
- Race distance
- Racing priorities
- Training history
Over time your goals and priorities may change, so take all aspects into account as you plan each year.
It’s far easier to race frequently and recover sufficiently if you are racing shorter distances such as 5Ks and 10Ks. Longer races, including half-marathons, full-marathons and ultras require more significant recovery time to avoid injury.
If your goal is a fast 5K and a personal best at the distance, you’ll likely benefit from racing more often to practice your pacing strategy. In races leading up to your goal race, you may want to practice strategies such as going out hard the first mile and closing fast for the final half-mile. A healthy runner could race a 5K as often as every other weekend leading into a goal race for 10–12 weeks, though this would probably not be sustainable long-term.
If your goal race is a marathon, you can use shorter tune-up races over the course of your training. A half-marathon 4–6 weeks out from your goal race is an ideal test of your fitness, while still giving you adequate recovery time. Racing 5Ks and 10Ks, though less specific to marathon training, can also be used as harder workouts throughout marathon training.
Racing well at any distance is a skill. Each opportunity to race helps you learn more about which physical and mental strategies work best for you at different distances. Longer races may help you nail down the specifics of fueling and pacing yourself, while shorter distances can teach you to handle the intensity of pushing yourself at faster speeds.
When weighing how often to race, consider both the mental and physical aspects to help you determine how often is too often. Look at your goal for each race to see if it’s a good fit. Do you want to run easy and have fun with friends? Or do you need to go out hard every time you race and stress about your results?
For simplicity, consider the two ends of the spectrum, even though many runners fall somewhere in the middle. This framework can help you determine if you should race more frequently or more sparingly.
CONSIDER YOUR TRAINING HISTORY
When planning your race schedule, take into account your “training age” as a runner. This is the cumulative time you have spent training for a specific sport. Has it been months or years? Have you been healthy or injury-prone? What distances have you raced in the past and what are you currently training for?
If you are a new runner who is just starting your racing career, err on the side of caution. Don’t hesitate to set a date for your goal race, but give yourself ample time to train appropriately. Once you have successfully tackled each of the distances you want to race, you’ll have a better handle on how your body responds to racing and how much recovery time you’ll require.
THE BOTTOM LINE
How often you race may not have a simple answer. Racing is fun for some, more stressful for others, and tends to be a place where you push yourself harder than you typically would in workouts. But once you consider your goals, priorities and training history, you should be able to determine a strategy that works best for your needs.