We all know runners who feel incomplete unless they have a race scheduled every weekend. Meanwhile there are others among us who simply enjoy the daily grind of training, preferring to aim for one or two goal races a year.
With such a broad spectrum, it’s natural to wonder whether there’s an optimal racing frequency for runners looking to see improvement and more personal bests. But it turns out that both may be just fine, depending upon the runner, which falls into two extreme categories: the weekend racing warriors and the infrequent racers.
Here are some guidelines to help you determine how often you should enter a race.
WEEKEND RACING WARRIORS
There are some runners who can’t stay away from the starting line — and for good reason. Jumping into races every weekend can be fun, from both a fitness and social standpoint. Many runners believe in “racing themselves into shape” when they don’t have time for workouts during the week.
“I often point out to my athletes that races present an opportunity to learn, not just because they’re “data points” that tell us something about their fitness, relative strengths and weaknesses, etc., but because they let the runner find out what’s possible and what isn’t,” says Jonathan Cane, co-founder and head coach at City Coach. “Perhaps set an aggressive pace that you wouldn’t be bold enough to try if it were an A-race.”
Frequent racing isn’t risk-free, though. If you’re already following an aggressive training schedule, entering a 5K every weekend could lead to burn out — both physically and mentally.
This training tactic also isn’t recommended for long races, so keep the distance under a 10K. Most runners don’t have the ability to properly recover when they enter longer races too frequently. So even marathon maniacs should cut back if they want to focus on running a faster time.
“I know very few marathoners who can race well if they race more than twice a year. I realize that’s a bit of a cliche, but I think there’s a reason so many coaches advocate that,” suggests Cane.
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On the opposite end of the spectrum are runners who shy away from the starting line. Many choose to put their energy into training for one goal race. However if you are looking to get faster or gain insight into your fitness, it’s a good idea to add a few more races into your schedule.
Marathoners and half-marathoners can benefit from adding 2–3 shorter races into their training schedule. These tune-up races give runners an indication of their current fitness and allow them to practice running at race pace. Use race morning to practice other aspects of your routine, such as fueling, warm ups and pacing.
“I might have a marathoner race a half as a gauge of their fitness and to help us refine their goal race pace,” says Cane. “In other cases, I might have the runner race a half at projected marathon pace in order to have something of a dress rehearsal and really train their body and brain to lock into that pace.”
Marathoners shouldn’t just stick to racing distances above 13.1 miles. Jumping into a shorter event can serve as a great speedy workout or allow runners to become more comfortable approaching a starting line.
“It’s important to get a couple of “rust busters” in to calm an athlete’s nerves,” says Cane.
So while racing once a week may not always be ideal, neither is only making it to a starting line once per year. Your racing frequency should depend upon your goals (and your budget, of course). Short-distance runners can definitely get away with racing more often than their longer distance counterparts. On the flipside, long-distance runners could benefit by doing shorter tuneup runs.
When it comes to racing, doing what makes you happy and healthy is usually the best plan.