Want to Run a Better Race? Start Racing More

A runner hugs a family member after finishing a race

Most runners enjoy the training process just as much as the racing component of the sport. Using process-oriented goals is important for success and sustainability, and a healthy relationship with your training will directly influence your chances of a successful performance on race day. But setting the right goals is only one piece of a larger puzzle.

In order to race better, it helps to race more often, too.

During a season or training cycle, athletes can increase their chances of achieving their performance goals by selecting an “A” race as the main training focus while scheduling a “B” race and even a “C” race to help them more adequately prepare for their ultimate event. Adding several races to the calendar provides opportunities to fine tune fitness, dial in specific strategies and even practice the mental component of a distance event.

By racing more, athletes can employ many different techniques to maximize their season and turn in top performances at future races.

Gauge Fitness Levels

A runner kisses a medal after finishing a race

Runners following a structured training regimen will often find they take two steps forward, only to take a step back while they recover. This can lead to confusing indications of overall fitness levels.

You might feel like Superman on one run and then like a slug on the next. Strategically scheduling races into a progressive training cycle provides an athlete and a coach a true indication of the progress that is being made.

Andrew Wirfel, a competitive age-group runner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is coached by Craig Lutz, a former runner for NAZ Elite. “A piece was seeing if my legs were truly there,” Wirfel says of his second-place performance in a local 5K. “I am fit, my coach and I know that, and we needed to see what the expectations can be ahead of our (goal) race, so we can properly adjust as needed.”

Amanda Shannon-Verrengia, a Pittsburgh-based running coach, race director and founder of Run-Intended, agrees.

“Racing some shorter distances, like a half (marathon) before a full, would undoubtedly be beneficial to your fitness,” she tells Fleet Feet. “Showing up to a race and having that extra push to give an effort is beneficial physically and mentally.”

Use Races As Training Runs

Athletes and coaches can also use races as part of a training block that requires the runner to complete a race without a taper period as part of a larger training cycle. This strategy is often employed to simulate the late stages of a distance event, without having to run 20 miles to get there.

By scheduling a half-marathon at the end of a high-volume training week, you can mimic the physical and mental fatigue an athlete will be forced to cope with during the last 10K of a marathon.

“We coupled (my) race with a workout yesterday to help me see if we would be race ready,” Wirfel says.

A runner stops during a race to get water from a cooler on the course

Figure Out Pacing and Nutrition Strategies

“B” or “C” races don’t necessarily need to have a fitness component. It can be just as effective to use these races to experiment with pacing and nutrition strategies to avoid making a catastrophic mistake during your most important event.

By racing more often, runners have the ability to experiment with different pre-race foods, race fueling and even post-run recovery meals. This allows someone to dial in and develop a fool-proof plan for their “A” race.

An athlete planning on running negative splits during a full marathon, for example, could use a half-marathon as a long progression run and practice building speed throughout the race. Racing more often is also a good tool to get an athlete more comfortable with the nerves, energy and excitement at the starting line.

“I’m great at maintaining the prescribed heart rate during tempo runs, speed/track work and on my long slow days but have a very hard time on the longer training runs that require me to operate in that Zone 3/Zone 4 range,” says Rich Beaty, a competitive age-group runner and triathlete. “I’ve found that the best way for me to maintain that discipline is to plan those longer runs around an event, in particular, the half marathon.”

Course Preview Runs and Race Simulation

Depending on your location, runners may be able to select “B” or “C” races that run along part of their ultimate “A” race. Some places, like Presque Isle in Erie, Pennsylvania, offer a half-marathon on the same route as the full marathon, but they schedule the events months apart.

Shorter races, like a 5K or 10K, might even be designed around an especially difficult segment of the course. These races can be used for more intense training sessions on the specific segment of the route you might see yourself struggling to conquer on race day.

Even simply having the opportunity to wake up early and practice race-day logistics—breakfast, transportation, navigating gear check and start line corrals—can have a huge effect on your stress levels when it really counts.

“Asking yourself to show up, toe the line and see what you’ve got is a big lesson in putting in the work regardless of where your fitness is at,” says Shannon-Verrengia. “The more we show up to toe the line, the more comfortable we become with doing so. In that, the more likely it becomes that we will reach our potential during any given training cycle.”

Brain Training

Using “B” or “C” races to practice the feels of your goal race can help prepare you for the struggles of a distance event well in advance.

Visualization is a proven sports technique, and it often helps athletes actualize success. In an article in The Science of Running, author and coach Steve Magness deconstructs the mental model of fatigue.

“When we race, the pain we feel is an emotional response that is intended to keep us from venturing outside of the safe walls of homeostasis and causing harm to ourselves,” Magness writes. “Whether we speed up or slow down during a race is simply a decision.

“Based on our prior experiences, our expectations, the metabolic feedback that our brain is receiving, and a dash of motivation thrown in, our brain essentially tells us whether we should make the decision to slow down and give in to the fatigue or to try just a little harder to keep going.”

So these smaller training races leading test both your body and your mind to get you ready for your ultimate goal.

“The (training) race pushes me to get comfortable being uncomfortable knowing my ego is going to push me through to the end,” says Beaty. “I’m self-aware enough to know at this point that I’ll probably hold back or quit early without the race surroundings.”

By Timothy Lyman. Timothy is the director of training programs at Fleet Feet Pittsburgh and an ACE certified personal trainer. With over a decade of experience in the field, his education ranges from sports psychology to exercise physiology. He has coached runners at all levels on every surface at any distance, with an emphasis on economy, injury-prevention and functional fitness.

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