In his first Fast10 blog Alex Bampton talks about how he uses races within training blocks and a guide on how not to overcook it if you do too. 

It’s a well known fact that most athletes love to race often.

Whether you want to toe the line with your team-mates at the monthly xc league fixture, get in on the hype of running some of the country’s best-loved road race circuits or go for glory at a local fun run on home turf; we all love getting the kit on and giving it some welly before doing sod all for the remainder of the weekend. 

Everybody knows you can ‘over-race’. Although some (annoying) people can definitely seem to pull off consistently strong performances despite seemingly racing every other weekend, we know this is not the most optimal strategy for achieving peak performance.

It’s much better to target fewer races that are tactically scheduled so as to allow a good solid block of training to be banked beforehand. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use races for training. 

Not the same as ‘training through’

Note though, I am not focusing this article on ‘training through races’, to me this is a completely different idea. By ‘training through’, the majority of athletes and coaches mean racing at normal intensity but without any of the tapering; in effect substituting a race for a session.

There is no doubt that this can be a powerful training stimulus. You force your legs and lungs to hit race effort off the back of a big training week and if you make it through unscathed, then you’ll really reap the benefits when you do eventually reach a taper week. I have no doubt this works for many hardy athletes and I have attempted this many times with at least some success in the past.

However, at least for me, I find this a bit of a risky strategy just by virtue of it being a big stress to the body. Often (and especially after a tough XC fixture) I’d find my legs would fail to recover by the Tuesday / Wednesday session and I’d be down with a cold by the following weekend. 

Advantages to using races in training

I am talking about using races to run sub-maximally, i.e. as an opportunity to run at tempo / threshold pace. For Half-Full marathon training in particular, regularly scheduled ‘races’ can be an invaluable opportunity to hit those long tempo / threshold / marathon-pace efforts. A short, non-exhaustive list of some of the benefits of using races:

  1. It is FAR easier to hit target tempo / marathon pace in a race environment. The biggest contributing factor almost certainly being the company (especially if you’re used to training alone), but also the crowd-support and your own competitive instincts. 
  2. Opportunity to practice race day routine. This might sound like advice you’d only give to a newbie but for marathoners a dress rehearsal or two ahead of the big day is absolutely essential. Time to practice that dreaded early morning wakeup, what kit you’re going to wear and how you’re going to fuel. You don’t want to be at mile 16 with profusely bleeding nipples and with a dangerously turtle heading poo just because you forgot to Vaseline or trial-run your fuelling strategy – it happens.
  3. Safety. I think it’s fair to say that for most athletes, personal safety can take a bit of a backseat when all we are concentrating on is running fast whilst constantly looking down at the digits on our watches. With road closures and / or marshalling, you’re far less likely to have to slam your brakes on at cross-roads or jump into ditches at blind bends when cars come whizzing round. 
  4. Alternative routes. It’s good for the soul, unlike doing 13 concrete laps of some estate in North-West London…
  5. Prizes! If you pick the right races and are fast enough you might even pick up a bit of prize money for your efforts – but be careful about this one because!

As an example, I recently ran the St Albans Striders’ organised Fred Hughes 10 miler. A fantastically organised event also supporting the OLLIE foundation, a far easier way to run a 10 mile tempo, all on beautiful country roads and the bonus of some prize money – can’t go wrong!

Photo: @JHMSports (provided by athlete).

Top tips to get the most out of a training race

Three out of five of these are specifically aimed at addressing the number one pitfall for this type of session – actually racing it! It’s very easily done, but if the plan is tempo / marathon pace then you’ve got to have some discipline and that’s where these tips / rules can help.

  1. Have a strict tempo pace-range (~ 10 secs per mile) in mind. Pre-establish the absolute maximum pace you want to run at (for marathon training this would be the dream goal pace) and stick to it, right from the start. Say to yourself no matter who turns up, whatever the prize or how quick the start is this is my limit – you’ll thank yourself later.
  2. Allow for the terrain / elevation profile. Sometimes tempo/marathon effort is more relevant and important than tempo/marathon pace when there’s a ruddy great hill in the middle for example.
  3. PLAN. Plot out travel time and exactly when you need to get up / leave the house in the morning. One of my favourite sessions is 22-23 miles with miles 7-20 @ mp. This involves a 7 mile warm up so ideally I want to be able to drop off kit and finish the warm up at the start-line just before the gun goes so I’m still warm. It involves a bit of prep!
  4. Have a ~ 2 mile tune up to finish (optional). If I’m feeling good sometimes I try and drop below marathon pace in the last few miles of the tempo. On one hand it’s a great stimulus that attempts to emulate how it might feel on race day in the final stages when you’ve (hopefully) managed to hold target pace for that much longer. On the other it’s a compromise/reward to the whole ‘keep it disciplined’ thing. If you’ve kept to target pace and the next athlete is just up ahead – go get him. And definitely win the sprint finish – no-one’s THAT disciplined.

Of course all of the above can be applied to an xc league race too. It’s trickier but if you can be disciplined enough you can strike the right balance between doing your bit for the team and making it a hard training run rather than a flat out race effort. With xc most of the tips / rules above go out the window though – just start off steadier!

Happy FAST train-racing!

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