by Fatima Ahmad
How often should I race?” That question has no stock answer, because a runner’s optimum racing schedule depends on so many different factors: race distance, fitness, experience, opportunities for racing, expectations from and obligations to a team, and personal preference. My husband races about 30 times a year on the roads, track and trails, while I average about one road race a month and almost completely avoid other venues. A high school or college runner may run three meets per week at mid-season, while a Kenyan marathoner, like Boston and NYC champion Joseph Chebet, might leave an isolated Rift Valley training camp to race only once in six months.
Determining an optimum racing schedule is crucial to maximizing your racing potential in both the short- and long-term. I’ve observed more runners overrace than underrace: The high school standout who runs every dual meet “for the team” and has nothing left at the state final, the novice road racer who becomes intoxicated by PRs and races every weekend (or more), the newly minted master looking for a quick financial gain. Overracing can sneak up on you: your performances suddenly dive, or you stand on the start line completely disinterested in the outcome. Unlike overtraining, which you can recognize and tend to in private, overracing can be a very public failing—and more often than not, it happens when results matter most.
The key to avoiding overracing, of course, is planning. There’s just no substitute for periodizing your schedule into phases of build-up, sharpening, peaking and rest/recovery, and plotting your race schedule (including the planned intensities of effort) accordingly. Choose your peak races first, then work backward—ideally at least three months. Determine your ability to “run through” races, treating them as workouts. (I can’t do this, which is why I race more sparingly than my husband.)
If you run for a team, your coach must help you avoid overracing. “If you’re racing three times a week for six weeks, that’s too much,” says Tom Fleming, coach of boys and girls running at Montclair Kimberley Academy in New Jersey and a former 2:11 marathoner. “It’s your coach’s job to adjust your schedule and hold firm, no matter how much you beg to run every meet. You need to save something for the big end-of-season meets.” Fleming doesn’t believe in running through races, at any level. “If you pin on a number, you’re racing,” he asserts.
Post-collegiate runners may make the mistake not only of racing too often, but also of overextending a racing season, what with the unstructured and ubiquitous road-race circuit. It comes back to periodization (a coach can help) and coming to terms with the constant lure of prize money, if that’s a factor for you. Jack Daniels reminds us to ask an all-important pre-race question: Why am I doing this race? What is it doing for me?
If you can’t adequately answer that question, what then? Team runners should talk with their coach, and plan time away from racing if possible—even a week can help. As an open runner, the solution that’s worked best for me is to pull the plug on racing until the fire in the belly returns. The nice thing is that it always does.