Getting in Tune
by Pete Pfitzinger
To be ready for an optimal performance in an important race, you must train hard. Your training provides a variety of stimuli that improve your fitness, and gives you the confidence that comes with achieving challenging training goals. But you will find there is a big difference between being fit to run and fit to race. An additional component to racing well can only be gained by, well, racing.
To prepare optimally for a goal race, you need to do several tune-up races that is, races of lesser importance that you use to help prepare for your goal race. Tune-up races serve three purposes:
Allow you to go through race preparation. This experience, no matter how many times you have had it in the past, helps reduce your anxiety before your goal race. Pre-race anxiety is caused by uncertainty. By practicing the routines of race preparation, they become familiar and therefore less likely to provoke anxiety. You learn (or, in most case, relearn) subtle lessons, such as how to warm up properly, pre-race stretching, what to eat the night before and morning of a race, and when to report to the start.
Toughen you mentally and physically more than a workout can. Even the toughest interval session is not as tough, mentally or physically, as a race because there is less at stake. In a race,
competing against others, there is a narrower margin between success and failure. In addition, you are or should be committed to finishing, whether you are having a good day or a lousy day. In a workout, you can always stop early if you feel terrible or are performing poorly, with your pride relatively intact.
The all-out aspect of racing provides a physical challenge and mental hardening that you need to run to your potential. When you are at your limit in your goal race, wondering whether you can hang on (and you still have several miles to go), it helps to have been through similar situations in tune-up races.
Provide feedback on your current fitness level. Your results in tune-up races provide feedback on the effectiveness of your training program. The closer the distance of the tune-up race to your goal race, the better indication you will get of your fitness for your goal race.
Two approaches to tune-up races
You can either train through a tune-up race or do a mini-taper so you are reasonably well-rested for the effort. Training through pushing yourself to your limit when fatigued provides an excellent training stimulus and offers a significant mental challenge. Racing when tired, however, brings with it the danger of believing that your finishing time and place represent your current fitness level. If you typically race 10K in 35 minutes, and run 37 minutes in a tune-up race, you could assume that you are not in shape. You might then start to train harder, or just become discouraged and slack off both counterproductive approaches to your ultimate competitive goals. It is important to interpret your tune-up race results within the context of your overall training plan.
Doing a mini-taper is appropriate if you are using the race primarily to assess your fitness level or as a confidence booster leading up to your goal race. A three-day taper will improve your performance in the tune-up race without interfering substantially with your training.
How far, how many, how often
Generally, your tune-up races should be over shorter distances than your goal race. The advantage of this is that in these races, you should be able to handle goal race pace or slightly faster. This prepares you to maintain goal race pace for a prolonged period, which is relatively challenging and a very specific race preparation.
In preparing for a 5K to 10K goal race, you may also want to include a tune-up race at the same distance to allow you to “rehearse” the specific experience of racing that distance.
You should plan on a minimum of two tune-up races in preparation for a goal race. The maximum number of tune-up races depends on a variety of factors, but it should be in the range of three to five. If you toe the starting line too many times, there is a risk of becoming burned out on racing before reaching your goal competition; too few tune-up races, on the other hand, may not confer adequate race preparation.
Racing every other week seems to be optimal for many runners. This pattern gives you two days recovery from a race, eight good, solid days training and three days to taper before your next race. Many runners find that this pattern works well to advance their fitness between races without overtaxing them in terms of training and racing.
Tune-up races should be inserted into your schedule after a solid base-building period. For example, say you are devoting 16 weeks to preparing for a goal half marathon. Set up your program so that you do eight weeks of base training, then schedule tune-up races eight, six, four, and two weeks before your goal race. These four tune-ups would be an important component of your preparation for achieving your half marathon goal.