The ABCs of Prioritizing Races

It’s Thursday before a 50-mile race. Instead of the coiled eagerness that comes on during the downshift of a typical taper, I feel heavy. In fact, I’m ready for bed before 5 p.m. It’s my first time training through a race in my career, so tapering didn’t happen. Instead of winding down training in the days before toeing the line, I continued my high volume training until I hit the start line.

Saturday’s 50 mile outing isn’t a goal in itself. It’s a training tool.

If done correctly, races can be very useful training alternatives to long solo runs. But while it’s a competitive race, I don’t have to put in maximum effort and drain every last drop of energy from my body and mind. In fact, it would be nearly impossible to do so amid a training block for another race.

Here’s how to use races as training runs and when to run them.

“C” races: A Fun Run

“C” races are the lowest on the race priority totem pole. They’re usually inexpensive, local events and can be used to fine-tune specific racing skills. You aren’t necessarily going to run slowly but you’re using them to build toward a higher priority race. They’re like low pressure that can make pre-race nerves more manageable during the races you really care about.

When training for ultras, it’s still important to have regular speed work. Competition helps drive you on to run faster. A local 5k or half-marathon is the perfect opportunity to put on the hurt without going to the well of your abilities. These low-key races increase your running efficiency and speed and give an excellent benchmark of fitness.

When you’re building towards a longer ultra, you could consider longer distance “C” races like marathons and 50ks. The structure of a race forces runners to be more disciplined than they’d be in solo efforts since you have to turn up at the start time, can’t procrastinate and usually need to maintain a faster pace than you would on a noncompetitive group run. Be careful not to treat these as full-on races, however. Before the race, set targets other than running as fast as you can. While it’s tempting to be caught in the momentum of a race, you need to be disciplined and remember that racing too hard can impair training to come.

“B” races: The Tune-Up

Tune-up races are best run 4-12 weeks before your A race. When focusing on ultras, these can be anywhere from a marathon to 100k, depending on the length of your goal race. Unlike a “C” race, which might be a nearby 5k you’re running out of convenience, you might travel to run a course similar to your goal race. Treat these races as dress rehearsals. The aim is to push hard and test your limits but to use the race as a learning experience and a testbed for tactics for your “A” race. Try out your planned nutrition strategy, hydration, clothing, shoes and so forth as if you were running the goal race itself.

The closer to the goal race, the shorter the distance should be for a “B” race. Factor in your ability to recover.

”A” Races: The Goal Race

Your training is geared toward “A” races. They’re the ultimate goal of the training races above. Depending on your fitness, health and commitment level, as well as the distance of the races, you could have between two and four “A” races in a given year.

Each of these types of events should have a purpose other than getting to the finish line as fast as possible. “C” races or, as I like to call them, fun runs, can be used for shorter tempo efforts or as general long runs that have logistics taken care of. You test your plans for the goal race tune-up races. Plus, you get a hard push providing physical and mental benefits in advance of your goal “A” race.

Unlike your “A” race, the training races should be more flexible and entail fewer risks. There’s less on the line, so avoid running when you feel overly tired or suspect you’re injured Don’t ruin your chances at your target race because you don’t want to miss a less important one.