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Building your race calendar: how many, how often, how hard?

It seems to be the time of year when lots of runners are turning their attention to the next 12 months, and planning their race calendar for 2023. I’ve certainly been having lots of conversations with my athletes about how many races to enter, how often they want to race, and which races are the priority.

Getting the racing calendar well-balanced can be tricky. Some of us simply love racing – the adrenaline, the atmosphere, the sense of achievement (and the medal!). In this case, the conversations are often around how to balance the desire to race with allowing adequate time for taper, if needed, for recovery, and for training gains in between each race.

Some of us aren’t so bothered about racing – I fall into this category myself. I don’t hate racing, but nor do I love it. I love the process of training for its own sake, and so I tend not to need race goals to motivate myself. This means that it’s normally my coach who is nudging me towards races to enter, and helping me to figure out which races might help me progress towards my big goals.

I thought I’d share some of my strategies for working out how to structure the race diary, and (especially if you like to race a lot) how to prioritise your race schedule to get the most out of it.

The first question is how often to race. This mainly depends on the race length you’re targeting, but also on the reasons for wanting to race. Most people find that for longer distances (marathon and upwards) two or three races per year is the limit. This allows time to taper for each race (2-3 weeks), recover from each race (3-4 weeks) and also have a meaningful block of training between them. Most coaches would agree that a 12 week training block is about the minimum length to be making progress between the two races – so by the time you’ve added in taper and recovery, you’re looking at around four months between races. Of course, many people (you’ll know lots!) do race more often than this – and this is fine if you’ve got a few years running under your belt and know that you’re physically robust and not injury-prone. Even so, running multiple marathons close together is often more about the race experience than the time (which is totally fine, as a goal in itself). If you’re really serious about improving your time, stick to one or two per year.

What about shorter distances? These are definitely easier to get plenty of in the diary, as the physical recovery time from even a half marathon race is much quicker than a full recovery from a marathon. That being the case, as long as you’re not stacking target races up every single weekend, you can race more often, if you choose. It may be worth considering why you want to race, as a means to decide how often. One of the most common questions I hear from runners is ‘How do I know the training is working? You’ve got loads of slow running in my plan, so how do I know I’m getting faster? Shouldn’t I do some races to check?’ Essentially, we all want the reassurance of knowing we’re making progress! Parkrun is particularly prone to this – as it’s there every single week, some runners find it tough to resist the lure of having a quick blast, ‘just to check’. If this is your rationale for wanting to race, I’d encourage you to hold off. Racing too much can unbalance the training diary – suddenly you’re doing far too much high intensity work, and this adds a lot of fatigue without necessarily giving you the benefit you’re looking for. Far better, in my view, to trust the process and allow the training to do its work. A good frequency to race parkrun is once per month – this allows enough training time in between to see progress. If you love parkrun, think about easy running on the other weeks – volunteer as a pacer or as tail walker if you struggle to rein yourself in. As the old farming saying goes, weighing a pig doesn’t make it fatter!

If your reasons for racing are more to do with the social benefits – enjoying the atmosphere and spending time with friends, there are ways to put these into the calendar without unbalancing your training. This is where the ABC code comes into its own. Using an ABC system of prioritising your races means you can include lots of racing in your diary, but without compromising on the quality of training. Each race gets categorised as an A race, B race or C race as follows:

A races: these are your ‘big’ goals. They are the most important races for the year, towards which all of your training is being directed, and everything is building towards this goal. There will only be a handful of these races each year. Trying to have A races too often inevitably means that there are too many different focus areas to your training, and this compromises any one goal. For example, it would be perfectly possible to race a 5k race during your marathon training plan, and you may well even PB at the 5k. However, you wouldn’t designate both as ‘A’ races because the training structure for a 5k race would be very different from that for a marathon.

B races: these races are of middling importance. The 5k described above is a good example – you might choose to put several races of different lengths into your marathon training plan, as a way of getting used to race morning preparations, and testing out your fitness. You might also choose to have a mini-taper and rest before these races – they’re important to you, and you’re hoping to PB, but you haven’t structured your whole training with this goal race in mind.

C races: these are races that you’re doing either for social or for training reasons. You might just be happy to run these races at an easy effort. If you’re going to run at a hard effort, you’ll do it as part of your training week (maybe your tempo or your threshold run for the week) but you won’t have a specific taper or rest period beforehand. You can have an almost unlimited number of C races in your diary – although if you intend to run them all hard, you should think about whether you’re happy not to have space for other kinds of speed sessions.

Ultimately, the balance of racing is a very personal one, depending on your own appetite for racing, and on exactly what you as an individual get out of a race day. Coaching can help you work through the process of prioritisation, and decide exactly when, why and how you want to race – and help you to get the mix of racing right to make progress towards your big goals.

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