Racing is about setting and achieving goals. To be ready for an optimal performance in an important race, you must train hard. There is a difference, however, between being fit to run and being fit to race. Your training provides a variety of stimuli that lead to physiological adaptations, and gives you the confidence that comes with achieving challenging training goals. Training does not, however, completely prepare you to race. There is an additional component to racing well that can only be gained by, well, racing.
To prepare optimally for a goal race, you need to do several tune-up races. A tune-up race is simply a race of lesser importance that you use to help prepare for your goal race. Tune-up races serve three purposes, they: 1) make you experience the nervous preparation for racing which helps reduce your anxiety before your goal race; 2) toughen you mentally and physically by taking you to your limit; and 3) provide feedback on your current fitness level.
Pre-race anxiety is caused by uncertainty. Tune-up races reduce the uncertainty surrounding your readiness to race. By practicing the routines of race preparation and warming-up for tune-up races, you learn (or re-learn) subtle lessons. For example, what to eat the night before a race, when to start your warm-up, how many strideouts to do, etc.
Tune-up races also prepare you for the rigors of racing. Even the toughest workout is not as tough mentally as a race because there is less at stake. In a race, you are competing against other runners, and there is a fine margin between relative success and relative failure. Similarly, in a race you are committed to finish (or should be) whether you are having a good day or a lousy day. In a workout, however, if things are not going well you can always stop early with your pride relatively intact. The all-out aspect of racing provides a physical challenge and mental hardening that is necessary to run up to your potential. When you are at your limit in your goal race, wondering whether you can hang on, and there are still several miles to go, it helps to have been through a similar situation in tune-up races.
Tune-up races are also a great way to monitor your fitness. 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. You can approach a tune-up race in the following two ways: 1) train through the race and treat it as an all-out effort done while fatigued; or 2) do a mini-taper so you are reasonably well-rested for the tune-up race.
Training through a tune-up race provides an excellent training stimulus and provides the mental challenge necessary to prepare you for your goal race. Racing when tired, however, brings the danger of believing that your finishing time and place represents your current fitness level. If you typically race 10 km in 32 minutes, and run 33:40 in a tune-up race, you could interpret the result that you are not in shape and start to train harder or just become discouraged. It is important to step back and interpret your tune-up race results within the context of your overall training plan.
The other way to approach a tune-up race is to do a mini-taper. This is the appropriate approach if you are primarily using the race 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, and how often
Tune-up races should generally be shorter than your goal race. In preparing for a goal race at the shorter end of the road racing spectrum (5 km to 10 km), you may also want to include a tune-up race at the same distance as your goal race. The advantage of doing tune-up races over shorter distances than your goal race is that you should be able to handle goal race pace or slightly faster. This prepares you to maintain goal race pace for a prolonged period of time, which is very specific race preparation.
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 experience indicates it should be in the range of 3 to 5. If you toe the starting line too many times, there is a risk of becoming tired of racing before reaching your goal race. Racing every second week seems to be optimal for many runners. This gives you 8 good days of training (2 days recovery from previous race, 8 days training, 3 day taper, next race) to advance your fitness between races.
Tune-up races should be inserted into your schedule after a solid base building period. If you are devoting 16 weeks to preparing for a goal ½ marathon, for example, you might do an 8 week base training phase, and have your first tune-up race with 8 weeks to go. A good plan would be to race every second week until your goal race, which would give you four tune-up races as preparation for achieving your ½ marathon goal.
(This column originally appeared in Running Times Magazine.)