Training vs. Racing: What Works?

Guest Blogger Chris Kovalchick

Last August, I was thick in the middle of training for my fall marathon when the opportunity came up to race a 5K. I only found out about the race 2 days before, and was considering the merits of getting some good speedwork in during a race setting, rather than heading to the track. I was hesitant to enter, for fear I would injure myself by going out too hard. I was concerned that this race would adversely affect my overall training, as I had not planned to fit a 5K race in on this specific day. I had just finished running the Hood to Coast relay ( the weekend prior, and was concerned my body was not recovered.

This predicament is another common challenge that runners face when putting together a marathon training cycle: training vs. racing. What amount of racing is ‘healthy’? How often should one race? How much racing is too much? What are the benefits of both training and racing? Fundamentally, training involves breaking your body down and building it back up again. This process makes your body stronger and faster, enabling you to throw down the hammer at a given point in time: a race. A crucial part of training is recovery, which allows your body the time to build itself back up after the hard work you put it through. Racing, on the other hand, is an execution of fitness. However, this execution of fitness does not have to be a single event or race. While your ultimate goal (your A-race) may be to drill The Biofreeze San Francisco Marathon in July, a few well-placed races as benchmarks will do wonders for reaching your A-race goal. It also allows you to get practice at all the extra details associated with a race: waking up, what to eat, how to handle pre-race jitters, how to pace yourself, and hydration/fueling, among others.

Suppose it’s the middle of winter (which it is), and you are fired up because you recently signed up for The SF Marathon (which you also did, or are going to when you are done reading this article). With about 6 full months until the race, you are working out your training plan and considering what lead-up races you might do in order to prepare yourself for the big day. How often you choose to race depends on various factors, but a good starting point is to choose 3-4 target races spaced several weeks apart in the 3-4 months prior to your goal marathon, such as half marathons and 5/10K’s. Go into these races with a plan, and measure your progress and fitness in each race. You can either run them hard or treat them as training runs, but remember – at the end of the day, you own your own workout. Keep the end goal (your A-race, the marathon) in mind at all times, but do not hold back. After all, what is the point of racing if you aren’t going to test yourself?

While racing is a helpful aspect of a training cycle, there is always the danger of racing too much. Don’t get me wrong – I acknowledge that some people just love running races all the time. Whether it’s for the swag, the social aspect, or the finisher medals, you will find people that race almost every other week! However, the gains from racing come from training – breaking your muscles down and building them up again. If you are racing all the time, when are you training? How will you see significant improvements in your race times? I know, I know – you are going to tell me how you raced 4 marathons in 8 weeks and PR’d in each one.  My response to that is imagine how much bigger that PR could have been had you focused on a single marathon instead.

The truth is that racing is a healthy part of training. It allows you to test yourself, and helps you learn to execute fitness and channel your energy and adrenaline at a given point in time. With that in mind, it is important to remember that the real results from racing come from training. A combination of both will help you reach new levels and PR’s in all distances, no matter what you’re A-race is. Regarding my 5K dilemma, I ended up deciding to run it – and came in 3rd overall. A much more satisfying result than if I had just ended up going to the track that day.

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