Running and racing should be fun, but planning your races well will allow you to tackle that first marathon.
Most runners love the idea of taking part in large events for the social aspect of it, but if you plan your progress through the year properly you can take part in races and see a progressive improvement to your pace. If you’re aiming to do a marathon this year, be sure to start your preparations right now, and remember to factor in recovery times as they play as much of a part in building your performance as the actual training process.
Recover or perish
Ignore the rules of recovery at your own peril! Sure, you can double up on races set close together and you will survive, for a while at least. Over time, you will see your performance decline steadily or plateau. This where you need to resist the tyranny of the annual race calendar, along with the pressure from your club and running buddies!
The golden rule of recovery is a day for each kilometre raced. So a 10km race takes about 10 days to recover from before you can benefit from any further intense training inputs.
If you schedule too many races too close together, you don’t allow enough time do further effective training to bring yourself to a higher fitness level. Apart from some training effect from the race itself you are basically racing at the same level of fitness all season. This won’t lead to personal best performances.
Recovery from a marathon is in a class by itself. The recovery required after covering 42km may take much longer than 42 days. This is why we don’t normally recommend running more than one marathon a year unless you are a very experienced semi-professional runner with years of structured training behind you.
In our training schedules we usually factor in a recovery week every fourth week, where the overall mileage and intensity are greatly reduced. In planning your race year you will also need to take account of a ‘taper’ week before an important event and then the ‘day recovery for each kilometre raced’ rule.
To get the best results, a period of training and racing at the shorter distances will allow you to make faster improvement as with the shorter races you recover in less time and can get back to effective workouts sooner.
What if it doesn’t go according to plan?
Post-race, if things didn’t happen like you expected them to, don’t panic. Console yourself with the thought that you are in the good company of hundreds of great athletes whose experience of preparing for top competition didn’t go smoothly. Even if it means not showing up for a scheduled race because you feel that you're not ready, or, heaven forbid, injured! It is quite normal that race entry fees are sometimes forfeited because we listened to our instinct.
Once emotion is under control, get logical: review your training diary. This is why we keep one.
- How bad was it really? (30 seconds slower than your best 5km time is not significant)
- Did you have too many tough training sessions too close to the race?
- Is your general health ok?
- Have you been sleeping well in the past week?
- How is your stress levels at work and home?
- Was the course or weather condition particularly challenging? Remember that course measurements aren’t always reliable and a hundred extra metres will seriously skew the race time.
Resist the urge to immediately sign up for another race to redeem yourself. If you are really off form without an obvious explanation, you might want to get a health check, particularly Serum Ferritin (not just Hemoglobin).
A good strategy is to revise the training program and don’t race again until you have met some indicative training target workouts. This is where a good coach can often provide that helpful objective overview.
Remember that it is normal to have a series of ‘ordinary’ race results over a period of time and then get a ‘breakthrough’ race where everything comes together on a perfect day. Nobody should expect linear improvement and progress at each race event. Patience is an essential virtue for aspiring athletes.
How many marathons?
The marathon distance is in a class of its own and this is not well understood by less experienced athletes, who often regard it just a longer race. You may have achieved good race times at all intermediate distances and still find that you struggle with a marathon. The difference can be described like a transition from high jump to pole vault.
A qualitative leap, you might say.
We would recommend that unless you are close to being a full time professional athlete at National team level, with time to train twice a day, that you limit yourself to one marathon a year and follow that with a good long recovery period of between four to six weeks. This way, you will extend your athletic life and be able to make good progressive improvements.
A one to two minute improvement in race time for the marathon is not very significant unless you are running at world record pace! One or two minutes may easily be accounted for by course variations and weather conditions. Runners in the three to four hour category should look for a minimum of 10-minute improvement which indicates a real change in your performance level. Put your marathon at the end of a minimum six-month training period that will have included some shorter distance races which will have demonstrated your improving speed and pace.
Avoid these common mistakes
- Don’t let the annual race calendar dictate your race year.
- Don’t run too many races too close together & disregard proper pre-race tapering and post-race rest.
- Don’t get discouraged by one or two disappointing race results.
- Don’t pin too much ambition onto one race, especially early season races.
- Keep a training diary.
- Work on your shorter distance race times especially 5k.
- Build in a ‘short to long’ pattern to your race schedule.
- Be patient.
- Enjoy your training!