marathon training week 12

Can you ruin your running progress with too much racing? In a word, yes.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. With smart planning (yes, you need a plan!), you can add races to your schedule throughout the year that enhance your fitness and your ability to race well when it counts the most.

Now you might be wondering why I chose this topic, over-racing, right now just as some races are finally coming back after the pandemic.  But that’s EXACTLY why I think this is the perfect topic right now.  

Races are coming back and we runners are so thankful and excited to get back to the sport that it’s tempting to sign up for any and every race you can.  

I’m the last person that is going to tell you that you shouldn’t go race, be social, test your fitness, and hang out with your tribe of runners.  If it’s bringing you joy, it’s probably good for you. We all could use a big dose of joy right now. 

But if that’s how you spend every weekend and you are wondering why your race times haven’t improved in a while, or if they are getting worse, over-racing might have something to do with it.

Before I get into that, let’s talk first about the benefits of racing shorter distances in the build-up to a big goal race.

racing is awesome

Why Racing Is Awesome

Running hard is HARD and when you race, that hard effort can feel just a little bit easier.  

In fact, science has shown that running with others reduces your perception of effort, so you can run faster with others than you can alone.

This is especially true if you do a majority of your hard running by yourself.  It’s so much better to have competitors along with you to help nudge you to better performances and distract you from the daunting task of running hard for 5k.  If you typically have trouble pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone on your own, racing can be some helpful peer pressure.

claire bartholic chicago marathon

Racing Tests Your Fitness

Racing is also a great way to measure your progress and your fitness.  One of the hardest things mentally about long blocks of training without racing is that it’s often difficult to notice if you are improving or not.

I mean, how can you tell if your 10×800 meters this week is on par or better than with the 2 x 3 mile tempo run last week? 

But when you race the same distance over and over, you have a much clearer answer of where your fitness is each race.  And if those times keep getting faster, it’s a major confidence boost that you are doing something right.

Racing Makes You Better at Racing

Another great part about racing in the build up of training for a more important goal race is that you gain experience racing.  Racing is definitely a skill, so incorporating some tune-up races or dress rehearsal races is highly recommended at least once or twice before the real prize.  

If you are training for a long race like the marathon, scheduling a half marathon tune up race between 3 and 5 weeks ahead of your marathon is a great idea to make sure that your race plans for fueling and hydration are actually going to work the way you hope they do. 

racing is fun
Jus’ Running Maggots at the starting line to the French Broad River Half Marathon

Racing Is Fun

For many runners, the best part of racing is sharing the love of running with people that love running just as much. Your non-running friends and family just don’t get what’s so amazing about running and race events allow you to celebrate your full-on runner-geekiness!

These are your people!

It’s also a thrill to test your fitness with others and maybe get a medal or an age-group award. At bigger races, you might get to travel to different cities or countries, snag some cool race swag, and hang out with a frosty cold one at the finish line.

The social part of the race environment is a big motivating part of training for many runners. It’s what gets you out the door at 5am when you’d rather stay in bed.

But like most things super fun, racing has a price.

The Downsides of Racing Too Much

Races are harder than regular workouts. The adrenaline is pumping and the crowd pushing you to new limits. If you are trying your hardest (which most people are), you are pushing yourself up to and potentially crossing an exertion line that is not sustainable week in and week out.

Extra Recovery Time

Even if you say “I am just going to do this race as a tempo run,” hoe many times do you really stick to that plan?  If you have any competitive bones in your body, you’ll forget what you told yourself and run as hard as you can when the bib is on and the competition is there. 

So that means you’ll need extra time to recover from that extra effort.  The extra recovery time will mean that you can’t get back to the training that is specific to your main goal race as quickly, or not at all.

Not Specific to Your Goal

If your big goal is a fall marathon and you spend 3 out of 4 weekends over the summer racing other distances, you might get better at those distances, but it will put a major dent in your marathon training. That’s because you are sacrificing your marathon specific work because you are busy racing and recovering.

Are you willing to give up your long run so you can race a 5k? Or are you just going to race the 5k Saturday and plan to run your long run Sunday and hope for the best?

This becomes a slippery slope pretty quickly. If you don’t take the extra time to recover from the race, those marathon-specific workouts suffer because you are not ready to run them at your full rested potential. So not only are you not recovering well, you are not training well either.

Plateauing and the Mental Toll

If you race enough, pay attention to the faces around you. Often, you’ll see the same runners over and over again, lining up behind the same pace groups every weekend. They are chasing the same goal time week in and week out, and not improving.

Can you imagine what is going on inside of the heads of those runners?  What kind of toll would it take on your psyche to keep going after the same goal week after week or month after month and not achieving it?  

It’s just plain physics that you are not going to be able to improve your race times week after week, so how do you deal with the disappointment of the inevitable bad races over and over again?  Racing always involves some risk to the ego, so you better have an ego of Teflon if you love to race a lot.

claire bartholic racing

Race with a Plan

The key is to find a balance with fun racing, disciplined tune ups or dress rehearsals, and dedicating a solid chunk of time to build fitness without racing, without the constant pressure to test that fitness all the time.

You can’t build fitness if you are always testing it!

Most of us have been missing racing over the past year. As restrictions start to lift around the world, signing up for a race without too many expectations could be a great idea when you are ready.  Especially if you’re back after healing from an injury or if your fitness has relapsed a little with the lockdown.

Best of Both Worlds

Now if you are agreeing with everything that I’ve said here, but you still can’t bear to be away from the fun and social scene of the race environment, there is another way to get your fill of good running vibes without risking your long term running goals and that’s volunteering.

I’ve always had WAY more fun working a water station and cheering on runners than I ever did racing for myself.  If you love racing, why not try subbing one of those races in for a volunteer position?  I promise you will love it and it might just be a better thing for your training and your soul.

How about you?  Are you guilty of over-racing?  Or do you think you’ve got a good handle on it?

If you need a solid plan to get your running and racing on track, I can help. Schedule your free call to chat about how you can become a better runner today!

About Claire

Coach Claire has helped hundreds of runners chase their dreams and conquer big goals. Her coaching philosophy combines science-based training, plant-based nutrition, and mindset techniques to unlock every runner's true potential. She's an ASFA certified running coach, sports nutrition specialist, a 2:58 marathoner, mom, and borderline obsessive plant lover.

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