January is the time of year when lots of runners are turning their attention to the next 12 months, and planning their race calendar for 2024 and into 2025. I’ve certainly been having lots of conversations with my athletes about how many races to enter, 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, for recovery, and for training gains in between each race.
Some of us aren’t so bothered about races – I fall into this category myself. I do enjoy racing, but I don’t want to do it often. I love the process of training for its own sake, and I tend not to need race goals to motivate myself. This means that it’s normally my own 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 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 if you want to really push yourself at each event. This allows time to taper for each race (two to three weeks), recover from each race (three to four weeks, or more for a multi-day event) and also have a meaningful block of training between them. Most coaches 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 of running under your belt and know that you’re physically robust and not injury prone. Even so, running multiple big races close together is often more about the race experience than the time (which is of course a legitimate reason in itself to race). If you’re more interested in racing hard and improving your performance, stick to a few key events a 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 quicker than a full recovery from a marathon or ultra. 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. A common question is ‘How do I know my training is working? There is loads of easy 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 progressing! 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 hard run, ‘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. Better 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 system comes in. Categorising and prioritising your races means you can include lots of events in your diary, but without compromising on the quality of training. Each race gets classed 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 half marathon during your ultra training plan, and you may well even PB at the half. However, you wouldn’t designate both as ‘A’ races because the training structure for the two events would be different.
B races: these races are of middling importance. The situation described above is a good example – you might choose to put several races of different lengths into your training plan, as a way of getting used to race day 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 be happy to run these races at an easy effort as training runs. Or, if you’re going to run at a hard effort, this race might form your tempo or threshold effort 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. Working with a coach (or an objective friend or training partner) 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.
Article written by Jenny Bushell, coaching and guiding runs and walks