Spoiler alert: this is for runners with a marathon goal race.
So you’ve registered for a marathon or your reluctant lottery entry got you into the Berlin, Chicago or New York City Marathon? Good for you! Hopefully, you also have one or two shorter races lined up before you pack your bags. That’s right, we’re talking about tune-up races, people! The purpose, timing and even the distance of tune-up races can vary quite a bit depending on the distance of your goal race. In this case, we’re talking about those 42.2 kilometers of pure exhilaration we call the marathon.
Why should I race before my race?
One: It’s fun to know where you’re at. Typically you can figure this out with your coach from your workouts. But a race can be a great (and also fun) indicator, especially if you’re training for the marathon for the first time or you feel like your workouts are at a new level.
Two: It’s the perfect practice environment. It’s so valuable to simulate your marathon pace and you’ll get the chance to practice everything you’ll do race weekend. It’s like a dress rehearsal before the big show. You can wear what you’ll wear in Chicago, eat what you’ll eat in Berlin, fuel like you’ll fuel in Sacramento, and drink water like you’ll drink water in New York freakin’ City. Dialing in on what works and what doesn’t at a tune-up race is not only smart, it is essential.
Three: Nothing beats the thrill of racing. We often see athletes so focused on an uninterrupted block of training that they’ll go months without racing and forget what it’s like to race. Hello, logistics and porta-potties! This can create a big mental barrier for athletes come marathon morning. Simply going through the process of pinning on a race bib, getting to the start line, and running in the company of others can be valuable.
When should I race?
Couple things you’ll want to think about and talk through with your coach:
- How much time you’ll need to recover after the tune-up race?
- When will the marathon taper begin?
- How will the race impact your weekly training?
Runners often tackle a half marathon as a tune-up race before a marathon, and typically this is the race distance we will recommend for our athletes. Whether your goal is to run the half marathon all out or as a workout at marathon pace, this distance is most beneficial before your marathon. This will allow you to simulate your plan for the 24 to 48hrs prior to the marathon, with considerations around nutrition (carbo-loading and hydration), racing shoes, racing gear, on-course fuelling, and more.
Common running knowledge says that you shouldn’t race a half within four weeks of a goal marathon. In our experience, however, the best bet is actually five or six weeks out, to prevent any staleness through the final segment of training. But, roll with us here, we would argue that if you’re using a half marathon to practice marathon pace, it can be run within two weeks of a goal marathon. You’ll likely have already started a bit of a taper and 21.1km at your goal marathon race pace is a solid indicator that you’re on track. The danger here is that you will not be disciplined enough to stick to goal marathon pace and run too hard and then fail to recover for the marathon. For this reason, this tactic isn’t our first choice.
Yo, what about the 5k and 10k?
Talk to your coach. Often these races can replace a weekly workout! We’re 100% on board with shorter tune-up races to simulate a race environment, practice competing, and work on developing a positive mental mindset around race day.
What does my tune-up performance actually mean?
If you’re looking for an indicator of marathon specific fitness, it’s hard to find that perfect race or race distance that does the trick. If you’re in the thick of marathon specific training and knock out a personal best time in a half marathon tune-up that’s likely a good sign that you’re on the right track for marathon race day. The strength and endurance needed for both of these distances are similar. On the flip side, a half marathon is only half the distance of your goal race (that’s high math!). If you haven’t put in the specific training for the marathon, your half marathon tune-up race isn’t likely to indicate a whole lot.
Not all tune-up races will go well. Because sometimes they don’t. This does not mean that your marathon won’t go well. While in the midst of training for a marathon you may be more tired than after the marathon taper, so your legs just might not have that extra pep in their step that you were expecting even though your fitness is high.
Lastly, it’s all about the process when it comes to tune-up races. Make a point to connect with your coach on what makes sense to add or remove from your schedule so that you’re excited about the upcoming season of running. See you on race day!