Should You Race During Ultra Marathon Training?

Written By Sam Heward

Sam is one of the Ultra X Co-Founders. If he's not actually out running, chances are he's busy writing about it (or plotting Ultra X strategy!)

11 February 2019

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

You have lined up your big event, and now you are focused on peaking for it. This might be six months away, four months down the line or it could even be something in the 2020 race calendar.

A question which is often asked is whether you should race in the build-up to an ultramarathon event.

This is a controversial topic among the coaching community.

On one hand, getting a few races in before your big event can help practice your race day routine, nutrition, kit, acclimatize you to running in a competitive environment and help practice pacing.

On the other hand, racing can take it out of the body and impact the consistency of your training.

The key point is making sure that the race fits with your training plan, and revolves around the way that “race” is defined. A “race” in a specific build up should be seen as an event with which to prepare for the main event, rather than something to be at absolute peak performance for.

Ultimately we should ask:

  • What are we doing and why?
  • What are the objectives we are trying to achieve?
Ultra Runners Twice The Health

Without understanding your objectives, you will never be able to understand how to structure your training and, perhaps more importantly, you won’t know when you have achieved your goal. This is key so that you know when to move to the next phase. For more on this. check out our setting goals for a multi-day race article.

Some Ultra X competitors may be wanting to reach new levels of fitness for the event. They may even want to hit a PB in the process and as such schedule a couple of races in the calendar. Getting milestone races can be hugely beneficial both physically and mentally in preparation for your main event, and scheduling races which fit with training blocks can be great targets to keep you motivated.

For others the event may be the longest they have ever run before and, in order to to gain a bit of confidence, they may book a race or two where they can cover some miles in a similar atmosphere with event support in place.

Racing is great providing it fits with your training plan. Getting a 50 miler ‘in’ 2 months before an Ultra X event might have good mental and physical benefits, but if a taper before and a recovery period after means that your key training block is jeopardized, it may not be worth it.

If you are going to race, it is recommended you use it as you would a scheduled training session, if it is a shorter race like a 10k, it can probably substitute as a weekly tempo run. If it is a longer event, you could use it to practice nutrition on the go. Ideally, you would not want to alter training to taper specifically for it.

Here’s an example. Say that you have a weekend with a planned 20 miler and a 10 miler back to back, but a local marathon pops up. What should you do?

When something like this occurs in your training schedule, many runners would deal with it by incorporating the marathon into the long run and adjusting their plan. That said, you should probably not be “racing” the local marathon. Instead, adapt so that you do your marathon at the target race pace (for a multi-day this is going to be at least 2 minutes a mile slower than usual marathon race pace) and you could then think about going for an easy 4 mile recovery run the day after. Essentially you will want to incorporate it so that on the Friday before you will not have changed your usual routine, and equally, you will not be feeling any different on the Monday after. Just keep your goals and intentions straight.

Remember that doing an Ultra X race is essentially a holiday, you want to be able to enjoy it as much as possible so it’s advisable to be in as good a shape as you can when approaching it. Being 20% undercooked will always beat 1% over, so unless that marathon PB one week before is really a matter of life and death, it’s probably best to avoid it.

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