By Adam St. Pierre, CTS Ultrarunning Coach
For many runners, November thru February is registration season. Many major races hold their lotteries and registration processes during this period, and athletes all over the world get busy planning their event calendars.
Once lotteries and Top Priority Races are decided you can go about filling in additional races/events. How many races should you do in a year? How long should they be? Do you need any “tune-up” races? The answer to these questions, like so many other training and racing questions, is “it depends…”
The Risks of Over-Racing
I think many ultra-runners race too much. Elite marathoners generally race no more than two major races per year. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but in general, to properly train, taper, race, and recover- there isn’t time for more than two top priority races in a year.
Ultras are raced at a lower relative intensity than marathons, but still induce significant stress on the body due to their length. I don’t generally recommend more than three 50+ mile events in a year. Can you do more races/events than this? Yes. But should you? That depends on your history and goals. Experienced runners, or runners just racing to complete events may be able to race more frequently, but you can only dig deep and push your limits a few times per year.
Over-racing in ultramarathons has serious consequences. Inadequate recovery between major physical stresses makes an athlete more vulnerable to injuries and illnesses. In many cases, athletes underestimate the recovery necessary after a 50- or 100-mile event, return to high-volume or high-intensity training too soon, race again too soon, and dig the hole even deeper. At the elite end of the sport, over-racing has led to several athletes underperforming or sitting out entire seasons. If you want to train and compete for a long time, it pays to be conservative with your event calendar.
Building Your Ultra Race Calendar
If your goals are to perform at your best in specific events, you need to make sure any other events support those goals without detracting from them. Here are some rules for building an Ultra Calendar:
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1-3 Major Events Per Year
Whether you define a major event as a race, fastest known time (FKT), only known time (OKT), or your own personal epic challenge, it is best to schedule only 1-3 of them per year.
12 Weeks Between Major Events
There’s no hard and fast rule for the optimal time between major events, but it’s safe to say stacking all three within a three-month period is unwise. Ideally, you want enough time between events to recover, return to training, and benefit from the bump in fitness your previous event should provide (events are training stresses, too!). For most average ultrarunners in 50- to 100-mile events, 12 weeks between major events is a good starting point to adjust from. Some may need a bit more or could race again a bit sooner.
Schedule Tune-Up Races
Two to four weeks prior to a main event, complete a shorter event in similar terrain as a tune up. If no organized event is available, plan your own! I like to race a 50km as my last long run 2-3 weeks prior to a goal 50+ miler. Less experienced runners may be better off with 3-4 weeks between their last long run (5+hours) and their goal race.
Make sure the demands of your “tune up races” align with your goal race. Racing a road marathon 2 weeks before a mountain 100-miler is probably not ideal, but a road marathon prior to a flat-n-fast 100 may be. The opposite is true too, a mountain 50k is not great prep for a flat-n-fast 100.
Using Training Races as Supported Long Runs
Lots of runners like to run 50km to 50mi races as “supported long runs.” This can be a valid strategy for some runners, provided you actually treat those events as long training runs instead of races. Races are the time to push yourself and put it all on the line. If you do that when the goal is a long training run, you’ll often do more harm than good. If you bonk hard and suffer through a training race, it can leave you depleted for future training and underprepared for your goal race.
Only 1 training race per month
Don’t do more than 1 “training race” per month. Even long training-run races take a toll on your body and require recovery. Make sure training races are followed by adequate recovery so you capitalize on the training stimulus from the effort.
Above all, the biggest takeaway is that ultrarunners need to respect the toll long runs and races take on your body. Plan your training and racing to avoid periods of excessive stress that can lead to injury, illness, and burnout. There will always be people who race more often and that’s fine, but for most athletes a more successful calendar consists of 1-3 major goal events per year, each preceded by a tune up event about a month out, and supported by training races up to once a month.