By Jason Koop,
“How many races should I do?” is one of the first questions ultramarathon runners ask when planning a new season. There are several considerations, including physiology, necessary recovery time between races, lifestyle stress, and financial and travel challenges. On top of that, there’s psychology: Why are you racing, why these particular events, and what would success look like for you? When athletes plan an event season, or even a multi-year progression of events, it’s better for the selected races to reflect your values rather than your physiology.
“Do I ‘need’ a race?” This question comes up because racing is sometimes viewed as necessary preparation for a goal event or as a benchmark in the training process. The phrasing has always puzzled me. No athlete ‘needs’ a race like we need food, water, shelter and safety. Rather, athletes can use races as tools for development, to work on nutrition plans, to be part of a community, or for other reasons. More importantly, ask yourself if you want to race, because many of the physical, emotional, and community benefits of running long distances can be obtained in or out of competition. If you love the process of ultramarathon training, events become milestones rather than destinations.
Do Ultrarunners Race Too Much?
Before going further, I should address the ever-debated question of: “Do ultrarunners over race?” Ultrarunners have compared their race calendars to their road running counterparts for years. Until recently, the comparisons were largely anecdotal conversations over a finish line beer. In 2019, however, Jens Anderson of RunRepeat conducted a novel experiment. Anderson took results from athletes ranging from 5k to ultramarathons and sought to determine what percentage of runners were racing multiple times per year. He found a trend that ultrarunners are more likely to race multiple times per year. Additionally, the difference in the percentage of ultramarathon runners who race multiple times per year compared to other road races has continue to widen since 2010 (see figure below). But does this mean that ultrarunners race too much? No, all it says is that more ultrarunners race multiple times per year than their road running counterparts.
Racing should reflect your values, not your physiology
Although the graph above may settle some bar bets between road and ultra runners, the question still remains, “Do ultrarunners race too much?” Certainly, ultrarunning takes a great physical toll on the body, and any individual race can be extremely taxing, depending on the conditions and an athlete’s decisions. Also, it’s easy to assume that ultrarunning events create a greater need for recovery than their road running analogs. So, if you follow the rudimentary math, you may conclude that:
Ultrarunning is harder on the body than shorter distance + Ultrarunners race at a greater frequency than their road running counterparts = Ultrarunners MUST be over racing!
But what does the science say?
A 2021 meta-analysis published in Frontiers in Physiology, concluded that biomarkers of oxidative stress were affected more by the training status of runners than to distance. In other words, better trained athletes showed less markers of oxidative stress compared to lesser trained athletes, independent of distance. While oxidative stress in not the end-all-be all of stress stemming from an ultra, it doesn’t take much poking around to back up this research finding with real life experience. You go into a race well trained; you recover faster. If you go into a race undertrained, then be prepared for a hard post-race week of hobbling around and walking down stairs backwards.
So, now you have physical permission to race frequently, right? Maybe. Maybe not. Racing is not just a physical outlet. Instead, what racing represents to you should be rooted in your personal values, not solely entrenched in some physiological calculation. So, as you navigate your future race calendar, think about why you want to race in the first place not what you get out of the process.
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Below, I summarized the racing values I regularly encounter with athletes I coach. You might relate to some, and not to others. There’s no right or wrong answer, so I encourage you to use these brushstrokes as a starting point for how you can orient your personal race calendar.
Racing as a Competitive Outlet
Many athletes are competitive by nature, whether you’re competing with yourself, your age group, or for overall victory. Athletes who are competitors enjoy seeing how their fitness and toughness stack up against other runners and their own previous performances from year to year. Incorporating more high-quality racing into your annual plan makes sense when your competitive drive is what you’re satisfying.
Racing to Be Part of a Community
It’s the same group of idiots at every race. Seriously, you know what I am talking about. It does not take a long time in this sport to realize that the community is small, tight knit and is willing to travel to obscure locations to run long distances. For many of us, racing involves the community I lovingly call ‘the same group of idiots’. In ultrarunning, we are lucky to have such a great community. They run, crew, volunteer and spectate from race to race and weekend to weekend. If it’s the community that draws you to races, acknowledge that! You don’t need permission to race to be a part of this outstanding community. But also recognize that racing might not always be the best thing for training. So, the next time you are considering doing a race simply to hang out with your merry band of idiots, take a step back and look at your training as a whole. Sometimes that race fits in perfectly and sometimes it doesn’t.
Racing as Part of the Training Process
Every Wednesday I host an ‘Ask Me Anything’ via Instagram. Undoubtedly, the most frequent question I get asked is: “How long should my longest long run be?” I have always viewed the frequency of this question as a lens into how ultrarunners prepare for races. Racing ultras involves a lot of unknowns. On the physical side, a race will often exceed your longest long run by 50-100%. Add the variables of managing aid stations, drop bags, foreign terrain, and event-day logistics and you have an environment that’s very unpredictable.
I think the ‘long run’ question speaks to athletes’ desire to tame the unknowns. Somehow, they believe a long run of x hours or miles will certify that they are ready for all the challenges of an upcoming race. It won’t. However, if you find yourself in this mindset, where you are constantly doubting how you will deal with uncertainty, tune up races can help to bridge the gap. For one thing, they give you an opportunity to run longer that you would on a day-to-day training run. Even better, you also experience some other race-day novelties, such as managing aid stations and your nutrition plan.
How to Find Your Racing Values
Racing can represent many things to you, and these values can change over time. As you consider events to put on your calendar, ask yourself:
- Do I race for the competition?
- Do I race to be part of the community?
- Do I want to use races to build part of a bridge to the unknown?
- What mix of all of the above do I value?
Like any value system, your racing values are for you to determine. The number of events you enter in a season or over the course of a few years, and the varying levels of priority you put on individual races, will flow from the values you determine.
- Andersen, Jens Jakob. 2020. “The State of Running 2019.” Run Repeat: https://runrepeat.com/state-of-running.
- Thirupathi A, Pinho RA, Ugbolue UC, He Y, Meng Y, Gu Y. Effect of Running Exercise on Oxidative Stress Biomarkers: A Systematic Review. Front Physiol. 2021 Jan