By John Fitzgerald
CTS Ultramarathon Coach
Data published by Ultrarunning Magazine indicates that between 2000 and 2016, the number of ultra-distance events grew exponentially and increased over 700%. Assuming the 1,473 races in 2016 fell on weekends, a person could have picked from 28 ultras on average any given weekend.
Ultrarunners can race year around now. With Golden Tickets, points, qualifiers, race-cations, FOMO, and YOLO, it is tempting. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should, or does it? If your goal is to perform at your highest potential at your focus event, then plan your racing wisely. If you love the vibe of the ultra-community and the adventure of traveling to races, then you may want to race more frequently. But, if you have a history of injuries or illnesses from high training workloads, racing less frequently might be a good idea. In either case, at least consider the following guidelines. Weigh the risks of injury, plateauing, or burning out against the rewards of adapting, peaking, and staying in the sport long term.
The Risk of Injury versus the Reward of Adaptation
If you find yourself frequently injured or unhappy with your race performances, you may be caught in a trap of over-racing and under-recovering. Millet et al. (2011) found that it can take up to two weeks for ultrarunners’ muscles to resume firing at baseline capacity after a mountainous 166 km race. This recovery period can vary depending on your fitness, experience racing, and demands of the event. Don’t assume the recovery period is less for distances shorter than 166 km. You can induce similar amounts of muscle trauma on shorter or flatter courses. Running faster or hiking less can put higher impact force on your legs.
Lower your chance of injury by prioritizing different times of the year to focus on weaknesses. Spend dark winter days in the gym strengthening your tendons and muscles for long descents and steep climbs. Compete in other low-impact activities, like mountain biking or Nordic skiing, to continue developing cardiovascular fitness with lower risk of injury from prolonged impact stress. Practicing other activities can be a mentally refreshing break from structured run training, too. Prior to three months out from your goal event, work on more generalized run training and more specific work targeting your weak links. In the last 2 months before your goal race, specify your training to mirror the demands of your event.
The Risk of a Plateau versus a Peak
With insufficient recovery you run a greater risk of plateuing. Your training (rest is part of training) post-race is just as important as the training leading into a race. Allow your body to fully recover physically and mentally. The trajectory of your training should have valleys (regeneration and recovery periods post-event) and peaks (maximized long runs, training races, tapering), with periods of rest throughout. Adapting to new stress requires time for your body to recover and rebuild. When racing too often you have less time to devote to consistent recovery and training. Choose your races wisely because your body can only reach peak fitness a few times per year, depending on your experience.
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If you are into racing frequently, I challenge you to sign up for a series of 5ks and 10ks. Shoot for a 10k personal record. The overall training stress of a 10k is not nearly as high as a 50k or 50 mile, therefore, you can race shorter distances more frequently. This should be a welcomed time to decrease training volume in exchange for an increase in intensity. This time you spend improving your running economy will set you up well to build into race-specific training.
The Risk of Burnout Versus Balance
Still overwhelmed by deciding which races to register for? Let the seasons be your guide. It is likely you perform best during certain times of the year. Maybe you prefer spring races that spare your stomach from the heat of summer, or late season races that help you avoid heat-inducing migraines. Your work may slow down certain times of the year, or your backyard trails may only thaw for a fraction of the season. Whether hunting, skiing, or spectating your kid’s soccer scrimmages take priority, use your other interests to help balance the risk of training burnout.
Be careful to tune out peer pressure or social media pressure when planning your races. Every athlete is unique, in that we each have our own motivations, responses to training, lifestyle priorities, etc. As coaches, many of the cases of burnout we see are rooted in an athlete’s preconceived notion of how much training and how many events they “should” be able to do. Those preconceived notions often come from the athlete’s they’ve seen, trained with, run against, or followed on social media.
Start with Why
Don’t let the post-race blues result in late night race registration decisions. Ask yourself, why this race? If the answer is to perform well, then take the time to train for it. If you truly love running, racing too frequently threatens your longevity. Being more selective about the races you compete in means you can thoroughly commit to the events that mean the most to you. A balanced race schedule will ensure you’re able to train for life.