Rules for Racing your Best: Break the year into Quarters

Now that Spring is upon us, many are beginning to think about racing. In fact, some may have already run a few races. If you are looking to perform your best, there are a few things that I have learned over the years that have helped me and countless others peak when it matters most:

Break the year into quarters and focus on one race per quarter.

You might be asking why I am writing this now that we are a quarter of the way through the year. I am often contacted at this time of year from athletes wanting to train for and perform their best at races a few weeks from now.  These “goal” races are often accompanied by lists of races every weekend between now and race day.  Often, the athlete also wants to run personal bests at each race between now and then.  When I receive these inquiries my first question is, “When do you plan to train?” I follow up with, “Which of all of these races is most important to you?”  “Are you willing to not race as much so that you can better prepare for the goal race?”  If they say, “Yes,” I consider working with them.  If they say, “No,” I wish them well and know that they will likely get injured or disappointed that they aren’t ready when they want to reach their peak.

Don’t get me wrong.  There is nothing inherently wrong with racing. I love racing. I love the community.  I love the challenge. I love the opportunity to explore new places and meet new people.  I understand why people sign up for races week-after-week-after-week.  And to be honest, there is nothing wrong with this approach if that is your goal.  If you care less about performance than you do about the experience or the connection with others or the challenge of racing back-to-back races then you are fine running as many races as your heart desires. However, if you are looking to maximize your potential in the short and long terms, there should be some deliberate planning and preparation around race selection, training, and race execution.

General Annual Training & Racing Plan Broken up by Quarters

Start with the end in mind.

What is your goal race? What is the distance? What time would you like to run at the event? How much time is there between now and then to prepare?  How have you prepared yourself for the challenge up to this point?

The longer the race the more you need to prioritize the long run.

If you are training for a half marathon, marathon, or ultra you should plan to regularly run long (between 1.5 to 3 consecutive hours) every week or two.  If the weekends are your only times to do your long runs, limit racing to once per month and strive to have those races build toward your goal race.

Use shorter races as dress rehearsals for longer races.

For example, if you have a goal marathon three months away consider doing a 10K at the end of the first month, a half marathon at the end of the second month, and the marathon at the end of the third month.  The bulk of your training should be specific to the goal race, but be sure that at least some of your training is priming you for the upcoming shorter, faster races.  Get some of the pre-race jitters out of the way so that when you get to race day of your goal race you don’t feel quite as nervous.

Accept that you may not run lifetime bests every time you toe the line.

If your confidence and motivation are delicate and may get rocked by not beating or matching your lifetime best when you were training specifically for a particular race or distance, don’t race.  You can get the same training stimulus and fitness check by doing a tempo run or other predictor workout on your own.  However, if you can check your ego and expectations at the door and enjoy the opportunity of racing you might surprise yourself and realize you are fitter than you thought.

If you crave the community of races but the races don’t fit with your goal race, offer to volunteer.

Races would not happen without the help of countless volunteers.  Volunteering often helps the racer see the other side of racing and helps us appreciate all that goes into making our race experience what it is.  If you have the time and the desire to connect with others – even if the race distance or surface doesn’t fit in with your training for the goal race – you can still be a part of the event as a volunteer.  At many races, volunteers get the same or better swag items and sometimes you can even trade volunteer time for a race entry to another event with the same race organization.  Either way, volunteering is a great way to connect with fellow runners and feel good about the time you spend making the lives of others brighter.

If you are serious about performance, break the year in half with only two goal races.

While this may seem overly focused for some, it is how many of the best runners in the world do it.  Even when I coached high school athletes, I learned that if we wanted to be ready to peak at the end of cross country season in November and the end of track season in May that we couldn’t be racing all Summer and Winter.  My athletes and teams ran their best when they spent the Winter and Summer months building their bases for the Spring and Fall seasons and then raced sparingly throughout the season.  If they raced or trained too intensely in the off-seasons they usually peaked too soon or were burnt out by the end of the season when they needed to be the sharpest.  I have found the same to be true for me – especially as I get older and run longer.

Jacob Puzey winning the 2016 Canadian 50K Road Championships in Course Record time.

Last year, I had a list of races I had hoped to do, but given my family and work commitments I knew that it would only be reasonable for me to focus on two goal races: the Canadian Road 50K Championships at the end of May and the 50 Mile Treadmill World Record in December.

Jacob Puzey running a world record for 50 miles on the treadmill (4:57:45) at the Running Event in 2016. Photo from Competitor Magazine.

While I ran a few other races in preparation for each of these goal races, I made sure that the tune-up races that I did were just that – tune-ups toward the overall goal of running my best when it mattered most.  Turns out, the plan worked. Though my training leading up to each goal race didn’t go exactly as planned (it never does), I was rested and healthy when it was time to perform so all I had to do was run.

I am keenly aware of the power of FOMO (fear of missing out).  I am also keenly aware of how much it sucks to sit on the sidelines of the race I had hoped to race, but was unable to do so because I got a bit too greedy at less important races leading up to it.  Adherence to the aforementioned rules has helped me and countless others race our best when it matters most.  If you are interested in maximizing your potential the next time you run a goal race, I invite you to follow these rules and see what you are truly capable of doing.

Jacob Puzey is a national champion and world record holder who coaches runners from all over the world – of all ages and abilities from newbies to national champions – to reach their running potential on all surfaces and distances through www.peakrunperformance.com.