Don't Train Like You'd Like To Race

One of the most often-repeated and professed concepts of distance running goes something like this: “train like you’d want to race, race just like you trained”. While there are good reasons why that advice is often given (specially for beginners), in reality that mindset could hinder your progress and performance at best and at worst could cause burn-out or perhaps even injuries. Please note this blog post is not targeted at first- or second-time marathon runners, but definitely usable by people who self identify as “intermediate” runners (myself included) and more advanced folks.

Before we continue, I’d like to provide the following warning/disclaimer: I’m neither a physician nor a nutritionist. I’m not a professional athlete or trainer. Opinions and thoughts herein are based on personal observations, stuff I’ve read elsewhere in the Internet and anecdotal data. So take these thoughts with a gigantic rock-sized grain of salt.

Train How You’d Like to Race

The basic premise of this strategy is to get your body and mind prepared for 26.2 miles of punishment. The way training plans do that is through suggested workouts at or near your goal pace. Some even suggest running 2-3 “staging” 20-mile+ runs not only at race pace, but with the same nutrition and hydration you’ll be using during the race. At first glance, this has the benefits of making things more predictable, getting your mind and body toughened up as well as letting you know if you need to change your goal pace.

The issue with this strategy (again, specially if you have a few years’ worth of running under your belt), is that it will drain you, wear you out and yield marginal gains, at best. Running long distances at race pace, I argue, will hurt you more than it will help you.

Race Just Like You Trained

This is the other face of the same coin: basically the race should be just one more run. You’ve already “been there, done that”. You trained hard to race at X pace, you know you can (supposedly) and you stick to it.

Again, while at first glance this comes across as a sensible way to run your first couple of races, it takes control away from you, the runner. There are so many factors that can affect your performance: nutrition, weather, overnight sleep, GI issues, muscle tenderness, etc., that, in a way, it puts an undue burden on the runner. What if there’s favorable weather and you can run 10 sec/mi faster than you trained? How about you had a terrible night’s sleep before the race and are feeling fatigued before the race even starts? What do you do if for any number of reasons you can’t match the pace you trained for? It depends on the person, but many people would think all the training was for naught.

Don’t Train How You’d Like To Race

The concept is simple: train purposefully and efficiently.

  • Only do workouts that yield positive net benefits with minimal wear and tear
  • Frequently test your goal race pace with much shorter workouts and tune your training or goal pace to match your “reality”
  • Forget about “staging” 20-mile+ runs
  • Mix workout intensity, distance, routes and even your gear
  • Train often: weekly mileage is more important than single-run mileage
  • Long runs at a very slow and deliberate pace
  • Include sports like swimming and cycling in your training: these tend to help develop complementary muscles and better breathing patterns.

Don’t Race Just Like You Trained

It might seem like both a tongue-in-cheek poke and purposely contrary to established “standards”, but I argue that race time is “you time”. No one can move your legs for you, no one can endure GI issues for you, no one can run the race for you. So, why, then, should you yield control and cast yourself in a corner, so to speak? There really is no reason. If you have more than a handful of races under your belt, you know how fast you can go. You know the risks of giving in to adrenaline and endorphins. You know how to negotiate GI issues, adverse weather and whatnot.

So the missive would be “Race Wisely”. That is, run as fast as you know it’s safe. Forget the PR and enjoy the run if the weather is crappy, you’re having muscular issues, your GI isn’t cooperating, etc. If you can’t match your target pace, pay attention, take mental notes and incorporate changes in your training that might help you reach that goal. Regardless of outcome, you are in complete control, in the driver’s seat and will know better than whatever “wisdom” can be drawn from generic advice.