The A, B & Cs of racing
Welcome to the blog, our newest coach, Mile 27’s Ben Duffus. Here Ben gives his thoughts on how he plans his minor and major races throughout the year to optimise his performances
One of the attractions of ultramarathon running is the opportunity to explore the limits of both our body and mind. But as the human body has a limited capacity to recover from being pushed we need to be careful with the frequency and depth to which we push ourselves. It is very rare to see an elite marathon runner attempt more than two to three marathon races in a year. In ultramarathons, if we want to push ourselves to our absolute limit, we should plan to be in peak form for no more than 4 “A races” in a year. The exact number of races a runner peak for depends on a variety of factors, such as the type of event, previous training/racing history, sleep patterns, nutrition and age. Already our sport is plagued with burnt out elites who have over raced; the likes of Western States winners Geoff Roes and Timothy Olson have been quite open regarding the toll over-racing has had on their health.
While there is nothing wrong with avoiding all but A races, shorter B and C races (which don’t involve maximal exertion) can help you to reach peak form. After all, nothing simulates a race better than a race! Of course, some runners are happy to regularly enter races to socialise and get in a long run. As long as they take it easy (i.e., the same sort of intensity as a solo long run), then there is nothing wrong with this.
So how do we go about choosing our A, B and C races?
What are the 1-4 events in a year that excite you the most? These will be your A races. Let’s assume that these races are between 50km and 100miles in length, which are ideally separated by 3-6 months. If two of these A races are within 3 months of each other, it may still be possible to be in top form for both. Ideally they would be held on similar terrain, the first of the two races would be under 100km and they would be no closer than 6 weeks apart.
Next let’s choose the B races. Just as training for an A race should be specific to the terrain you will be racing on, so too should your B races. This means looking for races held on a similar surface to the upcoming A race, with a similar amount of elevation change per kilometre. For 50km, 100km and 100mile A races, any B races should be no more than 35km, 60km and 80km respectively. Ideally all your B races should be separated by at least 3-6 weeks (and no closer to any A races than this).
Finally, we can fill in the calendar with C races. Again, these will ideally be held on similar terrain to our A race/s, but sometimes we can choose a C race that will help us work on our weaknesses. For example, if your upcoming A race has some hills in it (and hills are your weakness), then doing a C race on a course with more elevation change per kilometre than the upcoming A race may be helpful. C races should be even shorter than B races, being no more than 25km, regardless of the distance of the upcoming A race. How often you should run C races depends on the nature of the races you choose (e.g. you can recover faster from a 5km run than a half marathon).
How much taper do you need for each race?
For an A race, the aim is to be in top shape, so a full 2-3 week taper for the event is recommended and it may take several weeks to return to proper training after the race. On the other hand, B and C races are meant to be a part of preparing for the A races. A 3-4 day taper before a B race, followed by an easy recovery week should be all that is needed. C races are essentially a substitute for a hard training session and should only warrant dropping one speed session and long run for that week and be followed by an immediate return to normal training.
How to race at B and C races
Any race which leaves you shattered at the end, and sore for days afterwards was an A race (whether you planned it that way or not!). Remember that B and C races are meant to help prepare you for your upcoming A race, not leave you too tired to train for it. In longer B races, start out very conservatively in the first half of the race, with the plan to pick up the pace a little bit in the back end if you are feeling good. Sometimes in shorter events it’s OK to go a bit harder, e.g., racing as hard as you can for 5km, isn’t going to leave you too sore to continuing training in the following days.
Pros and cons of B and C races
First let’s start with the positives. Races can be a great opportunity to catch up with fellow runners – and feeling like you are part of a community is one of the great things about ultra running. There’s also no better opportunity to practice nutrition, hydration, check points, etc, than at a race. The atmosphere of a race, or the sense of urgency knowing a B/C race is coming up in a few weeks, can boost motivation to train for the upcoming A race. It is also impossible to stay at maximum training volume all year round, and hence training blocks should to be broken up with easier and harder weeks. B/ C races can provide a natural way to do this.
The main risk with B/C races is running them too hard and burning out before the A race. Some very competitive runners will find it hard to hold back; as soon as the gun goes any thoughts of racing conservatively are out the window. If this is you then you would be better off racing sparingly, saving yourself for the ones that really matter (or sticking to C races that are less than 15km).
There is also the mental side of things to consider. Some athletes find regular races a comforting reminder of their current level of fitness, whereas others find this stressful. Particularly elite runners can feel a lot of pressure to always perform at their best in races and would be better off sticking to A races and maybe some short C races (if desired).
Putting it all together
As an example, my first 100km was the 2013 UTA (then TNF100) in mid-May, which had about 4400mD+. I started specific training for the event in late October and did several B/C trail races in the lead up. Firstly, in mid-January (18 weeks before UTA), I ran a 52km B race with 480mD+. At this early stage I was still perfecting my nutrition plan and purposely ran a flatter race, since my strengths lie in the hills. Four weeks later I was working speed on UTA-specific terrain and ran a 24km C race with 950m D+. Another 4 weeks later was my hardest B race of the build-up, a 50km with 1950m D+, to assess where my fitness was at and identify any weaknesses. Finally, 6 weeks before UTA I ran an 18km C race with 800m D+, which was essentially a hard training run during a heavy training block. This series of races had me feeling confident in my fitness, gear choices and nutrition plan for UTA, while still leaving me feeling fresh on race day.