Training Tips: Why You Should Run a Few Practice Races

by Karl Gruber

Every season, I write out both a full and half-marathon training program for the local running group that I coach. One of the key elements in my long distance training programs is to replace some of the longer weekend training runs with a race of similar distance. For example, as the weeks of training progress and my runners are scheduled to do a long run of six miles, I often suggest they run a local 10k race in place of this training distance. Similarly, if a 13-mile run is called for, I suggest finding a half-marathon to complete.

The whole point to doing a few races during your training period is to teach your body (and mind) how to handle and endure running longer distances for longer periods of time. 

While I don’t require these build-up races of my runners, I do suggest they do a time trial run on their own if they are not going to do a race in place of a long run. Time trials are a good idea because not everyone can find a local race to coincide with their scheduled run. This will have much of the same effect of teaching your body to progressively go longer and harder. 

Doing a few build-up races also gives you the experience of a race day atmosphere and the understanding of exactly what it feels to be racing side-by-side with other people. This will usually help to eliminate any surprises for your body on the day of your goal race since it will have already experienced racing.

I first got the idea to insert a few races in place of a longer training run from former U.S. Olympic Trials qualifier Benji Durden. Many years ago, Runners World published his 26-week long marathon training program – still one of the hardest training programs I have ever encountered, and one I highly recommend for experienced and advanced runners. Durden’s training schedule called for runners to replace longer training runs with a race of close to equivalent length. Click here to view his abbreviated 15-week training plan.

While there is much training jargon and abbreviating listings (i.e. “wup” = warm-up and “4 x 800” = 4 repetitions of 800 meters), you can see he has scheduled a race every third week. While this technique of running build-up races during your longer training period is hard, the merits and rewards your body will reap have no end, especially on the day of your goal race. 

The beauty of following this method is that it works well for both experienced and new runners. It doesn’t matter if you are racing at five minutes per mile or 13 minutes per mile, the progressive added stress of interspersed build-up races will give your body and mind a proper understanding of what it is like to be in a race, particularly races of longer distances. Come goal race day, you can actually say, “Been there. Done that!” 

The bonus is that when you finally do race 13.1 or 26.2 miles, it is not a surprise for your body. I have encountered many, many runners who never did a single race before they ran their first marathon, only to get to mile 24 and have their body say, “Wait a second! Where are we? We’ve never been here before!” They typically end up experiencing just what the term “bonking” or “hitting the wall” means.

The book Run Faster: From the 5k to the Marathon by Brad Hudson and Matt Fitzgerald aptly states, “In the sport of distance running, it is not speed that limits us, it’s endurance. When we think of endurance, we generally think of the capacity to cover vast distances and keep moving for long spans of time. But in fact, endurance is the ability to resist fatigue at any level of exercise intensity.” This is an excellent perspective on why running periodic build-up races prior to your goal race can be an excellent training tool – building your endurance, especially at race pace. 

If you are scheduled to race your very first ever full or half-marathon, it is absolutely alright to just run it to finish and have the experience of doing it. However, doing some build-up races beforehand will more than likely help you feel better and recover better after running 13.1 or 26.2 miles.

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