The Art & Science of Race Selection

I spend a lot of my time while running thinking about racing. Even when I’m not training for a specific race, I’m thinking about racing. I think about the “perfect” race. I think about what it would take to win a race (in my age group). I think about races of different distances and set crazy stretch goals for them quickly followed by aggressive goals and truly realistic goals. When I went about thinking about my race plan for 2014 I realized there is probably an art and science to race selection.

Quantity vs Quality in a Race Schedule

qualityvsquantity11Being a competitive person it’s easy to get caught up in thinking about doing lots of races for the pure sake of racing. However, it’s pretty common knowledge (and I know from experience), that not every race can be your best race. Numerous races certainly help condition the mind and also help to iron out any kinks in the ideal race day plan. But to do numerous races in the hopes of getting a PR in all of them, when you’re not a professional athlete, is a misguided reason to race. There is a fine balance in the number of races on the schedule as well as the distance of those races and the races that should count as the ones for “quality.” For example, plenty of people run multiple marathons per year. Some coaches will say that 1-2 per year is a sweet spot, a spring and fall marathon. I tend to agree with this if you have the time and discipline to train for two marathons per year.

Plenty of runners might feel the same way about half marathons and target 1-2 per year. Running a quality half marathon also takes time and discipline for training so 1-2 per year is a perfectly reasonable goal. I am personally comfortable with closer to 4 half marathons per year but I would only consider one of them to be a target PR race. And then there are 10ks and 5ks. These distances are so fun and so popular that one could easily do a race a weekend in these distances. Which would be fine, again, if you don’t expect to PR in them. I like to use these as benchmark races prior to a longer distance run but I also like to have one or two shorter distances that I put in the quality bucket.

In my perfect world, an annual race calendar would include:

  • Spring and fall marathon
  • Winter (Jan-Feb), spring and fall half marathons
  • Spring and summer 10k
  • Spring, summer, fall 5k

Hmm, on second thought, my really perfect world calendar would also include a couple triathlons. Preferably a couple sprints in the spring and early summer and an Olympic by late summer or early fall.

Selecting a Race

Despite the title of this post I’m not sure there’s truly a “science” to race selection but I do think there is at least a bit of a formula and some sort of “art.” The formula might look something like (with some of my own options included):

runners_talking_together_33rsk0055rfI think part of the art is figuring out why you want to race in the first place. Is it for time? Is it to experience a new location? Is it because you’re going on vacation and want to run while traveling? Then there is the type of race: small field vs thousands of runners, crowd support vs remote course, formal organizers vs local runner’s club, certified course vs not?

The art also includes feedback from other runners. Some races I’ve done simply because someone else recommended it. Others that I’ve really wanted to do–the Broad Street 10-miler and Cherry Blossom Runs for example–I’ve been turned off from after I’ve heard other runners describe how incredibly congested they are the entire time. I might still want to do them but they wouldn’t fall into the quality race category.

And apparently I’m not the only one thinking about this topic. It’s January so like many other runners, I’m obsessing over this year’s race plan. There is an article in a recent RW issue on this exact topic (for the life of me I can’t find it or I’d link to it). As soon as I have my plan figured out, I’ll gladly share it.

How do you go about picking races?

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