As you plan your competitive season, be certain to sprinkle in—particularly at the beginning of the year—a few races over tougher courses to improve your mettle. The flatter, faster courses ideal for targeting PRs (aka time trial courses) should be scheduled after a few of these tough course rust busters are out of the way.
Find Races Large and Small, Near and Far
Most runners stay regional when they race. Less than half of all American road racers ran a race outside their home state in 2012 and 2013. As a coach, I recommend that all runners leave their comfort zone and experience races outside their geographic region, size preference and competitive level.
Psychologically putting yourself in a unique outside-the-normal routine environment will give you the feeling that this effort is something "special," elevating your performance. Runners should use smaller, low-key races as fitness testers early on in the season, and larger, more competitive races as the season progresses. As your fitness and racing acumen improves, toss in some races with higher quality competition toward the end of your season peak.
How Many Races to Schedule?
I have coached athletes who come out of the gate ready to run personal bests in the first race of the year. These "no-rust-buster-needed" folks are rare; however, they tend to be the athletes who require less racing to be in top form.
More commonly, runners need 3 to 5 races to get into racing shape. For these athletes, I tend to schedule 7 to 8 races in a standard 18 to 20 week "season." For those runners who simply love racing—roughly 20 percent of ZAP Fitness' summer adult running camp clientele are folks who race three times a month—I try to schedule workouts within race efforts, such as fartlek work and progressive runs, within a race setting.
Switch Up Your Race Distances and Surfaces
Road runners by nature are often, paradoxically, less than athletic. While long-distance runners are gifted cardiovascularly, overall coordination, balance, explosiveness and power are not areas for which distance runners are best known. For the typical American road runner, including races on the track and even the trails will go a long way toward improving the balance and proprioception so many of us lack.
Purely from an enjoyment standpoint, trying different types of running races such as road relays, cross-country races and even shorter track races (available to the general public in most cities with all-comers meets) will spice up your year.
Be it the mile or the marathon, success requires forethought in the training, planning and execution of racing. Make 2014 the year you plan your competitions with the strategies discussed in mind, and you will almost certainly have an excellent season. Train and race aggressively and intelligently.
More: How to Train for a PRSign up for your next race.