In the past several years, the number of road races from the 5K to the marathon has simply exploded. Every weekend, runners have an opportunity to conquer their first road race or notch a personal best pretty much anywhere in the civilized world.
Many races today bear only a passing resemblance to their ancestors from the 1970s during the first running boom. Races today include all kinds of amenities, expos, and parties that have turned many into weekend long running inspired festivals. In short, races are simply a blast.
Given how much fun these events are, and the near constant opportunity to run a personal best, it's understandable why people sign up for tons of road races every year. It's tough to resist the urge to toe the line every weekend.
But, if you're looking to run a personal best, racing every weekend isn't the recipe for success. The reality is that personal bests are often the result of many weeks and months of quality training. Most can't get up any given Sunday and post a personal best. If this was possible, we'd see world records set all the time.
Don't take my word for it. Let's look at Kara Goucher's race schedule from 2008. Kara had a stellar year. She started things off with a bang winning the mile at the Milrose Games with a PR of 4:36:03 in January.
Kara's next race didn't take place until June (nearly 5 months later) at the Prefontaine Classic. Kara placed third in the 5,000-meter event and posted her second fastest time ever for this distance (14:58.10). A couple weeks later Kara would place second at the US Olympic Trials in the 10,000-meter distance with a time of 31:37.72 and win the 5,000-meter race.
On August 15, Kara ran a personal best of 30:55.16 in the 10,000-meter and placed tenth at the Beijing Olympics. She also posted a 15:49 for 5,000-meter on August 22, placing ninth overall. To say that Kara had a spectacular summer racing season would be a gross understatement.
Kara would not race again until her marathon debut at the NYC Marathon on November 2, 2008 (nearly 3 months removed from the Olympics). She would wrap up her year the way she started it with an impressive 2:25:53 and a third place finish. This was the first time an American had been on the podium since 1994.
Kara had an amazing year and there were many factors that contributed to her success. But, just looking at the number of races Kara participated in and the length of each race reveals a lot. Her first race of the year was a mile. Granted, it was a lung-searingly fast mile, but a mile race is pretty easy to recover from.
Kara's focus for the next several months was gearing up for the Olympics, hence the absence of any racing until the trials in June. After the trials in June and the Olympics in August, Kara shifted gears, focused on the marathon, and didn't race again until her marathon debut in November.
If your goal is to post personal bests, emulate the approach that Kara and many other professional runners employ. You'll more than likely find yourself peaking for the events that are important to you, steering clear of significant aggravations or injuries, and become a better runner in the long haul.
If you simply can't resist the urge to sign up for a ton of races, treat many of them as glorified training runs and earmark only a few of them as serious race efforts. If you're ever in doubt, ask yourself, 'What Would Kara Do?'
Sign up for your next race.
Matt Forsman (AKA Marathon Matt) has been a runner for more than 20 years and a USATF/RRCA certified coach for more than five years. He has worked with thousands of runners in the San Francisco Bay Area through his group training programs that regularly attract 150 to 200 runners per season and a plethora of individual clients. Matt has contributed to Runner's World, NorCal Running Magazine, and other publications. You can learn more about Matt at www.marathonmatt.com