To Lehmkuhle, like many elites, tune-up races—shorter distances run in the buildup to the main event—are as important as long runs, tempo work, rest, and nutrition. "If you just put your head down and barrel through training for 12 to 14 weeks, the tendency is to overtrain, or get stale," he says. "Some planned race efforts that fit in with the rest of my buildup show me how my body will really react when the gun goes off. Based on the information I get from these races, I can adjust my training or that larger goal."
Tune-ups are typically about half the distance of a target race—a 5K before a 10K, for example, or a half-marathon before a marathon. They let you test out your pacing, mental strategy, fueling, hydration, and gear in conditions that ideally simulate what you'll face in your goal event. You can use them early in your training cycle to gauge your fitness and fine-tune your workouts, or closer to your big day as a final dress rehearsal. Either way, you'll reap the benefits.
"You can train hard, but racing helps take your fitness and confidence to another level," says Dennis Barker, who coaches Lehmkuhle and Team USA Minnesota. "It's more intense, you have different people around you to challenge you, and you can really get your competitive edge honed."
Tune-ups should be written into your training plan from the start and mapped out carefully. The timing will depend on the distance of your main event, and how you plan to approach the tune-up. You need enough time for a mini-taper before your shorter race and for recovery afterward.
Many elites race tune-ups as fitness tests. Going all-out midway in the training cycle lets them judge how close they are to goal-race-ready, and whether their workouts have been effective. Lehmkuhle raced the Great Cow Harbor 10K, in Northport, New York, six weeks before the marathon, following a significant buildup in marathon-pace miles. Though he finished the race in fourth place in 29:50—slower than a year earlier—the result proved instructive. "It made it obvious that I was physically showing some effects from the previous couple of weeks of training," he says, "and it gave me a measuring stick for my fitness."
Carwyn Sharp, a Houston-based running coach who works with both veteran marathoners and beginners, also uses tune-up performances to see whether his athletes are on track to achieve their goals for their big races. "Typically, racing intensity is higher than on a track, so you're getting the benefits of that," he says. "And psychologically, you're pushing yourself in a race environment." Even more important, Sharp says, the shorter races can help pinpoint strengths and weaknesses. If you struggle with the hills, for instance, you know to ratchet up the strength work. If you run out of steam before the end of the race, you need to focus on long runs. "Until you've done a race, you have no idea where you are," Sharp says.
Another approach is to run tune-ups to practice your planned "goal race" pace—in other words, running at the same pace in the shorter distance that you hope to run in your target race. This not only helps you become familiar with your goal pace within a race experience, it lets you rehearse critical racing logistics such as lining up at a crowded start, sticking to your pace in the exciting first few miles, and grabbing a cup at aid stations without spilling Gatorade on your shoes. "When you step up to the line of your goal race, you'll be a little less anxious," says Mike Keohane, who coaches recreational runners in New York City.
The practice worked for Lehmkuhle. Racing shoulder-to-shoulder with top-tier runners in the Half-Marathon Championships three weeks before the marathon gave him the confidence to dash off a 2:14:30 in New York, his first top—10 finish in a major marathon. "It showed that I was fit," he says, "and with a little taper, ready for New York."
A Finely Tuned Plan
When to race for speed, when to race for practice
If you're doing a tune-up at least three weeks before your main event, you can race it hard to test your fitness, says Carwyn Sharp, a Houston-based running coach and exercise physiologist. Races that are closer to your big day are best used to practice your goal race pace.
GOAL RACE: 10K
TUNE-UP DISTANCE: 5K or a 4- to 5-mile race
RUN IT HARD: 4 to 6 weeks out
PRACTICE GOAL RACE PACE: 1 to 2 weeks out
GOAL RACE: Half-Marathon
TUNE-UP DISTANCE: 10K
RUN IT HARD: 6 weeks out
PRACTICE GOAL RACE PACE: 2 to 3 weeks out
GOAL RACE: Marathon
TUNE-UP DISTANCE: Half-Marathon
RUN IT HARD: 6 weeks out
PRACTICE GOAL RACE PACE: 2 to 4 weeks out