Training for an upcoming competition can get complicated. Finding and following the best training plan can be more intimidating than the race itself. And yet, the basic premise—known as the principle of specificity—is simple and straightforward.
In short, to improve a certain skill, you have to practice that skill in a very direct way. For example, cycling can be a beneficial cross-training activity for a runner. But the only way for a runner to improve in their sport is to run more. In other words, there's simply no substitute for running.
In the same way, athletes must put themselves in competitive environments before actually toeing the line at a big race. This is what makes tune-up races so important.
More: Train to Race
If you're training for an Olympic-Distance triathlon, it makes sense to sign up for a sprint triathlon in the months leading up to the big race. Or, if you're training for a marathon, it makes sense to run a few shorter distances first.
A trial or tune-up race can help you work out the logistical tweaks, prepare physically, and shed some of that nervous energy.
Tune-up races offer two major physiological benefits. First, you'll likely run harder in a race than in a workout. The competitive environment gets your engines running at full capacity, allowing you to push yourself harder and further than you thought possible. Generally, you want to train to race, not race to train. However, periodic races give you a physiological training stimulus you simply can't get elsewhere.
Tune-up races can give you an accurate read of your fitness level. Perhaps you ran a 5K on your way to a marathon and a month later ran your 5K personal best within a 10K race. Now that's progress! On the other hand, if you find you're not performing as well as you had hoped in these lead-up races, it might be time to switch up your overall approach to training.
More: Time for a Tune-Up