Conversely, should you fall into the category of the athlete who missed the previous season, or who competed infrequently during the previous year, you can race aggressively and frequently racing during the marathon build-up.
When runners have multiple seasons or years during which they do little racing, the skills associated with competition can dull. Racing hones a variety of skills and prepares the body for the physical and mental rigors of the toughest of events. Keep racing frequency to fewer than four races in the 11- to 12-week period leading up to your goal marathon, even for those who prefer more rather than fewer competitions.
Tyler Pennel, a ZAP Fitness/Reebok Running resident athlete, will make his marathon debut at the 2014 Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon. Tyler ran a full track and road racing season during the spring including half marathons, 5Ks, 10Ks, miles and other distances in between. His final race of the spring cycle was at the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta, where he finished second. His extensive spring racing schedule is the reason he'll only race only once during his 11-and-a-half-week build-up to Twin Cities.
The Practice Race
There's a happy meeting point between those who prefer racing more often in their marathon build-up and those who prefer to go hermit and avoid the trap of "week-in, week-out racing." That happy medium is the practice race. These two versions will allow you to establish a competitive environment during your marathon program without undermining your training.
1. The Practice Half
Roughly 5 to 6 weeks before your target marathon, run a half marathon. Before the half, jog 3 to 4 miles easy to warm up. When the race starts, run the first 10 miles at goal marathon pace. No matter how good you feel, it's critical to maintain your target marathon rhythm for those opening 10 miles. One you arrive at the 10-mile mark, if you're feeling good, run the final 5K as a harder effort.
If you're struggling to maintain marathon tempo—this is fairly common during the bulk of marathon prep—simply stick with your target marathon rhythm. It's worth noting that many athletes have run personal bests in the half marathon while taking this approach during marathon preparation.
2. The Finish-With-a-Shorter-Economy Race
Another "trick of the trade" at ZAP is to complete a shorter race, such as an 8K or 10K, at the tail end of one of your marathon long runs. Simply time your long run so that you have 3 to 6 miles remaining when you arrive at the start line of the shorter race. This is an excellent way to simulate a faster finish to the marathon as well—a skill that many struggle with.
How often a marathoner should race—if at all—during the build-up for the big day depends on a variety of factors, including recent racing history and the runner's mental state. Plan your marathon prep wisely, making sure to allow your body plenty of rest and recovery time between harder efforts. This includes racing. Train aggressively and intelligently to prepare well for race day.race.