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Is it a training race, or a race race?

5 March 2023

It’s that time of year. You’ve just finished a long marathon training run. Your face is salty, your thighs are throbbing, but you’re buzzing. You did it! It’s in the bank. You upload your run to strava, and while you’re waiting, you scroll through other people’s runs. You look at the distances, the times, the comments. You tap “view analysis” and look at your elapsed time. It doesn’t look as good. The buzz starts wearing off.

“I could have gone faster”, you think.

Yes. You could have gone faster. But *should* you have? The answer is no, and you know it. Long slow runs are called LSRs for a reason. They’re not long tempo runs, or long steady runs, or long fast runs. Being slow is the point.

While we’re out running further, our bodies are getting stronger. The stress of the increased mileage is overloading our muscles, and triggering adaptation. By running slowly, we’re reducing the impact of this overload on our bodies, recovering more quickly, and protecting ourselves from injury. There are no strava crowns for being slow and sensible, so we just have to remember that the benefits are invisible, but real.

This is easy to say, but harder to stick to. Last weekend I ran a 20 mile race- the Tarpley 20 – as part of my marathon training. Before I joined a running club, I had never heard of anyone doing a race as a training run. Don’t these people realise that running is free? I would have said. But long races make for brilliant marathon training. They are locally run, reasonably priced and well supported. If you’re struggling to motivate yourself to cover 30k or 20 miles by yourself, pinning on a race number alongside 300 people who probably feel the same really helps.

The challenge with a training race, though, for anyone with a shred of competitiveness in their veins, is that it’s still a race. It’s really hard not to race a race. I should know, I’ve done it. At the Stamford 30k in 2022 I went too hard in driving rain and picked up a calf strain that ended my chances of running Brighton marathon. At the Oundle 20 in 2019, I got carried away with it being a club championship race and, looking back, put in a much better performance than I managed at Boston marathon four weeks later.

At the start line last Sunday, I could still feel the temptation. Before the race, to guard against this, I had told anyone who’d listen that I was going to take it slow. Even so, I found myself finishing my first mile in 8 minutes 17 seconds (AKA, this year’s goal marathon pace). Luckily, my brother in law caught up with me in mile two and asked me (in the nicest way) what the hell I was doing. Slowing down, I replied.

I did, and as a result, I really enjoyed the run, especially the last few miles. When I got to the finish, I not only felt I could run another 6.2 miles, I actually wanted to. I can honestly say I have never felt like that at the end of any race, ever.

I am not a coach, and I can only talk from my own experience, but I wouldn’t race – as in, properly race – anything longer than 10km in the run up to a marathon. If we’re tempted to push it harder for longer, we need to ask ourselves: what is the main goal? Is it to perform really well in the marathon, and get to it on top form and uninjured? Is it to perform really well in the club champs? Is it to boss the cross country season? Because we cannot do them all.

When it comes to your marathon, so many things about race day are uncertain. Focus on what you can control. Focus on the goal.

Don’t risk leaving your best race in training.

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