One of the more common forms of self-sabotage perpetrated by endurance athletes is racing too often. Now, before I go any further, let me state quite clearly that racing often is not necessarily a mistake . . . if you don’t particularly care about achieving peak performances in competition. For many people, athletics is more of a lifestyle than a sport, and these folks simply enjoy the lifestyle more when they race often. If this enjoyment comes at the cost of performance, then, oh, well. But others who do genuinely desire to realize their full athletic potential race too often without even realizing they would perform better if they raced less.
The reason racing is the enemy of training is that, in order to race well, you need to lighten up your training beforehand, and in order to recover properly from racing, you need to lighten up your training afterward. This makes racing highly disruptive to the flow of training. A single race won’t gum things up, and in fact it may give your training a boost by pushing your body a little further than any workout does, but it’s just not possible to pack multiple races within a fairly short span of time and still do the training required to attain peak performance in any single race. Either you find yourself doing little else besides tapering, racing, and recovering, or you try to train normally despite racing often and your races become nothing more than hard workouts done with a number on your chest. Yippee.
Of course, some athletes, particularly those who compete for school teams, have no choice but to race frequently. In such cases it’s up to the coach to make the best of an imperfect situation, but there’s only so much that even the best coach can do. This was shown in a 2010 study involving members of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Men’s Cross Country Team. Exercise scientists Corey Baumann and Thomas Wetter measured runners’ anaerobic power, VO2max, running economy, ventilatory threshold, and lactate threshold at the start of the season and again at the end. Anaerobic power was found to have decreased over the course of the season while all of the other variables were unchanged. In other words, the runners did not get fitter, and the likely reason is that they raced too often to be able to train progressively.
At the elite level, the very best performances, particularly at longer distances, usually come after limited racing. When a new American or world record is set at any running distance over a mile (sprint races being far less stressful and disruptive), it almost always occurs in the athlete’s first or second attempt at the distance in a given season. A classic example is Chris Solinsky’s American record of 26:59.60 for 10,000 meters, set in 2010. This was not only Solinsky’s first track 10K of the 2010 season but his first ever! What was Solinsky doing in the leadup to this breakthrough performance on May 1st? Training, training, training. His only prior races of the year were much shorter and many weeks earlier—an indoor mile on January 30 and an indoor 3000 meters on February 27.
I’ve heard athletes come up with all kinds of excuses for over-racing: “I need to race in order to know where I am with my fitness.” “I always seem to choke when I put too much focus on any single event.” “When I go for long periods without racing I tend to overtrain.” But these excuses are just that. I know you’re very special, but you’re still human, and what works best for the likes of Chris Solinsky works best for you too, trust me.
All I’m asking is that, if you are an over-racer, you give my way (i.e., the elite way) a try. If you decide afterward that you’d rather do a lot of races at 90 percent instead of a few at 100 percent, then more power to you. But I think you will find 100 percent hard to let go of.