Building a Race Schedule That Won’t Burn You Out

A couple of years back, in 2015, my race schedule was jam-packed. I ran 14 races total for the year: 4 half-marathons, 5 5Ks, 2 10-milers, a 20K, and 2 marathons. There was a couple of reasons why I got so involved in running all those races. The year earlier, in 2014, I only ran 5 races total because at the time, I didn’t live in a place where there were races in cute little towns or around tourist sites almost every weekend, and certainly only a couple of them I considered to be “bucket list races.” Once I moved back to DC, starting in 2015, I was almost always at a race because I was working a job that allowed me the means to register for more than a few here or there, plus I’d been making some strides in my running (ha ha) and I wanted to put myself to the test.

But I also remember feeling a little bit burned out on racing at the end of 2015. Not only is it expensive, especially for those out-of-town races, but I felt like I was trapped in a cycle of constant ups and downs with not coming close to meeting my time goals but still not meeting them. In the spring of 2015, I was chasing my elusive 1:57 half-marathon personal record and I came close twice– at the March 2015 NYC Half-Marathon, finishing in 2:01, and again the following weekend in Virginia Beach at the 2015 Shamrock Half-Marathon where I missed it by only 39 seconds for a 1:58:14 finish. The next opportunity I had in 2015 was the May 2015 Frederick Running Festival where I finished in 2:05. Even worse, at the end of the month at the Virginia Wine Country Half-Marathon, I finished in 2:11. Luckily, I realized then that I needed a break from racing so much and I was able to regroup mentally and beat my marathon personal record at the Baltimore Marathon in October by over 10 minutes. Even though I suffered a major injury that benched me for almost three months after running the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon just a week later, I felt like I was finally starting to understand myself as a runner. And I wanted more.

In 2016, I ran 17 races for the year: 8 half-marathons (3 paced), 2 5Ks, 2 10Ks, a relay race, a 10-miler, a 5-miler, and 2 marathons. Having been dealt both a huge personal win at Baltimore and a humble blow at the end of 2015, I came back into racing with a relatively realistic mindset. No longer was I training to oust my half-marathon personal records: 2016 was all about mental training. Even though my Baltimore Marathon personal record was a big one for me, I did not give everything I had to that race. I checked out and stopped caring at Mile 16, I wanted to quit at Mile 20, and that kind of haunts me. All I wanted for 2016 was a test of mental fortitude, and I wanted every opportunity I could get to put that to the test.

Even though my spring 2016 wasn’t as loaded as spring 2015, I still had some big races on deck that I felt like could give me the chance encounter I had been chasing with my half-marathon personal record. But I still didn’t get it done. I finished the 2016 NYC Half-Marathon slower than I did the year before, in 2:03. Wanting one more shot, I registered for the June 2016 Roanoke Half-Marathon and finished with an even slower time– 2:12:59– that, as I recall, kind of left me feeling confused and stunned. Even though I remember sticking it out mentally through that race, I finished with a very disappointing time. Not long after that race, I published this brutally honest piece. I think it was clear that I was far too burned out on running, and it was starting to manifest in physical injury.

All of this babbling on about what races I ran and in what time all add up to something: it took me literally years to figure out how to build a race calendar as a part of setting goals and expectations. For a long time, I was participating in all of these races because I could. I wanted the experience, I wanted something to work towards and look forward to. There’s nothing wrong with that– a lot of people run races with their friends or don’t take them as seriously as I do. But I was going for the instant gratification of having another chance to try next week or in three weeks or next month. I wasn’t putting in the time and effort to accomplish my goals: I was somehow hoping that I was doing enough and that race day would somehow have a magic of its own and my personal record would be crushed out of nowhere. It doesn’t work like that. There was no appreciation for the journey of beating my personal record. There was no hard work on the side to keep me from getting injured. I’m very proud that I finally got to a place where my mental fortitude is where it needs to be to take on harder races, as evidenced by the best marathon I ever executed at the 2016 New York City Marathon, but I always shied away from doing the work off the trails to increase my strength and power. And I put far too much pressure on myself to prove that every single run wasn’t an indication that my glory days were behind me just because I couldn’t run paces in the 8’s or 9’s every single day. It’s probably no wonder that I got burned out.

Define Your Goals for the Year

Figuring out what you want out of running in a calendar year will help you determine what races you want to run and how you want to run them. When I started 2017, I did something that I never do: I wrote down my goals in very specific terms:

  • I want to avoid physical therapy (or at least the kind that benches me while I nurse an avoidable injury– I do see the value of PT for maintenance and muscle re-education).
    • My strategy: Do at least three sessions per week of the exercises I learned in PT in 2016.
  • I am also turning 35 next month, and I want to place first in my age group. If I had been 35 at the 2016 Boo! Run for Life 10K, I would have placed in my age group, so I see this as attainable. There are benefits to aging and running!
    • My strategy: Speed work.
  • I want to beat my 4-year old half-marathon personal record of 1:57.
    • My strategy: Build strength and do speed work.
  • Not as important, but it’s still in there somewhere, my goal to finally run a 4:00 marathon because then I can start building toward a Boston qualifier.
    • My strategy: Time trial at a half-marathon and incorporate strength and power workouts to increase speed.

Find a Race That Occurs When You Can Be Adequately Prepared

Unless you are chasing a course record at a specific race, you don’t have to rush into proving yourself at the first race of the year. You wouldn’t run the first half-marathon of the calendar year if you were new to running and “run a half-marathon in 2017” was your goal, would you? No– ideally you would train for it first, and then put that training to the test with the goal of finishing the race. Just like when you have a time goal: you practice the pace you need to achieve your goal and, once you have adequately prepared, you set out to achieve it. But that also takes time.

Here’s an example: My goal this year is to run a 1:25 at the Cherry Blossom 10-Mile Run in April. I’m actively training to accomplish that specific goal. But I also want to run the 2017 Reston 10-Miler the first weekend in March because I enjoyed the race last year. But I don’t feel ready to go for that 1:25 yet and, if I attempt to, I may injure myself and then my chance to earn it at Cherry Blossom will be gone. Conversely, if I get near Cherry Blossom and decide that I need more time, my next opportunity is the June Baltimore 10-Miler.

Don’t Race Every Single Race

I think it is hard for me to be behind a starting line and not take the race seriously, probably because the time is an official time. For some reason, it used to bother me when I found my name buried down a list of results on a race that I run just for the heck of it. The two half-marathons I ran in September 2016 come to mind: I ran the Air Force Half-Marathon in Dayton on Saturday, then flew back to DC to run the Navy-Air Force Half-Marathon on Sunday.  That was crazy, but I did that to complete the Ultimate Warrior Challenge. That meant I had to take each race very very slowly to avoid injury, as I was also in the middle of marathon training. Literally no one cares that I finished those races at around 2:25 each. Point is, if you want to run a race for the experience, you have to get over the whole “pain is temporary but Internet scores are forever” thing. You get burned out if you race half-marathons all the time!

Consider Time Trial Races

For this year, since I truly want to beat my half-marathon personal record, I have to consider doing a time trial at a shorter distance race to see if I can handle my goal pace mentally and physically. I don’t want to just get to the starting line of a half-marathon and see if I did enough.  I want to know that I am prepared. So, I am reviewing my training schedule and finding shorter distance races that line up with my training. Is there a 5K I can run? A 10K? If not, I can always just run those distances on my own, but having a race helps with visualizing race day. Avoid temptation to run a race plus a race. Challenges are the thing these days. Filling your race calendar with shorter distance races can help you determine where you are in relation to your distance race goals and still give you that “race fix.”

Budget Accordingly

This seems like a no-brainer, but races are expensive. Sometimes you don’t know how pricey they are until you’ve filled the gas tank, booked the hotel, gotten enough to eat. It adds up. Put money aside into a “race fund” so you can register, or only run races that don’t require a hotel room stay. Decide which races you want to run for sure at some point, no matter what, then sign up for the newsletter or follow the event on social media so you can take advantage of early registration savings. Find out if the race has any social media ambassadors since they often have codes for a percentage off registration fees. Cut down on race day costs by car-pooling, staying at an AirBnB with friends, or even consider pacing races if you’re just looking to run a race for the experience of it. Most races that use pacers comp registration fees and sometimes lodging and travel costs. Actually use the coupons for local restaurants that come with the race goodie bag. Consider not buying swag— you don’t have to own a half-zip for every race you run.

Quality Over Quantity

I’ve reiterated this already, but truly running a race for the quality of it and not just because it’s an addition to your “_x 13.1” plug on your social media account (guilty) is often more gratifying than running a certain number of races. It’s totally impressive to hear someone say they have run a multitude of marathons or ultra-marathons, but I find that hearing someone boast about their personal best is more impressive. Maybe that is just me, but I find that running fast is very hard, and that might be my “holy grail” with running overall. I would love to be able to say I ran 20+ marathons in my life, but I would love to say that my personal best is a Boston-qualifying time or at least a sub-4:00. I have a lifetime to work on the “quantity” piece; right now, I’m after the “quality” part and going for that one race where all my training on mental fortitude, speed, power, and execution line up to give me that “one” race I can look back on with total pride and accomplishment. That’s what I am chasing in 2017.

4 thoughts on “Building a Race Schedule That Won’t Burn You Out

  1. Your advice here is really good, and I appreciate how honest you are about your past struggles. I think it really depends on the person, why they race. My goal used to always be to PR, and I would be upset if that didn’t happen. Now I have more process-focused goals like pacing strategy, pushing hard in certain places, or simply enjoying the experience.

  2. Hi there – I came across your blog recently and the headline of this post really caught my attention. I just recently completed the 9+1 program as part of the New York Road Runners in order to qualify for the 2018 NYC Marathon. It will be my first marathon so I was curious about how many races I should run leading up to the marathon. I will likely choose races that will increase in distance over time but the again I will likely be tempted by longer races early in the year like the NYC Half in March. Burnout is something I will have to consider especially since I am turning 43 in February! (lol)
    Continued success to you and thanks for the insightful post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s