Running a marathon isn’t quite as simple as waking up one morning and deciding to jump into the starting corral and cruise through 26.2 miles. If it were that easy, everyone would do it. Nor would it be as rewarding and as great a life-affirming experience as completing a marathon can be.
Instead, training properly for a marathon takes months of preparing your mind and body for the unique demands of running 26.2 miles. Proper training will certainly prepare you for the big day and if you go about doing it gradually, you will be fit enough to cover the marathon distance.
But there’s a major difference between being fit enough to cover the distance and being fit enough to run your best in the marathon.
One of the keys to preparing to run your best marathon is often one of the most ignored: Running several build-up races (of shorter length than the marathon) during your four to six-month training period. These build-up (or tune-up) races aren’t merely dress rehearsals for the marathon, but are purposeful for marathoners of all levels of abilities. In fact, the fewer races you have run, the greater the importance of these build-up events.
Why build-up races are important for the beginner is they allow that runner to experience the nuances and unique logistics of road racing before the marathon. Doing so, allows the newbie to get used to the pre-race anxiety, hoopla and excitement. It also allows the first-timer to become familiar with the logistics of a racing routine and what you need and how you prepare in the days before the tune-up.
Doing a series of tune-ups allows the beginner to learn how to eat and drink properly (before, during and after the race) as well as becoming familiar with a warm-up routine such as stretching and light jogging. It also allows the first-timer to wear test his or her race gear (shoes, shorts, singlets, etc.) before the marathon. If you’ve never raced before, there’s all sorts of other aspects that a tune-up race will familiarize you with such as race numbers, positioning yourself properly in the starting grid and not getting too carried away in the first couple of miles by starting out too fast.
The more often you go through this race routine, the less likely you’ll miss something on marathon morning. In addition, developing a solid pre-race routine will reduce the pre-marathon anxiety before your big test. You’ll know what you need to do in the day or two before the marathon because you’ll already have done it for the tune-up races.
But a tune-up race is also valuable for any marathoner because it breaks up the ho-hum training routine. Even more importantly, a build-up race allows the marathoner to test himself in a race in which the results don’t really matter. What matters is the marathon, not the tune-up.
In any race, the stakes are a bit higher than just another tough workout. In a race, you can push yourself harder than in a workout and it gives you a better idea of exactly what kind of shape you’re in as it relates to the marathon. It’s also a great opportunity to practice your marathon goal pace and then push the last few miles at a faster pace. Think of it as a pop quiz before the marathon.
By testing yourself in a race, you can assess your strengths and weaknesses and what still needs to be done in training so you run your best when it counts—at the marathon. The direct (and immediate) feedback you get from a tune-up race is a clear indication of where you stand from a fitness standpoint.
You don’t want to read too much into your tune-up races. But you should evaluate whatever you may have lacked during the tune-up is what you will need to work on in the time you have left before the marathon. Not enough speed? Add some more speed work to your training. Did you struggle on the hills during the tune-up? Train on some more hills. Did you go out too fast and fade in the mile mile of the tune-up? You might need to work on better pacing and starting the race at a slower, more manageable pace. Have trouble grabbing water at the aid stations and getting to your energy gels? Practice it some more on long runs. Did your energy gel disagree with you? You might need to find a different brand or flavor of gel.
Again, build-up races are not as important in the big picture as the marathon. So you can approach the tune-up in one of two ways: Rest for it or “train” through it. By resting for the tune-up, you reduce your training and give yourself a small break from your normal training regimen. This allows your legs to get some spring back in them and also gives you a mental break.
Taking this approach, gives you the most accurate way to assess your racing fitness. And if you run well in the build-up, it can give you a big mental boost.
By training through the tune-up, you don’t reduce your normal training. Instead of doing a weekend long run (or another hard workout), you substitute the tune-up into your training schedule. This will reduce your chances of running well in the tune-up (because you’ll be a bit tired) and you probably won’t get the same confidence boost as if you ran exceptionally well. But by training through the tune-up, you won’t disrupt your training at all.
Clearly, any build-up race you run should be much shorter than the marathon. The advantages of running a sub-marathon distance are twofold: You can practice marathon goal pace easily enough and there won’t be a significant recovery time after the build-up race.
What many runners do in their training period is run a series of build-up races of increasing longer distances. Starting with a 5-K to asses their speed, they then progress through longer races to test their endurance. But generally, the longest race in any build-up series is about a half-marathon although some Austin runners also use the Rogue 30-K to practice MGP. It’s also a good idea to try and run in tune-up races that simulate the terrain of the marathon you’re pointing for. For example, if it’s a hilly marathon such as the Austin Marathon, try and find some shorter races with a good series or two of hills. (Hint: That means the Decker Half Marathon.)
If you have trouble maintaining marathon goal pace in your tune-up race, you need to reassess your marathon goals. If you can’t handle that pace in a race much shorter than the marathon, chances aren’t good you’ll be able to do it over 26.2 miles.
You should probably plan on running at least two or three tune-ups in your run up to the marathon. But it depends on the length of your training schedule and your experience as a racer. You don’t want to race too much or it will have a negative impact on maintaining your training schedule. Too few and you probably won’t have adequate preparation and rehearsal for the marathon.
Some top-notch Austin-area races that are ideal for building up to the Dallas, San Antonio, Sacramento, BCS (College Station), Austin, Army or Houston marathons:
- Run for the Water 10-Miler (October 26). Hilly up and down course with relatively flat final three miles.
- Run by the Creek 5K & 10K (November 2). A great out/back, mostly flat to work on that speed.
- Jameson 5-K at Southwestern University (November 8). Short and quick.
- Wurst 5-Miler in New Braunfels (November 8). Another good short, quick race.
- Thundercloud Turkey Trot (November 27). A fast 5-miler on Thanksgiving morning, ideal for practicing quick leg turnover.
- Spicewood Vineyards Half Marathon (December 6). Good race to practice MGP.
- Decker Half Marathon (December 7). Extremely tough hills which is good simulator for Austin Marathons.
- Rogue Distance Festival (January 11). Two distances: 30-K and half marathon. Mostly flat course is comparable to Houston and Army marathon courses.
- 3M Half Marathon (January 25). Long downhill stretches are good practice for Austin Marathon (or Boston) downhills.