Your Ultra-Training Bag of Tricks: Using Races to Prepare for Your Goal Event

The concept of using shorter ultra races as training runs for a longer goal event has been embraced — with mixed results — by ultrarunners for decades. Ultrarunners can use these events wisely to peak perfectly for their “big race” or find themselves over-raced on game day. Read on to find out how to race yourself into shape in a smart, healthy, and effective manner.

Vocabulary for This Article

For the purposes of this piece, I’ll be using the following terms to describe the various workouts and races mentioned herein.

  • Goal event or “A” race: The primary objective of your training.
  • Training or “B” races: Organized events (with or without entry fees) with aid provided and a pre-determined course.
  • Solo training runs: Runs done on your own or with friends.

The Benefits of Training Races

Why should I spend the money, energy, and effort on a race I’m not going to pour 100% of my heart and soul into? “B” races are the perfect dress rehearsals for your goal event. Here are the key ingredients that casual runs can’t provide.

  1. Atmosphere – The pre- and post-race excitement will likely make the miles go by easier while forcing you to practice restraint.
  2. Camaraderie – Fellow runners with similar goals will encourage you along and add to the day’s fun factor.
  3. Support – Aid stations, no matter how minimal, make logistics much easier.
  4. Commitment – If you pay an entry fee, travel out of town, and organize your work and personal life around an event, you’ll be much less likely to bail.
  5. Change of venue – New scenery always inspires.
  6. Race simulation – ”B” races provide you a race-day environment akin to your goal event. You can test new equipment, nutrition and hydration plans, and pacing strategies without the repercussions of failure if something goes wrong.

Implementation

When introducing “B” races into your schedule you must consider their terrain, distance, timing, and the effort you should expend.

A) Terrain – Choose training races that feature similar surfaces and comparable elevation profiles to your goal event.

B) Distance – In general, use the next standard distance down from your goal event when selecting your “B” race. Here are some guidelines (goal event: training event):

  • 50K: half-marathons to marathons
  • 50 miles and 100k: a 50k or 50-mile race
  • 100 miles: a 50-mile or 100k race
  • 24 hours: a 12-hour event

There is a common misconception that you must run the distance of your goal event before your actual goal event. For example, it isn’t necessary to run 50 miles before your 50-mile “A” race. In fact, this self-doubting technique may have deleterious effects on race day. Avoid overtraining and low motivation by using shorter tough workouts and/or successful “B” races to boost your confidence.

C) Timing – It is imperative that you allow some time to recover between your training race(s) and goal event. Since “B” races aren’t “all in” efforts they shouldn’t require full peaking and recovery phases on either side of the event. An easy week consisting of minimal intensity and volume before and after your “B” race should suffice, but add recovery if you know that you mend slowly after 30+ mile runs or have a stressful work and personal life. I also suggest that you allow ample time to complete at least one additional solo long and challenging run before your goal race in order to test or re-test any strategies you may have learned during your latest “B” race.

Here’s an ideal build-up to a 100-mile goal event assuming the athlete has already done the proper base training prior to week 14.

Weeks from goal event

Suggested training

Refer to these past iRunFar articles

14-11

50K or 50 mile “B” race Recovery

11-7

2 – 3 long, solo training runs or back-to-backs Training Volume, Endurance-Based Workouts

7-5

50 mile or 100K “B” race Recovery

5-3

1 – 2 long, solo training runs or back-to-backs Training Volume, Endurance-Based Workouts

1-2

Peaking Phase Art of Peaking

0

100 mile “A” race Taking Control of Your Race

D) Effort Expended – To ensure that you’ll be able to continue training uninterrupted, run your “B” race at the estimated effort or pace of your goal event. For example, if you’re training for a sub-24 hour time for 100 miles, complete your “B” 50-mile race in just under 12 hours. Remember that the goal of a “B” race shouldn’t revolve around competing with others or a personal record. Save these objectives for your goal event.

Keeping Yourself In Check

Competition makes us do weird things. The gun goes off and we can easily forget our objective. We’ve all said it before, “I’m just taking it easy today and treating this race as a training run.” However, it’s the special few who can actually stick to this plan. It is only natural when lining up on a start line with others to want to prove how fast you can run. Here are some tricks to keep you from “racing” your “B” races:

  1. Begin 5-10 minutes after the official start of the race. You won’t get caught trying to keep up or stay head of a conga line of faster runners. You’ll have a much easier time finding people who are dialed into your realistic training pace working from the back of the pack rather than from the front.
  2. Try to run the second half of the course faster than the first half. This will force you to practice conservative pacing, patience, and proper hydration and fueling in the early miles, which will lead to better recovery afterwards.
  3. Run with a training partner who is slower than you are. Act as his/her pacer and guiding light. Not only will this keep you from running your training race too quickly, but you’ll also be doing your friend a favor.
  4. Sign up for low-key events, like a Fat Ass. With the lack of fanfare, you’ll be less likely to feel the pressure to perform.
  5. If you’re a highly competitive athlete and know that the minute you pin that race number on you’ll feel compelled to run hard, limit yourself to just a few “B” races. This will keep your chances of burnout and injury low.

As Andy Jones-Wilkins pointed out in his recent column, self-control during the months leading up to your goal event is paramount for success. You don’t have to “win” every race. By simply using some of them as stepping stones, they’ll help you achieve your ultimate goal.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you run a “B” race to help you prepare for an “A” race? What did you experience during it that readied you for your goal event?
  • Have you ever tried unsuccessfully at keeping a “B” race a “B” race by perhaps taking it out too hard or not taking care of your nutrition and hydration? What lessons did you learn?
Tune Up Ultramarathon - Bryon Powell 2013 Salt Flats 100

iRunFar’s Bryon Powell (right) running a B race by running 50 miles at the 2013 Salt Flats 100. Photo: LongRun Picture Co

There are 28 comments

  1. olga

    Perfect advice and a very comprehensive explanation. Jurek had taught me that a long time ago, and I share it with new comers who either like to run training runs of a distance covering their projected A race, or race everything they enter.

  2. Thomas

    I don't think it's "a common misconception" that you have to cover the race distance before your actual goal event. How many runners do a 100-miler in preparation for a 100 miler???

    Apart from that, it's an excellent article. My trick to keep myself from racing my B-races is to run the first half reasonably slowly – it's much easier to keep myself in check and remain patient if I know I'll be "allowed" to have some fun during the second half.

    1. Ian Torrence

      Hi Thomas,

      Having worked with more than 500 athletes, I can tell you from experience that there are a large number of newbies who feel they need to test themselves at there goal race distance before goal race day. For the most part, they fear the unknown, a perfectly reasonable reaction to the ultra-distance. As I mentioned in the article, I try to dissuade them from that and attempt to raise their confidence by other means.

      Cheers!

      Ian

  3. Ryan

    So how do you keep "B races" from tarnishing your Ultrasignup rating? Does it matter? When I want to learn about other runners, that's the first place I go. And there's no asterisk to indicate "training races."

    1. olga

      You just learn they run all over the place? :) We're supposed to run our own races. Granted, I, too, look at Ultrasignup to see who had done what if the names of competitors are listed, and what I am looking for is not percentage average or placing (because we all know placing depends on who shows up), but rather at times vs courses vs distances. Who seems to have nailed 50k, and who's speed is not the best, but 100 miles over ragged terrain are steady and solid all the times. How much experiences they have in general. Whether they've only been locally before or traveled and had variety (and whether the race I am going to is their local or new territory). That kind of thing. A or B don't come into play. Tony vs Sage percentage wise or what we do know about them?

    2. KenZ

      Tarnishing your Ultrasignup score on purpose helps to keep you as the dark horse; it's a strategy, not a limitation!

      Yes, I am kidding.

    3. John

      "So how do you keep “B races” from tarnishing your Ultrasignup rating? Does it matter? When I want to learn about other runners, that’s the first place I go. And there’s no asterisk to indicate “training races.”"

      You are either joking or sound like someone with severe self-esteem issues.

  4. Luke Garten

    I have found that race/nutrition strategy is found the best during "B" races. I can eat just over 300 calories an hour during long runs when the intensity is easier. During races though I can only stomach about 150 to 200 calories an hour for a 50k effort and 200 to 250 an hour for 50 milers. During a half marathon I eat and drink nothing and for a 30k maybe 100 cal an hour. You can't mimic that during training unless you do a long run at race pace, so why not just do "B" races for that.

    1. Michael Kealy

      Perfectly-timed read for me on such an important aspect of preparing for my first 100 (Wasatch). I'm planning on using some low-key unofficial runs like the Brighton Marathon and Millcreek 50k (night run) as the key build-up runs.

  5. Pete

    I have a hard time not racing B races but I do seem to recover well from them and quickly. I do think urnning them I naturally do put forth more effort then training runs so this really helps me test fueling strategy. By putting in a more realistic race effort it truly shows me how my stomach will react to things on race day. Great article and some great advice. Thanks.

  6. Michael Kealy

    Perfectly-timed read for me on such an important aspect of preparing for my first 100 (Wasatch). I’m planning on using some low-key unofficial runs like the Brighton Marathon and Millcreek 50k (night run) as the key build-up runs.

  7. CP

    Great article. I am currently learning the importance of distinguishing between A and B races. It's about setting goals over a long period of time and keeping that in focus. I have only run ultras for a couple years, but I am starting to understand that the preparation for my best effort takes a long time. If I have a injury, it is worth skipping a local race that "everybody does" so that I can recover and get back to preparing for my main event later in the year. Just learned that one the hard way over the last few weeks.

  8. KenZ

    B Races: I have found them essential for special leg toughening as well. On a long self-motivated training run, I never seem to run them fast enough to really simulate the stress of the A race. I NEVER cramp in training runs of any length (up to 7 hours), but can feel cramps coming on in a B race as soon as 2-3 hours (and I've learned that for me it's NOT electrolytes, but going too hard, and I just have to back off a bit).

    There is something about running hard, not A race hard, but B race hard, that trains the legs in a way that a long solo run or speed work or cruise intervals or LT training or fartleks or any of that doesn't. Could be the speed that I push myself DOWNHILL on a B race, which is always faster than downhill on long training runs.

    So I do some of my B races as B+ races for that reason. As to how to not go out too fast at the start, that's easy. Heart rate monitor. Set you max for allowable for hour 1, hours 2-4, and hours 4+ and stick to it. You end up slow on the uphills, and FAST on the downhills. Just the way it should be!

  9. joe

    The strategy I use to maintain a B race pace is to not taper. I hold off on hard efforts the week of the B race but maintain the mileage. I still get to run hard and push myself but the tired legs kind of self govern the pace and the limit subsequent damage reducing the need for a lengthy recovery.

  10. Tony Mollica

    I like the concept of using races as training runs to get ready for my "A" race. I would have a hard time doing 30 miles on my own. But when I sign up for a 50K it's a lot easier. I have people to run with and talk to. I don't have to worry about water and food.

    I also like running the hills to improve the shape I'm in, rather than trying to be efficient so that I can run the absolute fastest time possible. Sometimes I have people make condescending remarks such as "He'll wish he hadn't done that two hours from now" as I run up a hill that everyone is walking. I don't want to be condescending right back and say that this is a "B" race for me or call it a training run. So I either don't reply or I say that I am running to be in the best shape I can be and so I like to run the hills. I've even been asked if this is my first ultra.

    Thanks Ian! I thoroughly enjoy your articles in this series! keep up the great work!

  11. ned barrett

    Over thirty or so years of running, I've frequently raced, and also infrequently raced. There was a time when I'd run 25 or 30 races a year, all of them as hard as I could, but with a few "A" races that I might actually have tapered for. I felt sharp and race-disciplined. I should add that these were 5K to half-marathon road races, and I had no kids and no wife.

    These days, I find that the travel time especially, not to mention expense, generally keeps me closer to home and family. I've done some group runs within a couple hours of home, which helps keep me honest, and I think I've developed a different discipline to finish the solo runs that dominate my running.

  12. Vijay Singh

    I live in Manhattan, NY so signing up for a trail/ultra event is always an exciting exit from concrete life into nature, solitude, wilderness and above all FUN! I ENJOY every run as A runs.

    "Running more is not necessary but running less is incomplete"…..

  13. Mark Tanaka

    As already asked by others: seriously, Ryan? Then besides using an alias, I guess you drop out a few hundred feet before the finish line and then beg the RD for a finisher's award. The Ultrasignup rating unfortunately doesn't account for DNFs, which results in lower predictive value if trying to figure out your chances of finishing ahead of behind another competitor.

  14. Mark Tanaka

    Great article, Ian.

    Though probably doesn't apply to me much, since my work, family and life schedule doesn't really allow the optimal training plan including build-up and taper for any so named "A" race (I end up having to work shifts ending after midnight the days leading up to a race half the time).

    I feel lucky just to be able to show up at any race, with provided aid and friends old and new to chat with, at least at the beginning. Anything over marathon distance, I can't get myself to push hard on my own, so I need races to force myself to run fast and long. Even when I am comped for a race, there are peripheral related monetary expenses and always an opportunity cost to participate (especially since they happen on weekends). So if I am going to do a race, I run it as hard as I can. Maybe the only distinction I would make with an "A" race is how much I am willing to puke or injure or kill myself near the end to make a certain time or place goal. I think my last 50 miler (maybe a "B" race for the subsequent 100 miler) last month, I had to make a piano recital for my older son. There was no way I was going to give a half-assed effort. (I barely made it, sort of…)

  15. Victoria

    Hi Vijay! I'm the very Victoria who drove to to the starting line at AC100 on August 4 in my BMW. I lost your email and couldn't reach you! I googled your name & ended up on this page! Email me to stay in touch! Victoria

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