How Much Racing Is Too Much Racing?

AJWs TaproomLast weekend’s exciting results at The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in Chamonix got me thinking about racing 100-mile races and how much is too much. When looking at the top finishers, both international and American runners, the success stories seem to me to tilt heavily toward those who raced infrequently in the six months leading up to this marquee event.

I was particularly impressed with the performances of the two top Americans, Rory Bosio and Jason Schlarb. Interestingly, in 2012 and the first part of 2013, both of these strong and talented runners raced more frequently than they did in the build-up to this year’s race. A quick scan reveals that this season they seemed to drop off the racing map to focus on training and preparation. Then, on race day, they had extraordinary success. I wonder how much racing is too much racing?

I recall my race schedules back when I was running 100 milers competitively and I routinely ran three or four 100s a year. However, in terms of actually being competitive, I faced diminishing returns after one or two in a season. I, like many, got caught up in the fun and adventure of running multiple 100s in a year but as such, in retrospect, I may have done more damage than good. Now, focusing on one race a year, even though I am no longer competitive, seems to be the sweet spot.

The growth of the sport and the increase in sponsorship dollars, prize money, and event exposure I believe has caused an increase in runners overracing. Some runners seem to handle it better than others but the truth remains that in the midst of explosive growth we are seeing an interesting trend toward overtraining, fatigue, and burnout.

I, for one, love this sport too much to sit idly by while some of the world’s best runners run themselves into the ground. Sadly, ultrarunning lore is littered with the names of talented, hard-working runners who did too much, too soon and left the sport before their times were up. I sincerely hope that runners out there will take the time and energy to reflect on those runners who are picking their spots, running what is right for them, and enjoying success well beyond their more competitive years. After all, isn’t it the process not the product that all drove us to this sport in the first place?

Bottoms up!

Blackfoot River Brewing Tartanic Scottish AleBrew’s Beer of the Month

We toured Montana last week, and I was excited to visit Missoula and Bozeman because I’d heard that they’re cool college towns with tons of trails. And they didn’t disappoint. But the town that surprised me a bit was Helena. It has a great outdoor store (The Base Camp), an enormous city park (Mount Helena, with 85 miles of singletrack) with gorgeous views of the valley, and an awesome brewery–Blackfoot River Brewing–that’s just steps from both.

Blackfoot River’s Tartanic Scotch Ale is dark copper, smooth, sweet, and–like all Montana beers–really affordable. (Two of the three breweries I went to had $3 pints and $9 growlers!) We’re headed to Alaska next month for programs in Valdez, Seward, Homer, and Anchorage. Check out Jen’s website for more details.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you think that top Americans at UTMB, Rory and Jason, had outstanding performances in part because of their commitment to this race over other races, or do you think their efforts were more a product of circumstance?
  • What do you think about the concept of too much racing in trail and ultrarunning right now? Do you see this happening in your peers? Or, have you raced too much? (Let’s not name specific names here, and let’s please keep this conversation constructive. Thanks!)

There are 13 comments

  1. Leite_runner

    Spot on AJW!
    I think it all depends on each one's expectations!

    If one just wants to participate in as much races and have fun in just participating, if body permits, go ahead!

    On the other hand, if you make it a goal to target top places in a very very competitive race, you just have to prepare it as such.
    Getting to the race without proper preparation (even if you "feel wonderful" after banging your body in recent races) and expecting to do well against the world's best runners… doesn't seem to work, does it?

  2. @Baristing

    I think Rory and Jason once again demonstrated that a period of dedicated, specific training is – if not outright necessary – certainly of prime importance in competitive races. And it takes time to complete a block of training like that. (You could of course use similar races as "tune-ups", but I don't think many people can hold themselves back once the race starts.)

    For some perspective, it's perhaps instructive that the best marathoners in the world almost never race the distance more than twice in a year. Even given that caution, the vast majority will hit their lifetime PR within the first four tries. (There are exception, like Kawauchi.) The distance is simply very difficult, and even the training necessary to truly race it takes a toll.

    It was more common in the 70's and early 80's for top marathoners to race much more often, but the top end of the sport is simply much deeper now, and faster too. To compete, even the most talented needs something very close to their best possible race.

    MUT running is perhaps in the late stages of such a boom period. As fields grow, and more and more runners arrive with a competitive background – and ambitions to match – those who aspire to podium places probably can't afford even an A- effort.

  3. 413NickT

    Great article AJW! My thought is that this concept also applies to us mid- and back-pack runners in addition to the front runners. Though our time and place goals may be different, realistically it is only feasible for most people to have one or two target races per year if they want to get their best performances.

    I wonder how someone like Brian Rusiecki, who races frequently and at a pretty high level would do if he cut back the racing frequency to one or two 100s and one or two 50s per year (he's already raced five 50s and three 100s so far this year!). Could some of his 3rd or 5th or 15th place finishes be moved up a few slots? Or perhaps there is a lack of pressure when racing so many times each year that you know you'll be able to really pop off a great effort at least once in a while (like his Vermont 100 course record)?

  4. @frumioj

    Let me ask questions back:

    Why concentrate on Americans to begin with?

    How often does Francois D'Haene race? Kilian Jornet?

    And then what about Timmy Olson, who documented his early-year training so well this year and seemed to be so much stronger in training than he has been in racing? So why focus on racing alone?

    I agree that it is easy to get caught up in how good you feel and then ignore the soreness or pain that creeps in, or the tiredness. But that goes beyond racing, certainly, and probably encompasses your whole life (all the stresses that are *not* running stresses too).

    Yes, you should keep balance in your life. What that means for an individual though will vary wildly. Kilian has dominated races consistently for several years and races (what seems like) a lot. I also look at someone like Karl Meltzer, who continues to win a 100-miler every year, even without training much. These guys have found some pattern that works for each of them… From what I can see of Rory Bosio, her attitude is good – she balances life very well so far – I hope she keeps that up because her joy when racing is a joy to behold :) That's true when I watch Tim Olson too, but I have been sad for him this year because of his suffering in several races…

    1. Leite_runner

      Good question…
      "Why concentrate on Americans to begin with?"

      – my point of view: this is mainly an american blog, covering mostly american races (with some exceptions) and following close mostly american runners (with some exceptions). Concentrating on Americans seems legit :) Although I would like to see IrunFar get more global ;)

      Agree with you (and the other previous comments), racing, training, resting, life balance… it all adds up!

      1. ajoneswilkins

        Sorry to be American-centric but I must admit I do not have the time or exposure to appropriate resources to comment on the International scene. i know this is an oversight on my part, but I don't want to pretend to know something I do not know. Hence, my focus on mostly American stuff. That said, if there are international folks out there who would like to offer up suggestions for future columns that could perhaps broaden the context I would be happy to hear about them. I appreciate your understanding in my position on this. AJW

  5. Jogwbaby

    I think it still just comes down to BIG talent/ability. If you are among the worlds best, it will show in just about any race you do and especially among top competition, on a consistent basis whether its two or 20 events per year.

  6. NWRunner

    Definitely a lot of over racing going on these days. Goeff Roes will always be the perfect example, of racing way too much without proper rest and recovery. I hope to see him return to Competitive racing some day!

    1. betscharts

      Seb Chaigneau is an other exemple of racing to much in the last 2 years. 4 major races at his age is to much. Look at his results this year.

  7. robindoeseverything

    It depends on what your purpose for racing is though. I think only the elites need to worry about over racing. The rest of us, hopefully, aren't racing to win — we're doing it because it's really fun! And since when was too much fun a bad thing? I personally overrace, love it, and do not plan to change my ways. Increased fun is worth decreased potential performance in my book. (Indeed, that's the same rationale by which I'd jump out of an airplane or some such other stunt. "I might lose life and limb, but y'know what, this is AWESOME, and that's worth it to me.")

  8. Max

    Even the unstoppable KJ puts down unusually relaxed performances at races, I suspect to keep the pressure of racing so much in check. If not just the physical strain of taper/recovery cycles that take a lot quality training time out, the mental pressure of having to deliver a top performance so frequently has to be a strain on its own.
    Me personally, I haven't raced once last two seasons and I haven't been happier with running in a while.

  9. Joe_the_runner

    I totally agree that many runners race away their max potential on target day. But, I don't agree with your definition of "competitive". I've heard you mention that several times that your competitive days are behind you. Just because a guy is past his prime and not able to go for 1st place or the top 10 in a major race makes him or her not competitive? I really doubt that your 19 someting at western qualifies as a leisurely walk in the park. In my opinion if you've done everything you can in training and on race day to reach your top potential, then you are competitive in the truest sense of the word.

  10. hallhoff

    In the beginning, I think you've simply got to train and race to excess, if only to get the experience and confidence you need to compete.

    Later on, unless you're a bucket-lister who cares more about doing than doing well (and open question whether that's really a respectable approach), you've got to dial it back.

    In part, sure, the point is to train and peak for a particular race. But the pros have the added pressure of preserving their brand, and in that sense ultrarunning has more in common with prizefighting as opposed to, say, tennis. One loss or bad performance and you're out of the conversation. That's why you'll never see all of the pros in the same 50 or 100, the way you will see all of the world's best tennis players in the U.S. Open. In the law we call it "forum shopping"—bringing a case where you think you'll get the best results.

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