Using Races to Prepare for Your Goal Event

A look at how to use practice races to prepare for a goal ultramarathon.

By on May 7, 2013 | Comments

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.


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


50K or 50 mile “B” race Recovery


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


50 mile or 100K “B” race Recovery


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


Peaking Phase Art of Peaking


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

Ian Torrence

Ian Torrence has more than 12 years of experience coaching runners of all levels. Ian has completed more than 220 ultramarathons, with 50+ wins, since his first ultra finish at the 1994 JFK 50 Mile. Ian and his wife, Emily, are online coaches at Sundog Running. Information about his coaching services can be found at