Photo from Mount Royal, Frisco, Colorado.

"That is happiness; to be disolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep." - Willa Cather

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Training runs vs. races (or running vs. running away from a bear)

Why can't you substitute training runs with races? Or can you? Are races actually better training? This is a subject I struggle with a lot, but I think I have finally come to an understanding.

The inherent problem with running a race is you trick your body into believing you are running away from a bear. A race is like a training run on amphetamines and opiates. Endogenous though they may be, they allow us to temporarily overlook the fact that we are doing damage to our body (so we aren't eaten by that bear). People who don't believe in pain killers when training should not believe in races for training for the same reasons. What kind of damage are we doing to our body? Well, skeletal muscle is damaged, first of all, and maybe ligaments and tendons. But you can't feel it at the time because you have induced that survival instinct in your body. And nothing hurts, that is, until you attempt to train again. Do races do long term damage to the body? Well, I don't think that question has been fully answered. There is damage to heart muscle, but does it mean anything long term? We don't know...

But what about straight out training? Well, since I just returned from an interval session, I can assure you that you feel pain. And despite the pain, you push yourself. But you can never run like you do in a race when you are alone. That is unless there actually IS a bear behind you. So you slowly increase your body's ability to run fast over time. And THIS is where real improvement comes from.

Here are my 6 x 1 mile interval times from today (2 min. rest):
(same back and forth course as last week, but this time with a strong wind coming from a certain direction (can you tell which direction? :))


And last week


Note the 2 second improvement overall. Okay, not much. But slow and steady progress is the key.

So why run races? Well, the first obvious answer is, because then you have something to train for. The next reason is you gain experience. This is particularly important in ultras. Third is they are fun.

I'm going to use May-Britt as an example, just because I like her so much and because I'm tired of using myself. May-Britt wrote one day that she was going to substitute intervals with a 10k run. My first problem with this was a 10k is a tempo run and not intervals. The second problem was, even if she said it was just a training run, it is hard to not go all out. And she ended up setting a beautiful PR. That is great in itself, but then you suffer a setback the next time you try to train and I don't think you gain anything extra from a race than a training run (since you're high on adrenaline). But she DID get a PR, but she could have gotten a FASTER PR had she trained specifically for that race (hey, but who am I to judge?... I do it too and I'm always happy with a PR!)

An extreme example of this, and my insspiration for writing this post, is stage races, where you run an incredibly challenging race day after day. Jill Homer has just written a very thought-provoking post about her experience and others' at the Trans Rockies bike rice. From my own experience at the Trans Alpine foot race last year, I know that if you are simply used to running on your own on relatively flat land and then race a marathon in the mountains day after day, you body starts pumping out adrenaline big time until it simply can't keep up anymore and your body begins to fall apart. My entire body swelled up like a balloon for 2 weeks after the Trans Alpine last year and then it took me nearly 3 months before I could run and train at my previous speed. One could argue it was a net loss, but it really was an experience of a lifetime. I recommend you read Jill's post for more on this topic.

But let's say that you trained for an entire year or maybe two, where you gradually ran longer and harder in the mountains day after day. And ran very few races. You would then be one of the few people who could show up at the Trans Alpine or Trans Rockies race and escape relatively unharmed (Angela Mudge was a perfect example of this at the Trans Alpine race last year.). And you'd be in super shape because you had focused your training. People who are not used to the terrain and the day after day pounding are simply going to be destroyed by the experience.

With all this in mind, why are we running so many races this fall? They are just so gosh darn fun, of course. Plus they are social events. And things to work towards. I will mention that this weekend is our half ironman. By the time we get to run, I think and hope I'll be too tired from the swim and bike to do damage in the run. I do think my swimming will suffer, though. I had an interval session yesterday in the pool where I did 80 lengths in a 25 meter pool. I had a total of 11 interval down and backs, 1 at 53 seconds, 2 at 54 and the rest around 56-58 (I enjoy writing my swimming times since I have no clue what is fast. It is just totally uncharted territory for me.). It will be interesting to see how much my swimming suffers when I try to do pool intervals next week. And normally 1km of swimming (which we will do this weekend) would have no sort of negative impact. But again, I'm sure the race will be a setback.

Not rocket science here, people. But something I needed to get down in writing to further my own understanding.

Running song of the day: Rococo by Arcade Fire


May-Britt Hansen said...

Allow me to explain: The 10K race was meant as a testrun towards my main goal - a 24 hours race in sept. The particular race is very good as a testrun, because it´s held every month.

I don´t believe you should run a 10K competition and intervals in the same week, at least not when you´ve just taking up intervals as I had.

PiccolaPineCone said...

i'm a great believer in using races as work-outs as long as one trains through them i.e. no taper and accepts the result for what it is i.e. a work-out time not a race time. as always i believe the fastest race times inevitably come from picking a goal race, training to it and tapering.
I agree, races are so much fun... I often use them as work-outs just to partake in the atmosphere and adrenaline - they're getting so costly though I am having a harder and harder time justifying this approach.

SteveQ said...

The line between training and racing gets blurred among ultrarunners who are just trying to finish. I've tried using races as training runs, but I end up going WAY too hard in the "low-key" race and need too long to recover.

The social aspects of racing are most obvious in small local races and ultras, where everybody knows everybody. In the big local races, everyone races to their car to beat the traffic after finishing and have thei "game face" on beforehand.

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Karen said...

I believe that a really hard effort is a good thing. That's what makes us stronger!! When substituting a training run for a race, it's important to make sure they're of similar efforts, ie- a 5K instead of a 5 mi tempo run, or a half marathon for a 15 mile long run.

I really love using races as runs, just to change it up a bit. I don't ever race to the point where nothing is left in the tank though. A recovery of one to two days is fine for all distances but the marathon (since I'm still new to the sheer distance of it all).

Everyone knows their limits, one just has to trust that they won't be tempted to push them too far.

PS- Running away from a bear gives me more adrenaline than running a race. There's the added "I think I might pee myself" factor with the bear that isn't present in a race. :) Can a bear chase me for my next race? I wanna PR.

mmmonyka said...

I have never had a chance to use race as work-out but I think that I would not like that. Truth is that I do not like racing that much especially when I do not feel 100% prepared for a race. But I love training so I think I will continue with solo work-outs.

sea legs girl said...


Thanks for the comment. I will just say that whatever you are doing is working because you are getting faster at all distances it seems and one can't complain about that. Just want to point out that had you run a 10k tempo instead of a race that you could have run a tempo and intervals in the same week and maybe gotten more out of the week. But heck, races AND PRs sure are fun.

PPC, I have no trouble training right up to a race, but it's just the training afterwards that inevitably suffers. No matter how much I tell myself to take it easy, that bear always shows up.


I agree. And this is a good point I forgot. Anytime anyone goes into something thinking: I just want to finish, the bear actually does disappear. Or sometimes. Our bike ride last week was only a minor setback in my bike training since I really went into it just to finish. But my first 50 miler, though my ostensible goal was just to finish, my goal ended up being to win. Where am I going with this?

Anonymous, I don't think you even read what I wrote...

Glad to have a comment here from someone who truly understands the bear analogy :). I was once also really chased by a bear while running.

I basically believe that my most productive weeks are the ones where I don't have races. Unless it's a 5k, I always suffer a setback. But maybe that will change as I get more used to run fast for long distances.

Mmmonyka, I also used to hate the idea of racing. I went nearly all 4 years of med school without a race, just training on my own. Then I ran one marathon. It was great. And then I started racing with SR and racing became a part of my identity. Like everything else, the more you race, the more you'd like it. But as PPC said, you save money by not racing. But you do miss out on meeting people and learning about new running routes.

olga said...

I am an advocat of "race yourself in shape". It always worked for me, even before ultra days (I raced about 100 times before my first marathon in 1.5 years after I started, I would guess). I know how to separate races vs training through races, and in fact, I finished with a feeling "I gave it all I had" only a handful of times in my 80 (or 90?) longer races. I am a slacker, or just don't know how to tap into my potential. I can train hard as well, but it's more mentally demanding to do so for longer than a month. Then I need a race to focus on. I got short-term focus device in my brain, without a goal I loose sight. Because, really, my first real run was a race:) However, it doesn't mean it's the way it has to be done. Everybody simply picks what works for them. That's why on every method there is a contra-method. Like an argument on taper or not, intervals or tempo runs, hills or LT repeats...try it all and figure out what works for you, physically and mentally.

Lisa said...

I may be doing something wrong in my training (probably not training enough), but intervals don't seem to make me faster. The only thing that has made me faster is racing the race distance as a training run. I've read all the stuff about increasing your VO2 max... used different training plans (Jack Daniels, Furman Institute). I find it really confusing, though, because my intervals are inevitably the same - fast, slower, slower, slower, and slower. On the other hand, if I just race as hard as I can, I get faster overall and have more endurance.

I will never know how much my aging process affects my running, since I started so late in life. It's confusing to me - am I getting faster, or am I just slowing the inevitable slowing-down process?

Anyway, this is a good topic and it is interesting to read others' opinions about it.

sea legs girl said...

Olga, yeah, well, as I have seen from the comments here, everyone certainly does have a different idea of what works for them. But part of the problem is, of course, that we are talking about all different lengths of races. When one is training for an ultra, it is hard to use anything but races. But, despite that, my first 50 miler was my best. And I think it was because I trained very specifically for an ultra for over a year prior to it. And I will point out I don't think one would get that much better at 10ks by just running a 10k every weekend. So, I guess what I'm saying is I agree with me... because I'm me. Thus, I agree with you ;). Hope you understood that.

Lisa, I love the honesty of your comment! But for me trying to figure out why your intervals aren't making you faster is like trying to diagnose a heart murmur over email. If you run them as fast as you can regularly (like once a week) you AT LEAST should get faster at the intervals themselves, if not actual races. As women get older, I find they actually get better at the distances of half marathon and beyond (sometimes shorter distances) partly because they know how to train and have gained experience racing. So, I can't explain what's going on with you, but if your goal is to get faster, you definitely can (you are also not very old :)).

mmmonyka said...

I have never races a lot, maybe when I was a kid. But I do not remember whether I enjoyed racing when I was a kid or not. I probably did because what else would keep be going to the track every day while my schoolmates were outside playing, plus prices were always awesome:) Then when I was about 11 or so I went through a phase when I got so nervous before every race that I vomited before every single one. It started before finals on Slovak Championships when I was some of the favorites for 600m title. Maybe too much pressure or something. Weird. It went on for about a year and I do not really understand why.
Later I got kinda indifferent about racing and when I went to college I started to nearly hate it- I loved training although. Only after I quited my college team and started to train on my own (and winning the races in France- probably the hugest factor)I started to enjoy it again. Now I think that I would love to do more races maybe even try using a race as a workout:) You are probably right that more I do more I will enjoying it. But it is really expensive in the US.

SteveQ said...

I absolutely loved the new Cloud Cult song "You'll Be Bright" (currently available only by buying their CD on their official site) for the first 10-20 listens. I was going to recommend it, but now... meh. Tired of it.

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saucony said...

I love training runs and I love to race too. I like you blog too...:D

cherelli said...

I often find it easier to get into a "PB-flow" mode when training....vs a race where mentally everything is quite different. Having said that my fastest times are often in a race simply through pure adrenaline or competitiveness ( or maybe because I'm poor at keeping track of my times in training!). Anyways, I'm hangin' for the HIM race report...I hope it well!!

mmmonyka said...

I became an internet stalker and looped up the results of your HIM. I am not going to spoil the report no worries! Was it really HIM distance (I know you wrote swim is only 1k) because those times were fast! Not that I do not believe that you ran run or bike that fast of course:)but it does not seem right. Either way YOU ROCKED!!!!

sea legs girl said...

Mmmonyka, where did you find the results?? (I don't see that they're listed yet?).

Cherelli, agreed. PB's are in races. But one can get better PB's if one trains right for longer, without using races as training runs (just my opinion). Thanks for hanging in there for the report - good to know someone actually wants to read it.

Steve Q, I just downloaded the song free and legally with Real Player from Youtube. I am impressed you listen to a song so many times before you recommend it or not. Probably a good idea. Thanks for the non-recommendation.