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
Photo from the 2014 Ice Age Trail 50 Miler by Ali Engin. Permission to use header photo must be obtained through Ali Elgin.
"Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." - Howard Thurman