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Race overload – finding the balance between challenge and obsession

Photo credit: Sarah Cooke

Race overload – finding the balance between challenge and obsession

16-Apr-19

By Sarah Cooke

Here at RunUltra, we love running and we love races. Ultra-runners are a diverse breed – our distances range from a bit more than a marathon to hundreds or even thousands of miles. Some of us pick one or two races a year and dedicate our training to them. Others seem to be racing every weekend. In the middle-ground, many of us target some key races and throw in a few others that can be run at low-intensity as training runs or social events.

Can you have too much of a good thing? One thing is clear – there is no magic number of races that will work for all runners. As a rule of thumb, if you are racing hard, you are going to need more recovery time and longer gaps between events. If you approach them as a day out with friends, you may be able to run more of them.

There is also individual variation both in injury proneness and level of training and experience. The key is to judge where the line is for you and to try and avoid comparing yourself to other runners. On a personal note, I ran my greatest number of races in 2017. I had a lot of fun and suffered no injuries.

My mojo was in tip-top condition. I ran slightly fewer races in 2018 but pushed myself harder to ‘race’ some of them. This got me a few podium spots, but my training in between was much less strong. I subsequently opted out of a few events as I realised I was probably ‘over-raced’. My normal pace was feeling much harder than usual, and that is always a sign that there is something going on that requires my attention.

Before deciding how many races to enter, it may be worth clarifying your goals. If you race to get PBs or chase times and podium spots, then you need to think realistically about how frequently you can ask that much of your body. Too many ‘filler’ races will reduce the time available for recovery between your key races.

In contrast, if you enter races because you enjoy the social side and want some long training runs with checkpoints, then you may be able to enter a greater number. Of course, you can enter some races with the intention of using them as training – for example, you might run a 50km race as your last long run before a 50-mile race.

However, you need to know yourself well. Are you someone who is capable of not getting carried along by the enthusiasm of all those runners going out too fast? If you are, then great. If you know you’ll end up ‘racing’, then it may be more helpful to do non-organised training runs.

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Road races in particular will take their toll on your muscles and joints if you run them hard. You may need to think about this and the other demands of each race when planning the length of your recovery time. It is also important to be flexible. If your plan says you have one easy week after a race, but your body is telling you it hasn’t recovered, then you need another easy week.

Listening to your body in this way can be harder than it sounds – how often are you guilty of telling yourself variations of the following: ‘It shouldn’t be this difficult’; ‘I should be recovered by now’; ‘I don’t usually take this long to recover, so it must be in my head’? The risks of Overtraining Syndrome are real and are particularly common in endurance athletes, so be honest with yourself when you are not ready to race again.

What are the signs that you might be racing too much? Injury is an obvious one, but we’d all prefer to spot the signs before it hits that point. Every runner will be familiar with that heavy-legged feeling – maybe it’s your recovery run after a big race or maybe you didn’t sleep enough last night. If you’re getting that feeling consistently, then your body is telling you something. It may be time to ease off from racing and stick to low-intensity running until you feel energetic again.

If you are training for faster times but your results aren’t hitting your targets, then you may need to rethink your approach. A break from racing may allow you to come back stronger and reach your goals.
Another warning sign that you may be racing too frequently is if you no longer feel a little bit excited and nervous as you head to the start line.

If it’s become ‘just another race’ and a bit of a chore, then something needs to change. It may be that your body isn’t ready, or it may be that racing has become too habitual. A break and some changes to your training routine may help you get that hunger back. We don’t have to race.

If you’re not hungry to get going, then ask yourself why you are there. Take the pressure off, and the enthusiasm for pinning on a race number will return at the right time.

In contrast, if a little bit excited and nervous has become full-on panic or dread, then maybe you are spending too much time in your race mindset. Your body is constantly pumping out stress hormones and wearing you down. A burst of adrenaline and cortisol may help you in the short-term, but if you are constantly in ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, you are likely to burn out, as suggested by this article.

The ability to relax is as important as the ability to push yourself when needed. Some long-distance runners may also be prone to basing their self-esteem on race achievements, which may lead to exercise addiction and overtraining (Wood & Turner, 2019).

Races are great – they give you an opportunity to see the outcome of all your hard work, you often get to run in places you wouldn’t train in, you can meet some lovely people and you can test the limits of your capability.

There are many other things that are great for runners – water, salt and calories are all pretty important for long distances. But you can have too much – you don’t want to be the person with hyponatraemia, hypernatremia or gut issues. You also don’t want to be the person who begrudged every mile between the start and finish line because you’d simply had too much. As with most things, balance is key. 

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