How Much Racing is Too Much?
A carefully planned race schedule should develop you as an athlete with valuable race experience, help guide your training, and serve as stepping stones to peak performance.
Races planned too frequently leave little room for quality training between races and can erode some components of fitness over time. Some recreational athletes can get away with “racing into shape” and use local events as key workouts if they are unable or unwilling to push themselves in training or don’t want to follow a structured plan. However, to reach another level of fitness requires some periodization scheme that a packed race schedule does not allow. These days, the calendar is so saturated with races it is tempting to plan an overly aggressive race schedule.
Conversely when races are too spread out, peak performances can be missed and races can be the best feedback to steer your training. Racing can result in a level of performance not possible in training. Especially if most training is done alone, a local race can nurture your competitive drive and also allow for some socializing with like-minded people.
Don’t underestimate the recovery required from longer races. It is always amazing for me to see the relative intensity that is possible for 2-3-4+ hour events. Sustained, high intensity for long duration requires the most amount of recovery time. For racing, duration becomes a more important factor since doubling the race distance might only drop intensity 5-10%.
Quantifying recovery time can be difficult and it is individual. Recovery depends on both intensity and duration. Suunto measures this with a “peak training effect” score which takes into account intensity and duration as well as individual fitness level. Suunto goes a step further by measuring autonomic nervous system fatigue. Suunto can estimate the peak training effect of a single workout and also monitor recovery time needed from cumulative training.
Training peaks will also estimate the training stress using relative intensity and duration. Their most accurate method uses percentages of functional threshold power. For example, if you ride for 1 hour at 100% of FTP, then your training stress score (TSS) is 100. If you ride for 1 hour at 75% FTP, then TSS is 75. If you increase duration and ride for 2 hours at 75% FTP, then TSS would be 150. You can see that racing for long durations at 80-90% FTP can result in some very high training stress scores.
I once heard an Ironman Pro blog about how he needed to work on his speed so he decided to race a half ironman every week for 4+ weeks straight. It didn’t end well. If you want to work on speed, run a local 5k or jump in a 40km TT. Shorter races are much easier to recover from, much more predictable, and you are guaranteed to race above your training intensity.
The bottom line is that long races require long recovery times and will impact training for quite some time. For perspective, when I ran collegiate cross country, all of the races during the season were 8k, since 10k races required too much time for recovery. At the absolute minimum, give yourself at least 2 days recovery for every 1 hour of racing. That doesn’t mean do nothing, but don’t schedule a key workout for at least 5 days after a 2.5-hour race. Use some performance metrics to keep yourself honest. If your heart rate and RPE are way up at an endurance intensity, then give that hard workout another day or two. If your races are properly spaced then you can get into another block of training instead of race/recover/race/recover.
Increased risk of overtraining
Racing in a fatigued state can increase the risk of overtraining. Think about how deep into the well you can dig during a race and how depleted and dehydrated you can get. It can either be the best stimulus or put you deeper in a hole. Recovering from a race is different than recovering from a hard workout. Just as some aspects of fitness are cumulative, so can be recovery time. In most cases overreaching is a better description and can be reversed in as little as two weeks of lighter training and refraining from racing. Ultimately performance indicators are the best to distinguish between the two. However, it is a slippery slope and better not to ignore the warning signs by stubbornly adhering to a busy race schedule. Intensified training and racing is the process, overreaching and overtraining are an outcome.
Training through races
Let me just say I really don’t like the idea of training through races. A race is an opportunity to rise to another level of performance and to measure yourself against your competition. If you are taking off work, spending $1000+ to fly to race and stay in a hotel, you want to give it the best shot possible. A race will tell you how good you are on that one day and can be a big confidence builder for more important races. If you are so fatigued from sabotage training that you are shutting down half way through the race, then how are you able to learn anything from the race or draw confidence moving forward?
A good approach when planning your race schedule is to prioritize races A, B, C. “A” races would require a proper taper or at least a lighter week of training. “C” races you can train through as long as they aren’t too long. If you have a “C” priority long race, then consider moving that up to A or B priority and give it the proper attention it deserves. If you are using races for your training, then try to select shorter, local races for the most part, unless you have a long break until the next “A” priority race.
Ideally, I like to see 4-6 weeks spacing between “A” priority competitions. Of course, race organizers don’t always collaborate to make that happen. Occasional back-to-back races can be ok as long as there is some time to regroup. It’s when you have 4 or 5 race weekends in a row that it becomes a problem. It’s like getting enough sleep, if you get 4-6 hours of sleep one or two nights it’s not a big deal, but when you have 10 consecutive nights of less than 6 hours of sleep then you function like you are intoxicated.
- 4-6 weeks spacing for important key competitions
- Include proper recovery weeks before all A and B priority races and you will not only perform better, but recover faster
- Don’t underestimate recovery from long races (minimum of 2 days for every 1 hour of racing)
- Take into consideration logistics for a race when planning recovery (travel time, doubling down on work/life stress, time zones).
- Choose shorter distances for low priority training races.