Race overload – finding the balance between challenge and obsession

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.

https://run-ultra.com/media/images/Overload%2520article/Sarah-Cooke-RunUltra-Overload-article-April-19-image-1.jpg

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. 

"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."

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on reddit
Share on whatsapp
Share on email

Like what you read?

Click here to sign up for more

Related news

Latest news

Global - Virtual

Elevation

A virtual race which can be run at any time shown on the dates shown, on any type of terrain in any country.

Suitable for

For runners from beginners to experienced as you choose your own course and challenge based on the guidelines and options set by the virtual race organiser.

Endurance - Multi-activity

Elevation

An ultra distance race including at least two of the following activities such as running, swimming, cycling, kayaking, skiing and climbing. It may also include different climatic conditions (eg ice, snow, humidity, cold water, mud or heat).

Suitable for

Experienced multi-skilled athletes who have trained for the different activities included in this event. Admission to these races may be subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Check with the race organiser regarding entry requirements and any specialist equipment required such as a wetsuit, skis or a mountain bike.

Brutal

Elevation

Increase of up to 2000 metres with very challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity, heat or at high altitude)

Suitable for

Very experienced long distance ultra runners (min 3 years’ experience) or are doing regular long distance running (>50 miles) with elevation and conditions shown (where possible). Admission to these races is often subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Purchase of specialist kit is often recommended for these races.

Expert

Elevation

Increase of up to 2000 metres with some challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity or heat)

Suitable for

Experienced runners who have completed at least 4 ultras in last 12 months, or are doing regular long distance running (>50 miles) with elevation and conditions shown (where possible). Admission to these races may be subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Check with the race organiser regarding entry requirements.

Advanced

Elevation

Increase of up to 1500 metres

Suitable for

Runners who have completed several ultra distances or similar events, or are doing long distance running regularly, with elevation shown.

Intermediate

Elevation

Increase of up to 1000 metres

Suitable for

Runners who have completed at least one ultra in last 6 months or are doing long distance running (>26 miles) regularly, with elevation shown.

Beginner

Elevation

Very little change < 500 metres

Suitable for

First ultra event. Runners completing a marathon or doing regular long distance running (>26 miles) in the last 6 months.