Replacing Tune-Up Races

Marathon training through an Alaskan winter has it's hurdles, such as but not limited to, getting kicked off the trail by a moose
Marathon training through an Alaskan winter has it’s hurdles, such as but not limited to, getting kicked off the trail by a moose

Let’s pretend for a moment that you signed up for a winter marathon. Let’s assume you signed up in September when it was a balmy 45 degrees and not a snowflake in sight. And just hypothetically speaking, let’s imagine that you told everyone you weren’t going to let a little winter weather stop you. Oh yes, you were going to layer up and get your trail shoes spiked and run every last mile outside, treadmill be damned. And let’s just say that you’re now eating crow snow. And running 20 milers on the treadmill. I mean, just hypothetically….

So yes, training in Alaska for a winter marathon in California is less than optimal. (Except for the part about going to California in January. That part totally works.) I’m getting it done, thanks in large part to Salty’s treadmill tips, but I’m running into the conundrum of what to do for the prescribed “tune-up races” in my training plan. Who’d have guessed that tune-up races are hard to come by during the winter in Alaska?

With no tune-up races in sight, what does one do instead? Good question! In fact,ย I’m interested in your input: how would you replace the tune-up races in your training plan?

I am following a Pfitzinger training plan, from his book Advanced Marathoningย (great book and well respected training plans!). The plan calls for three tune-up races ranging from 8K to 15K. (For a Salty primer on tune-up races, go here.) Pfitz himself outlines the purpose of tune-ups in his book:

The tune-up race is simply a race of lesser importance that you use to help prepare for your goal race. Tune-up races serve three purposes, they: 1) make you experience the nervous preparation for racing which helps reduce your anxiety before your goal race; 2) toughen you mentally and physically by taking you to your limit; and 3) provide feedback on your current fitness level.

This all sounds well and good. But what do you do when there are no races of any distance available within a 1,000 mile radius? What do you do when an all-out outdoor run would all but guarantee a face-plant induced injury? Rather than beat myself repeatedly with the SpiBelt as punishment for the brilliant idea of training through an Alaskan winter for something other than a dog-sled race, I resolved to make the most of this wintery hurdle. As such, I asked Coach Google about replacement options for those trusty tune-up races, and here’s what she had to offer.

English: Gradski vrt Hall - Indoor track
Anyone want to race me? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  1. Time trial on an indoor track. In this scenario, pick a distance and race against the clock. Treat the run like a race, going through the normal pre-race routine–warm up, strides, cool down, the whole deal.
  2. Hard solo tempo effort on the treadmill. Like the track option above, choose a distance and cycle through your pre-race routine. The difference is that you’ll need to set a goal pace upfront rather than running by feel.ย  Anything 10k or shorter should be done faster than your normal tempo pace. Using a training pace and race predictor calculator like this one can help you determine an appropriate time goal for the distance.
  3. Recruit a faster friend to “race” with you. This option only works if you have access to relatively clear roads or an indoor track, and of course, an awesome running pal that you can trust to truly push you. (Where’s Salty when I need her?!)

I have my first “tune-up” scheduled for this week, but haven’t decided yet how to tackle it. I’m still holding out hope that my fairy runmother will whisk me away in her time-traveling (heated) carriage to line up for a 10k in Seattle this Saturday. A girl can dream….at least right up until the point when it’s time to hit “start” on the treadmill.

Got any advice for me? Have you ever faced the winter tune-up race dilemma? What has worked for you? Help!

Recovering corporate hamster-wheeler turned Alaskan hausfrau, mother of two and running enthusiast. Kind of a June Cleaver in tempo shorts...minus the makeup and vacuum. Will run to great lengths to get a moment of peace.

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  1. A real race effort is really hard to achieve without the big pack of people and the race atmosphere, but I think you could get close if you had a friend pace and clock you and told yourself you were going to publish your results here for hundreds of people to see!

    Is there absolutely nothing within driving distance during the appropriate time span? Not even a 5k? I mean, since it’s Alaska I totally buy that, but if you can find even just one short race I think that will help you achieve the desired goals.

    1. Nope, no road races at all, unless you count the Solstice Marathon up in Fairbanks which is on icy roads and -20 degrees. I’m crazy, but not that crazy. They just don’t clear the roads very well in the winter here, so most of the roads in town are a sheet of ice. I don’t trust myself on that for an outdoor tempo, let alone a racing effort.
      Posting the results for 100s to see, well, that might be enough to help me go all out. I got a little nervous just reading that, so maybe that would help simulate the pre-race jitters too! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I have run into the same problem here in Wisconsin when prepping for an early spring marathon. It IS hard and I like your ideas. I agree with Cinnamon that it is nearly impossible to race on your own without the race atmosphere, but I have done it before. In fact, I came within 10 seconds of my 10k PR by “racing” all on my lonesome in my neighborhood. The other thing I have done is replace the race with a speed workout. It is not the same and doesn’t give you the mental prep of a race, but it is better than nothing. Good luck – are you doing CIM?

    1. Thanks! I’m doing the Carlsbad. I looked at the CIM but it was sold out long before I could make a decision about whether to make a go at the marathon. Pretty impressive to get that close to a PR “racing” by yourself! That’s some serious mental strength! I’m marking it down as good inspirational fodder for me when I’m racing all on my lonesome this week. ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. Yes – CIM does sell out fast. Every time I’ve considered it, it’s been too late too. ๐Ÿ™‚ Yeah, I was pretty shocked to pull that off too and I always think back to it when I want to bag a really hard effort within 6 weeks of race day. BTW – I think the Pfitz plans are awesome. Good luck (not that you’ll need it with all the work you are putting in)…..

  3. As a previous resident of AK…I can attest that running races are few and far between in the winter, probably because the roads are usually pretty icy/not fully scraped.

    I don’t know if this would help you (or anyone else out there in the northern part of the US), but I’d recommend taking up cross country or skate skiing…The mechanics are a little different from running, but having been a runner most of my life, I found it really easy to take up skiing. There are quite a few ski races in Alaska, and its an excellent cross training activity. Also, once you get your gear (i’d recommend play it again sports or REI to get geared up if you’re in Anchorage) it’s pretty much free as many if not all of the trails are free to access. It’s also WAY more fun than running on a treadmill or track.

    1. Love this idea! I’ve been saying I want to take up skate skiing every since we moved here. I thought it would be good cross training but didn’t even consider that there might be some races. I’ll have to look more into that idea. Thanks!

  4. Well, let’s think about this. The purpose of the tune-up races is: 1) get a racing experience under your belt; 2) to toughen you up mentally and physically; and 3) test your fitness.

    1. You have racing experiences. You can channel them in several ways. One is to build up a lot of pressure around yourself to perform on a workout, as Cin mentioned. Be accountable for your performance to others. Tell us what your goal is for the workout and go out there and give it your shot. Also, do a proper warm-up and cool down and go through a prerace routine that you want on marathon race day before EACH of these workouts.

    2. You are training for your first marathon through your first Alaskan winter. I think you have this one covered.

    3. It’s your first marathon and you have a goal that is well within reach. If you do the training, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to get your goal with good weather and a cooperating body. You can also get a good read on your fitness by how your workouts go.

    All this being said, I’d probably suggest to do workouts the length of the races, but doing them on a treadmill it’s really hard to do a race effort just because of how the machine works: you’re stuck at the pace the machine says until your fingers move it up and down. It’s hard to explain, but having to take those overt steps to speed up or slow down makes it harder to race-race. Anyway, I’d try to run within 10-15 seconds of what you’d hope to run in a race. So if you’d want to run a 1:38 half, I’d be happy with a 1:41-1:42 on the mill.

    Lastly, maybe there is a running club and you could contact them about having a couple of people run with you or time you on a track? Do you belong to a gym? Maybe you could talk to them about organizing a treadmill race? This could be an opportunity to get involved with your running community (or to swear a lot on your basement treadmill).

    Let us know what you do and how it goes!!!

    1. Thanks, Coach. ๐Ÿ™‚ I am going to attempt to “race” 5 miles on an indoor track tomorrow afternoon. I’ve got to do this one by myself because (a) it’s the only time I can squeeze it in and (b) all 2 of my runner friends have day jobs. I would be thrilled to average 7:15, as my normal tempo pace of 7:30 still feels way more difficult that I want it to be. I’ll let everyone know how it goes in the next training log!!