Training Strategy Switch Up: Tune-Up Races

Bottle opener medal – only in Wisconsin!

This post is all about tune-up races!  To me, tune-up races are a crucial part of marathon training.  Typically, I try to get a few in during the 6 weeks prior to my goal marathon to gauge my fitness.  10Ks and half marathons are ideal for this.  I race them all out to try to see where I am at.  Then I plug my time into a race calculator (McMillan is my favorite).

Without exception, I am either ecstatic, or a wee bit worried.  Tune-ups are not a perfect forecast of what you can do in your key race: weather may be different, the course may be a lot harder (or easier), etc., but it is nice to see where you are.  Tune-up races are also ideal for practicing your mental toughness – 10Ks hurt and it takes some serious mental mojo to race one hard and well.  The experience is valuable before a key marathon.

This season, I did something a little different though.  The way my schedule worked out, I could only fit in one 10K.  It was 7 weeks before my race and it was a bit of a disaster.  There were a couple other opportunities, but I wanted to race with my kids rather than race all out.  Interestingly, however, two weeks prior to my goal race, there was a brand new race starting (almost literally) in my back yard.  Unfortunately, the race options were 5K or half marathon only.  I know a 5K isn’t much of a predictor (particularly since I haven’t run a single mile at 5K pace this season!), but I also knew it was way too close to my goal marathon to all out race a half.

So I stepped into new territory and ran the half at my goal marathon pace.  Now, I have NEVER been able to do this in the past. For some this may be easy.  For me?  I get way too caught up in the race and want to GO GO GO!  But this time, I was determined to be disciplined and to treat this run as a dress rehearsal for my big event.  Keep the eyes on the prize.

The day of my “dress rehearsal” race, it was absolutely beautiful: 35 degrees and sunny at the start; 42ish at the finish with a very light wind.  Perfect. My son and his buddy decided to run the 5K and we were all excited to get up and out there!

My boy and I excited and ready to run!

The race benefited a local Parkinson’s Chapter, and the grand marshal was a man with Parkinson’s.  He gave a great opening.  The entire race was set up very well and there was a great turnout for an inaugural race (about 400 racers).  We soon took off and, per normal, I went out a bit too fast.  The first mile clicked off at a 7:25 pace.  Oops.  The goal was 7:45s.  So I reigned it in and kept trying to flood my mind with positive thoughts.  My coach had advised me to practice doing this and to plan to do it during my marathon.  It was helpful!  The entire race, I felt relaxed and in control.  I ended up finishing in 1:39:57.  Slightly faster than I planned for, but pretty close.  The critical factor was that I felt very comfortable the entire time.  It gave me an opportunity to practice my race pace and mental strategies.  Even better, it gave me great confidence!  I have to admit, this approach is much more enjoyable than all-out racing a 10K too.  I may have to do this more often!

After I finished, my son was beaming when I found him.  He finished the 5K in 25:1x and was thrilled – even though it was a little slower than last weekend.  Unfortunately, he just missed out on hardware.  Apparently, they “double-dipped” in medals, meaning the top three also received age group awards.  Bummer.  I hate that when races do that.  People really do not need two trophies for one race!  Oh well, I am also biased because I thought it was so great he was so close.  The good news was that he didn’t mind one bit.

But back to the topic at hand:  The dress rehearsal strategy was definitely a success for me.  Moving forward, I think I am going to try to incorporate both full-out tune-up races and one dress rehearsal race.

What kind of tune-ups do you typically do prior to a goal race?

Mindi is a serial marathoner. She is a private practice attorney, wife and mom of two awesome (and super fast) boys, ages 12 and 14. She coaches Girls on the Run and is a big advocate of youth running.

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  1. Mint, how do you recommend timing the tune-up race? I’m struggling with whether to do one before my fall marathon or not. I have gotten injured before when I’ve raced too much in a season, and my Type A-ness just really wants to stick to the training calendar and get those long runs in. But, I do think it would be good to do a dress rehearsal!

  2. If I am *racing* (not trying to log marathon pace miles), I like to do a 10k 2 weeks and/or 4 weeks (frankly 6 weeks too if possible) out from my goal race. If you are hoping to race a half, I wouldn’t do it any closer than 4 weeks to your goal race and that could be pushing it because often we do a 20 miler (or longer 3 weeks out). If you are practicing goal pace, you are okay doing it 2 weeks out if you do not have history of injury and are a pretty seasoned distance runner. If not – or if in doubt – push it out farther (4 weeks or more – preferably when you have a cut-back week). Running marathon pace is great for confidence, but you don’t want anything to be detrimental to the key recovery you need weeks before the race.