In the fall of 2017, Ann Marie Chappell won the Hawk Marathon Trail Race, setting a course record. Less than a month later, she won the Rock Bridge Revenge 50K, again finishing with a course record. In the span of just a few weeks, Chappell had raced over 57 miles, quite successfully.
While there are numerous multi-day races and challenges where runners race in two or more events over the weekend, many runners, like Chappell, are creating their own race calendar challenges by setting two or more goal races over just a few weeks or months. These runners finish one race, such as in Chappell’s case, a marathon, and instead of taking a lengthy break, eye another race just around the corner.
The difficulties with the goal of running multiple races in a short stretch of weeks include a longer training cycle, trying to hold an extended peak, increased risk of injury, and the chance of mental burnout. But coaches say back-to-back racing isn’t impossible, and can be enjoyable.
“Racing is fun, especially in comparison to training, and athletes are always going to continue to chase that next personal best,” says Seth Kopf, owner and running coach at Kopf Running. “I think it’s natural and honestly important to ask ourselves, ‘What am I capable of? What are my limits?’
“Running back-to-back events is tough and pushes us to see what we’re capable of and just how far we can go.”
Tune-up or Combined Challenge
Traditionally, many runners use one race as a tune-up or “building block” to a PR at the next race, says Joanna Zeiger, coach with Race Ready Coaching and author of The Champion Mindset: An Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness.,
Zeiger says, however, that back-to-back races don’t have to be about hitting a goal time in either; the combined distance creates its own unique and satisfying challenge. “Not every race needs to be a PR, and at a certain time in an athlete’s career, PRs become more and more difficult,” she says. “Consecutive races offer a new challenge that doesn’t require a best time.”
In Chappell’s experience, she intended to use the marathon as a tune-up for her 50K, but she said race day conditions were prime for her to “go for it.”
“The atmosphere and the joy of everyone at the Hawk (marathon) really brought out the very best in me that day,” she says. Rolling through the first race on a high, she faced the second without feeling run down.
Another reason she was able to give both races her best effort? Both runs were trail races.
“The trail surface itself is a lot more forgiving, and although I needed a few days to recover from the aerobic stress of the trail marathon, my body bounced back a lot more quickly than it did after any of my road marathons.”
A Long Climb to a Wide Peak
Chappell won both her races with a specific training plan and what she calls a “dedicated and conscientious approach” to strength training, recovery and rest. Following a traditional “periodization” model, she divided her training cycles into phases, such as running economy specific work and lactate threshold training.
Her training peaked just before the marathon and tapered for two weeks before race day. Between the marathon and the 50K, she backed off intense workouts and ran by feel the week after the marathon.
“I had no runs planned ahead of time, and no training goals,” she says. “I gave myself time to run easy with the understanding that I had just raced a marathon.”
During the weeks between the races, she logged nearly 75 miles in one week, but the week before the 50K, she cut back her mileage to less than 50. Race week, she said she only ran four times.
“I knew that my fitness would not go away in a few short weeks before my second race, so my main goal during the interim was to recover and feel ready to go again for the second race,” she says.
As tricky as it is to arrive to one race day healthy, preparing for healthy starts at back-to-back races takes more care, coaches say.
Chappell says just as important to her training was taking days off—sometimes opting for up to two full rest days in a week.
“I also listen to my body,” she says. “As cliché as this sounds, it’s a skill that has to be cultivated and maintained as we grow and change over the years. I have been running and racing for 25 years, and through this time, I’ve learned which kind of fatigue or discomfort are OK and expected and which signal that it’s time for a break, a back-off in intensity or a reset.”
Runners need quality sleep and rest, particularly during long training cycles, Zeiger says.
“If an athlete is starting to feel burnt out during a training cycle, it is OK to back off or take a few days off to reset,” she says. “Make training social and fun and don’t put too much emphasis on any single workout. One workout won’t make you, but it can break you.”
Powered by Joy
With two or more races looming so close on the calendar, it’s easy to face mental burnout, but Kopf says runners can ward off weariness with yoga and meditation.
George Berg, owner of coaching site Running Wild, also suggests running new routes to keep training fresh and keeping an encouraging running company around you.
“Stay as far away from negative runners as you can,” he says. “These are the runners that complain about every race and why they are not getting PRs or a BQ constantly. Surround yourself with positive runners … The minute you make excuses is the minute you don’t achieve success.”
For Chappell, her success in both races came from trusting her training and a passion for running.
“I never had a time goal in either race,” she says. “I only wanted to bring my best to whatever situation presented itself to me on race day.
“And, at the end of the day, I didn’t measure the quality of my experience by a finishing time or place. It was the richness of the process, the spectrum of experience, and the total joy with which I ran that is what stands out to me.”