While not without its potential pitfalls, it is possible — and it can be beneficial.

Planning the perfect training schedule is always a delicate balance between doing what is “fun” — e.g., ripping 200 meter repeats, 24-hour relays with friends, and racing every weekend — and doing the right kind of work to spur the physiological adaptations necessary to run personal bests. Unfortunately, even when you’ve found the ideal training plan to follow, things don’t always go as smoothly as you might like.

Injuries, sickness, or even a tough spell at work can sometimes leave you in less-than-ideal with a long list of already-paid-for races on the schedule. Or, you might be involved in a running club or race series that requires you to run all its events, even though that might not be conducive to your marathon buildup. Whatever the circumstances, you might find yourself in a situation where you have a strong obligation to race often while still wanting to make positive fitness gains. While not without its potential pitfalls, it is possible to race yourself into shape.

Let’s take a look at the positives and negatives of racing yourself into shape so you can decide if it’s the right choice for you, and , if so, provide some helpful tips for effectively implementing this strategy into your training schedule.

The Benefits Of Racing Yourself Into Shape

While racing yourself into shape is a tricky, high-risk way to train, it does have its benefits. Here are a few ways racing yourself into shape can be beneficial:

1. You Don’t Have To Work Out Alone
My favorite benefit of racing yourself into shape is that you don’t have to work out alone. If you do a majority of your hard running alone, it can be nice to have competitors alongside you to help push you to better performances and distract you from the mind-numbing task of running hard for 5K, 10K or whatever the distance may be.

Along the same lines, having these built-in “training partners” can help take your workouts to the next level, especially if you’re having trouble pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone.

2. You Can Easily Measure Progress
One of the most difficult things about executing long blocks of training without racing is that it’s often difficult to notice imperceptible gains in fitness. It’s difficult to compare how 10 x 800 meters on the track compares or translates to a 2 x 3-mile tempo run in terms of quality or progress. When you race yourself into shape, you can pretty easily track your progress from race-to-race, even on different courses (using familiar competition as a barometer). It can be a boost to your confidence if you’re progressing each time you race.

3. Gain Experience Racing
You can gain a lot of racing experience from racing frequently. Veteran runners can get more practice at events outside their normal comfort zones and beginners can hone the racing skills they’ll need to set big PRs down the road. Lots of things can go wrong during a race, such as watch malfunction, falling, shoes coming untied, learning to time your kick, etc., and racing often can expose you to these different experiences so you’ll be prepared should they happen at a goal race.

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Things To Keep In Mind

Sometimes racing yourself into shape can’t be avoided and it might be the best training option you have available. In this case here are three common issues you need to be wary of:

1. You’re Not Going To Hit A PR At Every Race
Given the training load, your current fitness, and your lack of race-specific workouts, you can’t expect to PR often, if at all, when you’re racing yourself into shape. Rather than PR attempts, consider these races as high intensity, fitness-building tempo runs instead. As such, you should expect that running what would normally be a comfortable pace to feel hard, or for your effort to not be adequately reflected in your finishing time.

2. Not Running Well Can Ruin Your Psyche
Along the same lines, it is very important that you not let these bad races impact you mentally. Even when you understand that you’re “training through” a race, it can be difficult to run poorly and get beaten by runners who don’t normally beat you. It’s important to remember the bigger goals ahead and stay mentally strong through the weeks you’re racing yourself into shape. Otherwise, you’ll destroy your confidence and try to over compensate during your other workouts, which can lead to a vicious cycle of frustration and overtraining.

3. Races Are Still Harder Than A Workout
While in your mind you’re using the race as a workout, races are still harder on your body because oftentimes you’re not staying within a certain effort or pace range. Even if you say, “I am just going to do this race as a tempo run,” it almost never works out this way — you’ll almost always run hard when the bib is on your shirt and the competition is there. Be extra cautious when it comes to recovery and overtraining after races you’ve used as workouts. Likewise, you need to be cognizant that you don’t burn yourself out mentally or get stale from racing too much.

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How To Race Yourself Into Shape

Now that you understand the benefits and potential pitfalls of racing yourself into shape, here are some helpful tips for implementing this strategy into your training schedule.

1. Don’t Taper For Each Race
To ensure that racing yourself into shape doesn’t become just racing each week without progressing toward a bigger goal, you’ll need to shy away from dropping your weekly mileage too much each time you’re set to step on the starting line. Don’t cut the distance of your run the day before the race and consider adding a few miles to the warmup and cooldown to keep your overall mileage high.

2. Don’t Try To Squeeze Everything In
Keep in mind that a race takes the place of one of your workouts for the week — it’s not an additional workout. It’s not advisable to run a long run, speed workout, tempo run and race in the span of one week. That is simply too much quality work and not enough recovery, even for a well-trained runner. The race should take the place of one of your quality workouts.

However, you need to make sure you don’t replace the same workout each week or you risk not tapping into that energy system. If you skip your long run every week, you’ll be sacrificing aerobic development. Meanwhile, substituting a race for a tempo run is a close approximation, but it isn’t always stressing the same energy system. Mix up the workouts and race distances you run to make sure you’re engaging all of your energy systems.

3. Space Out Your Races
The biggest mistake runners make when they are trying to race themselves into shape is thinking they need to race every weekend. Not only does racing take its physical and mental toll, but as noted above, you still need time to train. Even when racing yourself into shape, limit competition to no more than once every two weeks — although spacing your races out by three to four weeks would be even better. Remember, it takes 7-10 days to realize the benefits of a workout, so if you race every weekend, it will be difficult to see measurable gains.

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