Have fun and boost your fitness by incorporating races into your workouts.

Besides talent, perhaps the biggest difference between the training approach of elite runners compared to the middle-of-the-packers is in the amount of racing they do as part of their important training segments. Elite runners often spend months toiling in obscurity for the chance to peak and perform their best at one single race. Runners such as Ryan Hall are the epitome of this training style, racing perhaps a half a dozen times over the course of a given year.

Other than the occasional tuneup race, which is used to assess fitness and address training weaknesses, elite marathoners don’t jump into races willy-nilly. Each race they contest is carefully chosen to elicit the best possible training buildup for their goal race. Contrast this approach with what your last marathon or half marathon training segment looked like.

If you’re like a lot of the runners I coach, your schedule was filled with a few charity 5Ks, a couple of fun 10Ks with your friends, and maybe even a half marathon because it was in your neighborhood. Since you’re not a professional runner and your livelihood doesn’t depend on your race performances, you shouldn’t feel too bad about having this type of race schedule—heck, running is supposed to be fun!

However, if you’re like most runners, setting a new PR is a big part of what makes running enjoyable, so it’s important to strike a balance between optimal training and adding in fun races.

Over the next few pages I’ll explain how you can incorporate some of those low-key, fun races into your training schedule while still keeping the integrity of your plan intact.

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Using Races As Part Of Your Long Run

Turning a race into a part of a long run is a great way to maximize training while still having fun, especially if you’re training for the marathon. In essence, running a race as part of a long run mimics a fast finish long run.

The specifics are easy to accomplish. Simply substitute the race distance for the last miles of your long run (excluding a 1-2 mile cool down). For example, if you have a 16-mile long run scheduled, and the race is a 10K, you would run 8 miles at your normal long run pace, race the 10K, and then “cool down” for the final two miles.

The key to successfully executing this type of workout is finishing your easy miles as close to the start of the race as possible. The shorter you can make the time between your easy miles and the start of the race, the more closely you mimic a true long run. For crowded races, this might be a little tricky, but for your typical local race, it shouldn’t be too difficult.

You can confidently execute this type of “race long run” every two to three weeks in place of a fast finish or up-tempo long run. Try not to do a fast finish long run and a “race long run” back-to-back if you’re not an experienced runner, or you run the risk of overtraining.

The advantage to using a race as part of a long run is that you can simulate taking fluids and energy gels while running fast and low on glycogen. It’s the perfect opportunity to specifically practice and hone your fueling skills.

The race/long run combo works great if your expectations going into the race are you want to run decent, but it doesn’t have to be great (the results will be published in the local paper, so you’re just looking to run a respectable time); or you are just out to have fun with fellow runners (time is trivial, you’re just out to enjoy the course and the post race food).

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Doing Workouts After Races

Coach Alberto Salazar popularized the post-race workout with his star pupil, Galen Rupp. Not wanting to sacrifice the volume of training needed to reach the podium, yet still needing to work on Rupp’s finishing speed and racing tactics, Salazar began having Rupp run workouts after some of his races. However, you don’t have to be an Olympian to benefit from this innovative workout concept.

Similar to the race/long run combo, working out after a race takes a little planning, but if you get creative, it’s not hard to accomplish. You simply need to pick a workout that fits within your training goals, give yourself the appropriate rest after the race, and find a good, safe place to run hard.

For example, when training for the marathon, you could do a workout like one of these:

1. Normal race warm-up, 5K race, 10 minutes rest, 5 x 1K (run the course again) at 10K to half-marathon pace w/60 seconds rest between repetitions. Great for working on improving your lactate threshold.

2. Normal warm-up, 10K race, 10 minutes rest, 8 x 60 secs at 3K to 5K race pace or 8 x 60 sec hill repeats w/equal rest. Develops speed and teaches you how to run fast when tired.

3. Normal race warm-up, 5K race, 5 minutes rest, 5K at marathon pace. Excellent way to work on lactate clearance.

Depending on your pace and the course layout, you can either run the course again (yes, you may look silly, but we all do in short running shorts anyway) or find a nearby track or traffic-free road.

While this type of race/workout combo means you have to wait to get your post-race snacks, it’s the perfect solution if you want to run the race well (i.e. your local rival is making an appearance and you’d love to flatten them) and not drastically interfere with your training.

Like the race/long run combos, these days can take a lot out of you—more than a normal workout because you’re running so hard. I suggest no more than one of these race/workout combos per month.

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How To Adjust Your Training Schedule

Finally, the question remains, how do you adjust your training schedule to account for these smaller races?

First, you shouldn’t taper your mileage unless it’s a tune-up race or you’re using it to test your fitness. These types of fun races should slide into your training seamlessly and tapering mileage to run well could sacrifice your preparation for your goal race.

Second, choose the type of race combo workout you want to do and don’t go crazy. One of the biggest mistakes I see is when runners go into these races thinking, “sOh, I’ll just take it easy and run for fun or run a certain pace.” However, as soon as the gun fires, the adrenaline starts pumping and they are running as hard as they can. The problem with this is that you’ll very likely push yourself too hard and find yourself struggling in two weeks when the effort catches up to you. Know yourself, be honest with how hard you will run and stick to the plan you set out ahead of time.

Lastly, make sure to give yourself extra recovery time. More than likely, the race effort was harder than a normal workout would be for you. As it is with any workout, the results don’t come from the torture you put your body through, but from the time you give the muscles to repair and rebuild.

With a little planning and innovation, you can turn those fun local races on your training calendar into great workouts while keeping your eye on the big goal race down the road.

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