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Lessons Learned From Serial Racing

Racing frequently can be risky, but there are also lots of potential rewards to this approach.

Racing frequently can be risky, but there are also lots of potential rewards to this approach. 

Most competitive runners who live in the Washington D.C., area have a Michael Wardian story to tell. Wardian, a native of Alexandria, Va., is a repeat national champion at multiple ultra distances and a self-admitted serial racer. While holding down a full-time job and raising a family, he is somehow able to show up at multiple races on the same day, run fast nearly every time out and occasionally win them all, furthering his legendary status as an immortal competitor.

But is this method of constantly putting the body to the ultimate test on a weekly if not daily basis a good idea? If Wardian, who holds a 2:17 personal best in the marathon, had decided on a more judicious approach to training that focused on the tenets of periodization, would he be able to take his running to a new level? Or, on the other hand, is there something about serial racing that works for him? And can it work for you?

What follows are the benefits of this radical approach to training and racing, along with a few things to try out for yourself. We spoke to ZAP Fitness coach Pete Rea, 13-time All-American and two-time Olympic Trials qualifier Sarah Crouch, as well as Wardian himself about the positives of serial racing.

Serial racing can…

…teach you how to race. There’s truth in the old adage that we learn by doing. The more we race, the more lessons about competing that we can internalize. How can you know when to kick and how to kick on the day of your big race if you’ve never done it before?  The same logic applies for other factors such as what to wear and what to eat or drink on the course. Serial racing can lead to a better understanding of you as a runner. “It gives athletes a chance to practice the early-morning race routines and fueling practice that they will need later in the season during a goal race,” says Crouch, who now coaches for Runners Connect. “Each race gives an athlete a chance to experience the ‘going-to-the-well’ pain that is rarely tapped during practice. As an athlete improves, there is a realization that racing doesn’t get easier, it simply gets faster.” Wardian admits the learning aspect is one of the reasons he’s always out there with his flats on. “I think what I get out of racing so often is experience and that has many faucets in that I get familiar with what is needed to do my best, and each time I race I learn something new and I can use that going forward,” he says.

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…rekindle your love of the sport. For those who don’t compete much, races can be stressful affairs that tax the mind—especially marathoners who’ve been training 16 weeks for that one big day to qualify for Boston or set a new PR. But races don’t have to be that way; they can be fun “I do think a lot of people wonder how I can race so much mentally and physically, and I think that has to do with my passion for it,” says Wardian. “I absolutely enjoy all the of it, getting my kit together, lacing up my Hokas, lining up for the bathroom, seeing friends, the sound of the gun going off and then the race.”

…done properly, improve your fitness in a short period of time. “Serial racing is an effective way of blowing off the proverbial rust quickly and moving toward top-level racing in a shorter period of time,” says Coach Rea. But Rea cautions that this period of intense racing should be timed properly. He points out that runners need to first establish an aerobic base of training followed by tempo-based, strength-building work before they move on to racing repeatedly. At that point, Rea suggests that a runner can complete up to 4 to 5 races in a 6- to 8-week span, but they need to be careful of the injury risk involved. It’s imperative that they pay as much attention to recovery after the race as to the races themselves. “If an athlete is certain to recover soundly—with very easy aerobic running and little to no hard workouts between the workouts, save some light economy work—fitness can and will bump rapidly assuming proper background,” he says.

…give you a chance to experiment. For many runners who compete infrequently, a race ends up becoming a final, “all or nothing” exam of sorts—a major stressor. Racing more means there are more opportunities to try out different things and getting to learn what works and doesn’t work for you while minimizing the risk. The more you race, the more freedom you have to try out new footwear or gear, for example. Consider using the whole concept of serial racing as its own experiment.  “It is important to understand that what works for one runner may not work for another,” cautions Crouch. “Every runner is different and each runner has a unique ‘glass ceiling’, a point at which either mileage or intensity becomes too much and the body breaks down, resulting in injury illness or fatigue. Some runners are physically and mentally resilient enough to handle a heavy racing schedule while others should limit their racing to just a few races each season in order to stay healthy.”

Do you have a time goal for your next half marathon? Competitor.com has training plans built to get you to your goal. Check ’em out!