For competitive distance runners, training for a marathon involves more than just retreating to the mountains and logging lots of miles. To prepare their bodies and minds for the exhausting effort, many will break out of their training cocoons and compete in the weeks or months leading up to their big event. So it’s no surprise that some of country’s top marathoners are set to run the United Airlines NYC Half Marathon on March 17 as a way to rev up for their spring marathons, get to know their competitors better and showcase their fitness. Their race motivations and strategies shed light on how you might treat tune-up races on the way to your next marathon.

Aggressive Dress Rehearsal

Sarah Sellers, the unexpected second-place women’s finisher in the Boston Marathon last year, sees the NYC Half, with its hilly course and competitive field, as a dress rehearsal for her return to Boston.

“I wanted to put myself in a challenging race about a month out from Boston,” says the 27-year-old, who works as a nurse anesthetist, in addition to running professionally. “For me, the only way to prepare to be in a tough race is to put yourself in that position before the peak event.”

photo: BioFreeze

Although she’s tired from intense marathon training, Sellers plans to run aggressively in New York. “It will probably feel like the second half of the marathon,” she says.

She adds that the high-profile half is also an opportunity to prepare her nerves for Boston and practice her race-day routines, including stretching, eating and warming up.

While racing prior to Boston has benefits, Sellers says she also has to make sure she doesn’t panic if she has a mediocre performance. “Running a decent time in New York will definitely be a big confidence boost going into Boston,” she says, but “I’m also trying not to catastrophize if I don’t run well. It doesn’t mean that will happen in Boston.”

Taking Marathon Fitness For a Spin

U.S. Olympic marathoner Jared Ward, 30, is also scheduled to run both the NYC Half and Boston. In addition to allowing runners practice their race day routines, a tune-up race is another opportunity to capitalize on hard-earned fitness.

“Seems a shame to only race once at that level of fitness,” he says. “And while I can’t run to marathons back-to-back, a shorter (half) tune-up race offers me one more gift for my work.”

photo: Courtesy of Saucony Running

Still, tune-up races can have potential downsides. Traveling to the event and scaling back on runs ahead of the race are disruptions to marathon training that Ward says should be carefully managed.

“With the NYC United Half just four weeks out from the Boston Marathon, there wont be a lot of taper,” he says. “Coach (Edward) Eyestone doesn’t like traveling to race without being rested enough to race, but four weeks out from Boston is critical volume time.”

He plans to do his regular workouts until a few days before the half, when he’ll pull back a little to conserve energy for the race.

Not all elite runners view a half marathon as a stepping stone to an upcoming marathon, however. Tim Ritchie, winner of the 2017 USATF Marathon Championships, considers the NYC Half and Boston as very different events, but both important to him. “It’s hard to create a hierarchy of races in your mind,” the 31-year-old says. “As a competitor, when you step to the line, you want to race.”

photo: Justin Britton

But that eagerness has to be kept in check, he says. Last year, he was scheduled to run the NYC Half before Boston, but a calf injury forced him to withdraw from New York. (In Boston, where runners endured epic rain, cold and wind, he dropped out at mile 19.)

“I was very excited about (the NYC Half) and Boston, and I might have pushed through some things in training,” he says.

He learned his lesson, and these days, “I’ve been more in tune with my body and the stresses I put on it outside of running,” says Ritchie, who is also head coach of the University of Massachusetts men’s cross country team.

On-Your-Own Option

Racing ahead of a big marathon is not for everyone. Some runners enjoy competing as a part of training, but others do better with a more relaxed approach.

Shadrack Biwott, the third-place finisher and top American in Boston last year, isn’t competing in the NYC Half, but has a 16-mile simulation run planned that weekend as he gets ready for another trip to Boston. “The goal is to run marathon pace or slightly faster for the duration of the 16 miles,” says Biwott, 34. “The purpose is the same as the half marathon tune-up.”

photo: Brooks Running

Although racing a half on tired legs can get runners ready for the fatigue in the final miles of the marathon, Biwott believes they should be cautious not to push themselves too hard. “It would probably not be smart to go into a half marathon and empty the tank,” he says. “You need to save that for marathon day.”