While it is not recommended to tackle a 100 miler every weekend or every month to build up for a goal 100 mile race (although Ian Sharman and Nick Clark’s record breaking summer at the Grand Slam may have proven otherwise), it is certainly beneficial to do at least one if not a couple shorter distance races (50K, 50 miler, 100K, etc.) as part of the build up.
These shorter, less important, low-key races act as a dress rehearsal for your upcoming goal performance. It is on these runs that you can practice with the clothing, nutrition, and hydration that you would like to use in the goal race. It is also at these events that you gain the additional benefits of having volunteers on course, regular and reliable fuel and water sources, and the companionship of fellow runners to motivate and inspire you.
For those of you like me who don’t live near other ultra runners, sometimes it’s difficult to find someone to join you for a long (2+ hour) training run. Despite advances in hydration technology, sometimes it is nice to not have to worry about carrying all the fluid you could potentially need for a long run (especially when you are prone to getting lost for additional unexpected miles/hours). In my experience, I’ve never been dissatisfied for paying an entry fee to gain the benefit of fellow runners to tackle the terrain with and predictable and dependable fueling/hydrations sources along the route.
In addition to shorter ultra distance races, however, there are also benefits to occasionally jumping into even shorter events. As a track and cross country coach, I typically encourage my cross country runners to prepare for their fall cross country season by doing plenty of 1500m & 3000m races in the spring. Likewise, 800m runners often benefit from the occasional 400m or 1500m race. Even during cross country season when my athletes are gearing up for a 5K race, we spend plenty of time - at least once a week - on the track or grass fields running intervals from 100m to 1 mile and we seek out courses to race on that replicate the course of the goal race – usually the Oregon State Cross Country Championships.
Although ultra running is very different from mid-distance track and cross country, the training principles are the same. If you want to improve an aspect of your running you need to deliberately do things in training to improve it. One of the best ways to improve efficiency over long distances is to practice running faster at shorter distances. This can take on many forms from less structured strides and fartleks to more formal interval sessions, hill repeats, and shorter races.
Dakota Jones recently wrote about how intervals have enabled him to improve and compete at the highest level of our sport. Similarly, nearly every time I run with Max King he concludes with sets of 20-30 second strides and dynamic stretches before getting back into the car and sipping his recovery drink as we drive back toward civilization.
If you are looking to improve your racing results at any distance, I recommend you make an effort to increase your running economy by incorporating short bursts of speed into your training in the form of strides, intervals, fartleks, hill repeats and shorter races much shorter than your actual goal race distance. Doing these workouts/races with others makes it easier to complete the demanding effort of high intensity running and will help to prepare you physically for the even more demanding race ahead.
However, if you are like me and occasionally find yourself just trying to squeeze in a run between work, family, and home owner commitments it isn’t always possible to coordinate your training schedule with someone else. When you try and do the intense speed workout on your own it is usually harder to run the desired intensity (even with a fancy watch or playlist) than if you’ve got someone there to push you. So why not jump into a local 5K, 10K, Half Marathon or cross country/trail race? If you need to get in more mileage for the day you can do a long warm up and cool down. Chances are, you’ll probably meet someone there who wants to add on some mileage as well and you’ll get what you need in terms of volume and quality.
An added benefit to racing into shape is that these races don’t have to be the end-all-be-all. They are simply a means to the end. You don’t have to get nervous. You don’t have to win. You don’t have to run PRs every time you toe the line. You can just chalk them up as “I’m training through this” or “I’m just doing this as a workout.” And if the PR does come, you can celebrate it and gain confidence from the fact that you are fitter or faster than you even thought.
Having only one goal race on the horizon is more stressful than having a couple races throughout the year where I want to run well. If I put all my eggs into one basket and things don’t go as planned – (i.e. you get sick or injured which unfortunately happens when you are human and interact with other humans) it is hard to feel like all of the effort building up to it was actually worth it. However, if I regularly jump into races when I can fit them into my training I am able to enjoy myself with my fellow runners, practice for some distant goal race in the future, and push myself more than I probably otherwise would if I chose to simply go it alone.
I’m not suggesting that you race every week. I wouldn’t even suggest that for those trying to improve at shorter distances, but I am suggesting that if you want to see improvements, you need to regularly remember that racing hurts and is hard. The best way to prepare for the hurt of a race is to race.