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How runners should plan a race calendar

By Henry Howard

For many runners, the 2022 racing season has ended or is about to conclude. The New York City Marathon, JFK50 Chicago Marathon and other major races serve as goals for runners, who then take some time to wind down and look ahead to next year.

I know personally that it does not take long after a big goal race to start thinking about what’s next on the racing calendar. Just three or four days after last weekend’s Hennepin Hundred, I was poking around on Ultrasignup and plotting out my schedule for 2023.

With my finish at Hennepin, I’ll have a slightly improved chance to get into Western States in 2023. I’m certainly not banking on running Western next June, but have a rough outline with Plans A and B for my year ahead.

First up will be a trail marathon in January, then the Earth Day 50K in April. That ultra is put on by Michele Hartwig’s Ornery Mule Racing, which also handles the Hennepin Hundred.

Ideas to consider

When planning your race calendar, it can seem overwhelming. Too many races, not enough time. Logistical issues might present themselves. Or uncertainty about work, family and other life commitments six or more months from now.

Fortunately, now that vaccines have helped ease the pandemic, we don’t have to worry as much about race cancellations as we did in 2021 when I offered this advice.

Here is an outline of how to approach building a race calendar for the following year:

1. Dream big: In the transition from one year or season to another, it’s a good time to contemplate a big goal. For some that may be a first marathon or ultra. (So you want to do your first ultra? Here are eight tips to consider.) Others may have a time goal in mind. Or another challenge. One of my athletes is well on his way to completing a marathon every month during 2022 to raise awareness of a rare form of cancer his wife is battling.

2. Plot it out: Based on your goal from the first answer, now is the time to add some strategy to it. Let’s say you want to tackle a new distance. Think about your work and life priorities throughout the year and how long it may take you to build toward that distance. Make sure you can realistically allocate enough time for training to hit your big goal, then find a date or even a potential race to do it and then work backward. What other races or adventures would challenge you and prepare you for that big goal? Sketch them out, again keeping in mind other life commitments.

3. Set realistic race expectations: Endurance athletes typically do fewer races than those who focus on shorter distances. Even so, not every race can be an “A” race. Figure out which races mean the most to you, or the ones in which you are focused on a particular goal time. Determine which races are your “A” races — the ones you want to look back on a year from now and be proud of your accomplishment. Be sure you don’t have too many “A” races or ones that are too close together. While 5K athletes could have more “A” races, they also need to build in rest, recovery and additional training to continue their progression.

4. Recover wisely: When goal setting, it’s recommended to approach the year as halves, thirds or possibly quarters. Your No. 1 goal should be separated from others. The specific training for it should follow a period of recovery. Set yourself up to succeed. In coaching lingo, this is known as periodization. It’s how coaches approach building blocks for their athletes. For the runner, it means your training volume and intensity will build again after the reset, which helps spur adaptation and avoid burnout.

5. Forget FOMO: It’s tempting to jump into another race with a friend. Or take an opportunity to do that race you’ve always wanted to run. Before falling victim to the Fear of Missing Out monster and making such a commitment, consider your “A” goal again. Does this event help you achieve it? Or might it slow down — or even worse, derail — your training for it? Choose wisely.

6. Enjoy the journey: Running is a process, especially when it comes to chasing big goals. Be aware that stuff happens along the way. Adapt and overcome as various obstacles come up. And if things outside of your control jettison your attempt at your Big Audacious Goal for 2023, understand that it’s a minor speed bump on the way to conquering a big mountain. For me, an emergency surgery interrupted plans for my first 100K a few years ago. I recovered, came back to finish that 100K and went to achieve additional goals.

Not listed among the advice is to get the assistance of a coach. Having a partner on my running endeavors has greatly helped me. As a coach myself, I have experience with guiding runners to their first marathons and ultras, setting PRs and getting Boston qualifiers, among other achievements. If you’d like to inquire about my coaching services and set up a free, no-commitment consultation, contact me here.


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