Running Race Calendar Planning: 5 Steps to a Great Season

5 Step Guide to Planning Your Annual Racing Calendar

If you want to set bold yet realistic goals, how does that practically manifest itself in running and racing?

Planning your annual running calendar once you set your yearly goals will help you develop a smart, timely, and realistic plan — regardless if you’re strategically filling up marathon season or running shorter races.

Often, when you can choose from nearly an endless array of races, making a plan can prove frustrating and intimidating. Rather than stressing or abandoning your goals, follow this five step guide to planning your running race calendar. 

5 Step Guide to Planning Your Annual Racing Calendar

1. Work Backwards from Your Biggest Goal

Most runners set a single, big goal for the year: qualify for Boston, hire a run coach, PR in the half marathon, run their first ultra race, or run below 20 minutes in the 5K.

All of your races in a calendar year should contribute to your achievement of your most important goal.

For example, if you want to PR at a very specific marathon, then do not sign up for a half marathon the week before, even if that half marathon sounds fun.

From there, focus on your other 1-3 goal races. Each of these races is considered a “peak:” your race-specific fitness will be at its highest when you toe the starting line of this race. Be sure to allow enough time to recover, train, and peak between each of your goal races; optimally, 8-16 weeks, depending upon the distance of your goal races.

If you have personal goals beyond running, your racing schedule must heed to these goals, since life is more important than running that one specific marathon. Whether you have your sights set on attending graduate school, having a baby, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, or spending part of the year volunteering abroad, your races and training with these goal races should not conflict with these other aspirations.

2. Focus on Your Personal Training and Racing Preferences

I don’t like to race often, mostly because I love the process of base building and a focused training cycle more than racing itself. Racing for fun is not an applicable concept for me, since I am a competitive person.

When I craft my annual racing calendar, I pick my goal races, ensure there is ample time to train and recover, and set it at that. I prefer longer distances races, which require longer training cycles and recovery periods.

Example preferences include:

  • Quality over quantity. Some of these runners prefer to focus on specific goals and train hard for them, while others are limited by budget or their work schedule. When you begin to plan your annual racing calendar, stay true to your personal preferences and budget; don’t allow the external pressure of how it seems other runners race all the time deter you from your emphasis on running only a few high-quality races.
  • Frequency. Other runners, especially those who specialized in the 5K and 10K, prefer to race more often. The recovery period after a shorter distance race does not extend as long as a recovery period after a full or half marathon. Plus, 5K/10K races are often cheaper and more readily available locally.
  • Social perks. Some runners choose to run for fun and social reasons rather than competition, or find that frequent races throughout the year help them stay motivated.

3. Work in Cycles: Recovery, Base, Fundamental, Sharpening, and Peak

Periodization training is a popular term in coaching jargon that refers to dividing your training and racing into smaller cycles.

A single race training cycle is known as a macrocycle, in which you progress in mesocycles (or microcycles) from your base, through a fundamental period (or a strength period and then a speed period, depending on whether your periodization is linear or nonlinear), and finish with a sharpening period right before you peak at your goal race. The longer your race, the longer your macrocycle; experienced 5K runners may only take 6-8 weeks to train for a goal race, while a novice marathoner may need up to 20 weeks of training to first build a base and then increase their long runs.

Of course, a running coach will take care of planning out your meso- and microcycles for you. What you need to consider when planning your annual racing calendar, as I hinted at above, that you allow enough time between goal races to fit in each of these cycles. If your racing calendar includes two goal marathons, you want to select races with enough time between them for a 2 week recovery period, a 4-8 week base building period, and a 12-18 week training period.

» Learn more: Take out the guesswork and use my intermediate marathon training plan

4. Respect the Marathon (and Half Marathon)

The distances which you choose to race will impact your frequency and volume of races on your annual calendar.

As a certified running coach, I do not recommend running more than three marathons a year. Why? Whether you race it or just run it, the marathon demands a strenuous effort from you, both mentally and physically, and thus requires a dedicated recovery period.

Half marathons also require a significant recovery period afterwards before you can race again. Overtraining, burnout, and overuse injuries pose a formidable threat for runners who train too hard and race too often without proper recovery periods, so if you primarily focus on the half marathon or longer, racing once a month (or even once every two or three months) may be too much for your mind and body.

» Learn more: How to regain motivation after marathon training burnout

5. Add A Few Tune-Up Races, if Desired

Some runners benefit, especially psychologically, from the inclusion of tune-up races during training for the half marathon or marathon.

Your tune-up race should be roughly 3-5 weeks before your goal race and be a shorter distance than your goal race: 5K for 10K racers, 10K for half marathoners, and a half marathon for marathoners.

Usually, these races are not run at maximal effort, but instead used to further ingrain goal race pace. These tune-up races will teach you how to pace yourself smartly and you can rehearse your fueling and hydration strategy. As with many aspects of race training, less can actually be more with tune-up races, as this article from Runner’s Connect explains. 

If you don’t like tune-up races or your schedule or budget does not permit them, don’t worry! You can schedule time trials during your training to determine your current level of fitness. Unlike tune-up races, time trials eliminate the temptation to be too competitive (someone passes you during a race and you speed up, or you ditch your race plan in favor of a PR) and offer more flexibility for your schedule and training.

Build the Right Running Race Calendar For You This Year

Running and racing can go hand in hand, especially if you plan your schedule in advance.

Want individualized guidance in planning your races, smartly and effectively training for them, and running your personal best? Email me at [email protected] to schedule your consultation today to work with me as your running coach! You can learn more about my services and rates here.

How often do you prefer to race?
How do you select your big goal races?
Do you have any questions about race planning and goal setting? 

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19 Responses

  1. With how finicky my body is, I can only really count on a big race or two, and the rest of the year is navigating injuries, lol. But these would be great tips if I could plan more and more!

  2. Great information Laura! There really is a lot of important considerations in planning a race schedule and some of it I would have had no idea about. I like how you mentioned the importance of considering what you have going on in your life when planning your races. This is definitely where I am at. As much as I want to be out there training for a marathon, I know its not the right time because of other things going on in my life. This isn’t always easy to do but its so important. After all, running will always be there right?

    1. Thank you, Angie! Marathon training is definitely something that needs to be balanced with life and I applaud you so much for knowing when it can’t work for you. That is exactly where I was a year ago and I didn’t sign up for my marathon until I could balanced it (and felt the desire to run one). More runners need your self-awareness! Running will always be there – that’s one of the great things about it!

  3. I like to race a lot, but I don’t give 100% in every race because… hello burnout! Since we have a ton of races here and my friends do them, and I run socially, I call this “race-out”- race as a workout! This year, I ran a half marathon as a long run when training for a goal half marathon, and I’ve run many 5Ks as tempo runs or hard workouts. I’m planning to do a 10K on Jan 1 as a “tune up”, to hopefully earn a new PR (my 10K PR is rather old), and to check on my fitness for my January half. I do agree that you need to work backwards from the goal race and think about how each race you do will contribute to that goal.

    1. Keeping the races at a workout pace really does help prevent burnout, as does sticking to shorter races like 5Ks. I hope your January 1 races goes well and you PR in the 10K!

  4. I also don’t like to race a lot. I used to, but it is hard on the budget, and it gets old after a while. Plus, like you, I’m a goal oriented person and I’ve found I just don’t want to race if I don’t feel like I can perform at a high level; racing for fun is lost on me, too.

    I am, however, a big advocate of tune up races during training. I have two half marathons on the docket during this marathon cycle, one on March 20 and one on April 2. The biggest issue I’m having is timing – there are NO half marathons around here until early April (I have to travel 1.5 hours to run the one that’s in late March), which is much later in the cycle than I’d ideally like to run a tune up race for a May 1 date. But, I’ll make it work. I have to admit, though, it’s hard to accept that I can’t race them, because it’s been so long since I’ve PR’d in the half. As much as I’m tempted to race them, it’s just too risky, and I’d probably be too fatigued by that point anyway. I will probably use one to practice goal MP and one as a long tempo run…my hope is that I might eke out a PR anyway just from improvement in my fitness alone.

    1. It does get expensive! Sometimes I see people run several marathons in a single season and all I can think about is how much it costs (oh, and how tiring that must be!). It sounds like you’ll still have ample recovery and taper time between your April half and the Pittsburgh marathon. I would have such a hard time not racing tune-ups, though. Maybe a PR will come your way in the half – if not, there’s always the fall 🙂

  5. I’m the same as you–I don’t race for fun. I need to run every day because THAT is fun for me and racing takes too much out of me and it’s too risky! Not worth the potential burnout or injury. I have some pretty big goals for next year (1:25 half and sub-3 full) and I won’t run the races if I don’t know that I have a really REALLY good chance at getting it. I’m just a leeeeetle competitive too, hehehe!

    1. Yes, twins! Running everyday is so fun because there’s no pressure, but I sure lay out the pressure on myself when it comes to race day. I think after St. Louis Ryan told me he had never seen me look so tired because I just gave it all to those hills. I’m so excited to see you achieve those goals in 2016! You’re definitely training and racing smart enough where I just know they will happen.

  6. How cool! I’ve never really “planned” my racing year and dedicated training and recovery. After running for the last 3 years I’m still learning new things. Thanks for this post!

    1. Thank you – I’m glad you learned something from it! 🙂 There’s always new things to learn in running, no matter how long one’s been doing the sport, and that’s one of the fun things about it!

  7. This is a great guide! I’m trying to be smart about training for my marathon. Last year, I just signed up for a bunch of races, which really messed with my training for my half. Doesn’t really help out if I have a 5k race scheduled the same day I’m supposed to run 10 miles!

    1. Thank you! It sounds like you have a smart plan for training. I agree – it’s hard to do a long run when you have a shorter race! I see some runners take on a bunch of warm up and cooldown miles, but all I want to do after any race is sit and eat!

  8. Great tips! I’m one of the “run all the races” kind of runners, and I love it! But last year I did end up burning out with my 3 half marathons, so I plan on calming down in 2016. My two big goals are the Philly Marathon in November, and the Lost Lake Trail Run in August (16 miles up and down a mountain!). Not sure if I can do either/both, but we’ll see!

    1. Thank you! The Lost Lake Trail Run sounds like a great challenge! It sounds like there’s enough time between them to recover, even though the trail run would probably be during your training, it still could double as a long run/tune-up. Hopefully you can achieve both of your goals! 🙂

  9. I love this advice so much! It makes me cringe sometimes when I hear how much people are racing or want to race when they also want to achieve big personal best performances. When we really have a goal we want to achieve, selecting key races and ensuring our training schedule and cycle can maximize the timing and recovery for that is so key. Love this advice and can’t wait to see all the races 2016 will hold for you. xoxo

    1. Thank you so much, Jesica! It always does surprise me as well when runners race so frequently leading up to a goal race. I’m excited to see what 2016 holds for you in running, racing, and beyond! xoxo

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