As counterintuitive as they sound, race week workouts can be the secret to having a good race. While you certainly want to taper and rest in the days leading up to a race, a race week workout can boost your confidence and optimize your performance. A race week workout improves muscle tension so that your legs feel peppy rather than flat. But what exactly does a race week workout look like? Should you do fast 400m repeats on the track regardless of distance? How do you strike the balance between doing enough and not doing too much in the pivotal days before your race?
The Purpose of Race Week Workouts
Race week workouts are not intended to build your fitness anymore. Ideally, your last hard workout is completed ten days to two weeks before race day, and then you taper down the intensity. From a physiological standpoint, your body takes approximately 10-14 days to fully adapt to the stimulus provided by a workout. So any workout down race week is not a last-ditch effort to cram in some extra fitness…your body simply doesn’t work that way.
While you are tapering down the volume for a race, you are also sharpening for running as fast as you can over your goal distance. If you are accustomed to doing one or two hard workouts per week, a week of only easy runs would throw you off of your routine. Many runners lament how they feel stiff, antsy, or “off” during race week, which is often due to the change in routine from too sharp of a taper. You want to maintain your routine and reduce the volume as you taper without completing neglecting intensity. Only easy runs can also cause too little muscle tension. Only easy runs can also cause too little muscle tension and the flat legs sensation. A little bit of speedwork primes the neuromuscular system, leaving a pep in your step.
A race week workout is not always necessary. Some runners prefer no intensity during race week, especially if they do not incorporate a high amount of intensity into their regular training. If you are racing in the middle of training for a longer race, you may opt for easy runs leading up to the race since the race itself functions as a very hard workout within a training cycle.
In a race week workout, you keep in a small amount of intensity. A race week workout should not be your normal track workout. Instead, you should spend a fraction of the time running fast compared to your normal workouts.
Manipulating Muscle Tension
In his book The Science of Running, coach Steve Magness discusses how different types of workouts affect muscle tension. Muscle tension affects contraction and force output. Think of your legs like springs: you want tension for that bouncy, energized stride. The amount of tension in a muscle varies based on training and rest. Too little tension and your legs will feel flat. Low tension inhibits the amount of force a muscle can produce. (This is why you do not want to stretch before a run!) However, on the opposite end of the spectrum, too much tension loses valuable running economy. The ideal is somewhere in the middle – and even that point will vary based on the distance you are racing. Sprinters need more force production (and therefore higher muscle tension) than a marathoner.
A race week workout serves to manipulate muscle tension before the event. Easy runs lower muscle tension. A workout at or near race pace can raise the muscle tension just enough to stay in that optimal zone for racing. For example, a 5K racer will need a good amount of muscle tension. To boost their muscle tension, they will use short intervals on race week. A marathoner, on the other hand, does not want too much muscle tension. Instead of intervals, they use a short marathon pace or threshold workout.
What Workouts Should You Do Race Week?
You have heard the adage nothing new on race day. The same applies to workouts during race week: nothing new. If you have only done threshold and marathon pace effort on the road for the past several weeks, race week is not the time to hit the track for a set of 400m intervals.
Training for a 5K looks drastically different than training for a marathon, so your race week workouts will differ. At least in my approach to coaching, race week workouts often feature some duration at race pace. The workouts are tapered though for lower volume. For example, you will run 3 miles at marathon pace instead of 10 miles. Exactly how far you cover in your race week workout depends on how much you have done in your training. Running at race pace serves as a final reminder of what exactly race pace feels like before the race.
Ideally, race day workouts should be done approximately 4-5 days before your race. This allows enough time to allow your body to recover, while still close enough to keep your legs and mind feeling fresh.
These are sample race week workouts; as with any workout, a race week workout must be tailored to your individual fitness, goals, and training plan (which is where a running coach is beneficial!). These workouts are suited for runners doing at least 25+ miles per week in training with at least one hard workout per week. As with any workout, be sure to warm up and cool down properly!
Marathon: 3-4 miles at goal marathon pace
By the week of your marathon, goal marathon pace should feel like a relative aerobic cakewalk. Approximately 20-30 minutes of running at your marathon pace will not be physically demanding. The real challenge of this workout is not running faster, thus providing a final practice for holding back at the start of the marathon.
Half Marathon: ~2 x 6-8 minutes at half marathon pace, with 2-3 minute recovery jog
As with marathon pace, a couple of miles at half marathon pace will not feel too demanding, especially if you break them up. Dividing the intervals with rest delays the accumulation of metabolic byproducts, thus ensuring quicker recovery than a continuous session.
5K/10K: 1-minute short intervals with 1-minute rest
In the 5K and 10K, a little bit of extra muscle tension can do you good. This is especially true for long-distance runners, whose bodies need a bit of coaxing to develop a finishing kick. The key to this workout is controlling your pace. While very hard intervals have a place in training, these race week intervals should be around 5K effort. 5K effort will recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers without over-using the anaerobic pathways.
What workout do you like to do before a race?
Do you prefer short intervals or tempo runs to boost your confidence?