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, optimize your performance, and leave your legs feeling sharp and fresh for race week.
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? Let’s examine.
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 your volume for a race, you are also sharpening for running as fast as you can over your goal distance. A race week workout is designed to keep you feeling sharp and fresh on race day. Some runners prefer no intensity on race day, 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.
But if you are accustomed to doing two hard workouts per week, a race week workout can be beneficial. 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. This will help you feel normal as the race approaches.
In a race week workout, you keep in a small amount of intensity so that you aren’t drastically changing your training routine the week of the race. This has both mental and physical benefits – chances are, you will feel better on race day if you have done a small amount of race pace running within the week leading up, and you will feel more confident about the race.
Race Week Workouts for Specific Distances
My friend and fellow running coach Denny explained this aspect well: you have to balance the risk and reward of a race week workout. If your workout provides a stimulus that you aren’t accustomed to in training – short as very short repeats on the track after months of longer intervals and tempo runs – the risk of fatiguing your legs or even injuring something is too high. It’s better to err on the side of less is more in terms of volume and intensity.
Training for a 5K looks drastically different than training for a marathon, and that principle applies to your last workout before the race as much as it applies to the rest of training. At least in my approach to coaching, race week workouts often feature some duration at race pace, just at a lower volume than in the previous weeks of training. 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 workout should be done approximately 5 days before your race: enough time to allow your body to recover, but 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.
Marathon: 3-5 miles at goal marathon pace
By the week of your marathon, goal marathon pace should feel like a relative aerobic cakewalk, and approximately 30-35 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: ~2-3 miles at goal pace, continuous or divided into intervals
As with marathon pace, a couple miles at half marathon pace will not feel too demanding after weeks of longer race pace workouts. Personally, I like to divide this quantity up with short rest intervals, such as 2-3 x 1 mile at half marathon pace with short rest, 2 x 10 minutes at goal pace with short rest. The rest lowers the intensity of this workout just enough to keep it from fatiguing your legs. If you opt for a continuous run, complete ~20 minutes at race pace.
10K: ~2-3 miles at goal pace, divided into intervals
10K pace is typically at or slightly faster than your lactate threshold, so you want to interject rest intervals into a race week workout to keep this from becoming too demanding. Some athletes may choose to run at tempo pace – slightly slower than 10K pace, but with slightly less risk of injury – or at goal pace. For example, you can do 2 x 10 minutes at tempo pace with rest in between or 4 x 800m at 10K pace with equal time rest.
5K: 400m-800m repeats at goal pace
The total distance should cover about 1.5-2 miles, depending on your level of fitness. The rest intervals should be long enough to let you fully recover. For example, you may choose to do 3-4 x 800m with 400m at goal 5K pace or 6-8 x 400m with 400m rest at goal 5K pace.
However, short intervals do carry a higher risk of injury, since you are speeding up and then slowing down over and over again. If you are an injury-prone runner or are stronger at endurance than speed, you may choose to do a similar workout to the 10K tune up, such as 2 x 10 minutes at tempo pace or a continuous 2-3 mile tempo.
If these workouts sound too intense for you, you may find strides as a beneficial mini-workout during race week. Strides will keep your legs feeling fresh, but the short duration of a stride (20-25 seconds) is not long enough to use anaerobic energy.
No matter which distance race you are running, resist the temptation to run faster in these workouts. Running faster will not make race pace feel easier on race day. Racing your workouts is never a great idea, especially this close to actual race day. Chances are, these workouts will feel not very challenging, but that again is the point.
Treat race week workouts as you would any workout: warm-up with easy miles and dynamic stretches beforehand, include a cooldown, and spend time stretching and foam rolling afterward.
Race week workouts are not race predictors. They are, after all, a single data point out of hundreds of miles of training. You may hit your goal race pace, or you may not – but this workout is not your race and not an indication of how your race will go. Your overall pattern of training and how well you have done in your workouts provide a better indication of your race day fitness. So if you do not quite perform as well as you hoped on your race day workout, do not let it affect your confidence for race day – especially if your overall training indicates a high level of race-specific fitness.
What workout do you like to do before a race?
Do you prefer short intervals or tempo runs to boost your confidence?