Race Variations: Cross-Country, Road, and Trail Races

by Jason Fitzgerald

Earlier this week I sent the Strength Running newsletter subscribers an email about running different types of races to help you reach new levels of fitness and bring you closer to your goals.

I also offered a bonus to my subscribers (if you’re interested in getting free stuff, just sign up for the newsletter here or in the right column).

Trail Races

I want to expand on that idea and talk about the many benefits of running different types of races. I’ve talked to a lot of new runners who “catch the 5k bug” and only run 5k road races. It’s great to get comfortable with a new race distance, but challenging yourself with new types of races will help you become a better runner.

Everything from road to trail races will challenge your body in different ways, helping you get stronger, stay fresh, and resist injury.

There is an incredible variety of races that you can run. Let’s look at some of the best:

  • Outdoor track races
  • Indoor track races
  • 5k road races
  • 8k road races
  • 10k road races
  • Half-marathons
  • 20k road races
  • Marathons
  • Trail races
  • Uphill races (or especially hilly courses)
  • Cross-country races – generally 5-10k
  • Triathlons (technically not a running race, but they’re awesome)

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but it gives you a great picture of the variety that exists. So why stick to just one type of race? We all know that I advocate variety and using your race schedule is a great way to put more variety into your training.

Support vs. Sharpening Races

One strategy is to pick your goal race and then structure several races to provide “support fitness” and sharpen you for race day. Since your main priority is to peak for your goal race, you don’t have to put too much pressure on yourself when you toe the line during these other races.

Races that provide support fitness are longer than your goal race. If you’re training for a 5k then run a few 8k or 10k races to develop aerobic endurance that will support your 5k pace. Getting in great shape and being able to run a personal best in a longer event always puts you in a better position to PR in a shorter event.

Races that are slightly longer provide you the opportunity to experiment with different race strategies, like running negative splits or running way too fast for the first half or two-thirds (I’ve done this – I managed not to slow down as much as I thought and run a PR!). Have fun with whatever pacing tactic you choose. One of my favorites is to run at tempo pace for the majority of a race and run as fast as possible over the last mile. Get creative.

Races that sharpen you for your goal race are shorter and require you to run significantly faster. I generally like to take one or two steps down from my goal race distance, so races like 5k’s or 8k’s are perfect for those training for a 10k.

If you’re training for a 5k then this is a bit more difficult because shorter races are often difficult to find. Look for indoor or outdoor track races where you can race a two-mile or mile. Alternatively, some races have 1-2 mile “fun runs” that are open to runners. Just make sure they’re not billed as “children only” or for walkers.

Running short races to prepare you for something that is slightly longer will hone your speed and enable you to feel more comfortable at your goal race pace. This strategy is similar to interval work, although I consider it even more specific because you have to go through your race day preparation.

Two or three short sharpening races should prepare you well before you goal race. Space them out over the course of 5-7 weeks and your body should respond well. Make sure to give yourself enough time to adapt to the race stimulus and recover. Doing too many races before your goal race may result in feeling stale or flat. Find a friend to try a new race with you – the communal nature of racing can help you succeed.

A side benefit of running many types of races is that you will likely wear different types of racing shoes. For longer races, road racing shoes are what you want. But for cross-country or track races, you’ll want something even lighter or with spikes. This variation adds to your body’s ability to build strength and injury resistance.

Base Period Races

Many runners like using long or especially difficult races during their base phase – or when their mileage is the highest. These types of races place more importance on your aerobic system and require less speed work to be successful. Races like half-marathons or 10 milers are good examples.

Alternatively, cross-country races, especially hilly courses, or straight uphill races (like the Pike’s Peak Ascent) can help you build tremendous strength than you can then use to your advantage in road races. If you can navigate mud, trail races, or straight uphill running, then a simple road course will be a piece of cake.

I have even known some (crazy?) runners to use low-profile marathons as over distance long runs. This strategy is a little advanced, as there certainly isn’t a complete need to run over 26 miles to prepare for a marathon. If this appeals to you, make sure you have a marathon race strategy in place before you run.

The Mental Side of Race Variation

It’s hard to get bored with training and racing if you’re always doing something new and exciting. Getting off the road and doing a cross-country race in the trails can be exhilarating, while training for your first half-marathon can provide a new challenge to work toward.

When I used to focus on one race distance I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing as much. Every track meet was the same and my performances began to stagnate. It’s not fun to always race the same distance. It gets old fast.

In college, my coaches allowed us to vary our races so I focused on the 1500m and the 3000m during indoor track. But I also ran a few 4x400m and 4x800m relays after our main race to practice our speed while we were already tired. It was exciting!

I felt more engaged with my racing and therefore, my training. Going to practice and doing workouts no longer felt like a chore because I was being given more opportunities to test that fitness in different race situations. You can simulate this by experimenting with numerous race distances. I’m much in favor of not being a specialist – be a “Renaissance Man” (or woman) of racing. The variety will keep your mind and body fresh.

What’s your favorite race? Do you prepare by running other types of races? Have you run uphill races or other extreme events?

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{ 5 comments }

Greg Strosaker

Good post Fitz, nice way to mix in races as a low pressure training tool while still benefiting from the variety and mental preparations that can bear fruit in the long run.

David Csonka

There is usually a mile fun run at most of the 5k’s I do in Tallahassee. At one this year, somebody (an adult) actually took one of the participation medals that was meant for the children. I know for many people running a mile is a big deal, but I would have been embarrassed taking an award meant for kids.

Fitz

Oh I agree! I don’t think an adult should steal the glory in a kid’s race. I’ve seen some races where there is a 1-2 mile “fun run” that’s actually taken seriously, and this is where somebody should race if they’re looking to work on their speed. Stealing children’s awards = not cool.

Jim Hale

Hey Fitz — I DID IT! Just wanted to shout out with a big thanks to you my man. I’ve been lurking here for a long time, and have benefited greatly from much specific advice (repeats off-track) and the general focus of the strength training approach.

I was supremely confident when I stepped to the start of the Richmond Marathon on Saturday, ten pounds lighter, and STRONG (my wife told I looked buff for the first time in a decade)!

I never hit the wall (only some bad calf cramps) and achieved my goal of
sub-four hours before turning fifty years old next summer. I hadn’t run under four in nine years and am a Clydesdale.

I can’t wait to hit the 5 and 10K races this winter, and am thinking about triathloning for the first time in 18 years next year.

Many thanks for the fine work you do here, and the spirit in which you do it!

Jim in Manakin Sabot, Va

Fitz

Congratulations! Sub 4 is a great time, especially since you’re 49! I’m seriously impressed. Thank you for the kind words and I hope to see you around SR more often! :) Take care,
- Fitz.

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