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Tune-up races: Why, when and how to race before you race

HARRY ROSEN INC. - Harry's Spring Run-Off Raises MillionsThose with an important goal race planned for the spring have probably been asked what ‘tune-ups’ they’re doing as part of their training. We explain everything you need to know about racing before you race.

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What’s a “tune-up”?

A tune-up refers to a race or event that occurs in advance, usually several weeks or even months, of your goal race. They are often, but not always, of a shorter race distance than what you are training for and are done for a number of important reasons.

Why run a tune-up?

Running a tune-up race is a great way to see where you’re at in terms of your current fitness. It also helps you to assess how effectively your training has been going. By running a shorter race in advance of a longer or more important one, you can see if you are adequately prepared, moving in the right direction or if you might require a change of plan or more specific preparations.

A tune-up race run at an “all-out” effort (that is, run as a race and not paced) can also give you an idea of what time goal you may want to aim for, and what pace/speed you will need to run at to accomplish that goal. If you run a shorter race and feel you gave it your honest, best effort, you can use that time and an online calculator to determine what times you might be capable of at other distances.

Tune-up races are also an ideal opportunity to practice race day routine including what you do before, during and after the race. This includes waking up early, eating a pre-race meal, wearing your race gear and apparel, getting to the start and using the necessary facilities and amenities before the race. It can also help you deal and cope with race-day energy, anxiety and adrenaline as well as practice hydrating and taking fuel and even executing a sound race plan/strategy during the race. After running a tune-up, you can also experiment with how best to refuel and recover as you resume your typical training.

Some also use tune-ups to run at the pace they hope to maintain during a longer or goal race. This could mean running a half-marathon at marathon pace or completing a 5K event at 10K race pace. This serves to develop confidence and a sense of comfort running at race pace and again, allows you to practice what it might feel like to run a longer race.

In some specific cases, a tune-up race may also take place on the entire or part of the course that you plan to run for your goal race and so can be a good way to familiarize yourself with the route, the terrain, the elevation and specific landmarks along the way.

The Grim Reaper at the 2013 Around The Bay Road Race. Credit: sportszonephotography.ca
The Grim Reaper greets runners in the late stages of the Around The Bay 30K Road Race. Credit: sportszonephotography.ca

Which tune-ups should I run? When?

Depending on your goal race distance and the amount of time you have, your options will vary.

Running a 5K?

Aim to run an additional 5K race two-to-four weeks before your goal race. Aim to run it 10-30 seconds slower per kilometre than your goal race pace and try to run the last kilometre(s) faster than the first ones (i.e. run a slight negative split). You could also try to hold your goal race pace for as long as you can and then hopefully be able to hold it for the whole 5K with subsequent training.

Running a 10K?

Aim to run a 5K or 8K race two-to-four weeks before your goal race. You could either run it all-out and get a good sense of what to aim for in your upcoming 10K race or use it as a practice run and pace it at 10K race pace or just slightly faster. Pacing should still feel comfortably hard but not be totally exhausting and means you can continue training with minimal recovery time. In all cases, practice good pacing and aim to finish faster than you started (i.e. run a negative split).

Running a half/21.1K?

Aim to run a 10K race–a 15K or 10M race could also work–three-to-four weeks before your half goal marathon. If your goal is to run a personal best (PB), run the tune-up as fast as you can (i.e. “all-out”) to get an accurate indication of your current fitness and help you set a realistic time goal. If this will be your first time running a half or you’re not planning to PB, aim to run the tune-up at the pace you hope the run your upcoming goal half.

You could also add a second tune-up race six-to-eight weeks out to get an early sense of your fitness and help plan your training accordingly. If so, aim for a 5K, 8K or 10K.

6-8 weeks to goal race: Tune-up race #1 – 5K, 8K or 10K

3-4 weeks to goal race: Tune-up #2 – 10K, 15K or 10M

Running a marathon/42.2K?

Aim to run a half-marathon (or even 30K) at least four weeks before the race. Not enough time? You could also run a 10K two or three weeks out. If your goal is to PB, you should run it “all-out” (i.e. as hard and fast as you can) to test your fitness and determine whether you need to adjust your goals. If your goal is simply to finish or you’re unlikely to PB, try to run it at the pace you hope to run the full marathon. This pace should feel comfortable, almost ‘easy’ and you should feel pretty good at the end.

Again, you could also aim to run several additional tune-ups as part of your training for the goal marathon:

8-10 weeks to goal race: Tune-up #1 – 5K, 8K, 10K

6-8 weeks to goal race: Tune-up #2 – 10K, 15K, 10M

4-6 weeks to goal race: Tune-up #3 – 10M, Half Marathon, 30K

2-4 weeks to goal race: Tune-up #4 – 5K, 8K, 10K