It’s Race Week! – The importance of step back weeks in your training program

Posted: January 18, 2010 in Training

With 13 weeks left of training before the Boston Marathon on April 19th this Sunday in lieu of a traditional long-run – we race!  I’ve traditionally stayed away from racing during previous marathon training periods not because of any fear of racing or a belief that it was not beneficial – it simply never worked out from a timing perspective.  There never seemed to be a local race that fell on the “right weekend” as I would either be scheduled for a longer training run than the race distance or the race fell on a “step-back” week. 

A step-back week is a key part of marathon training as it allows for your body to adjust to increases in your weekly mileage by taking a “step-back” on your Sunday long run by running a shorter distance at an easier pace.  This helps your muscles recover and come back not only stronger but also better prepared for the added mileage and intensity that follows. 

For example if your Sunday long-runs on consecutive weeks called for 14 miles one week and 15 the next, on the third Sunday in that cycle reducing the long-run to say 11 miles is appropriate.  That step-back week then begins a new training period where you increase your Sunday long-runs to 17 and 18 miles followed by another step back week of say 13 miles.  A good rule of thumb is to reduce mileage during your step-back week by 25-28% of your previous long-run distance.  This still gives you a solid mileage workout, but takes just enough pressure off of your legs to continue to train injury free – which is the most important goal in any training program.

2010 3M Half Marathon Course Map

This year however, the stars seemed to align just right with the 3M Austin Half-Marathon falling on the same week where I had a 12-mile long-run scheduled.  12 miles, 13.1 miles – what’s the difference right?  Well for me this week the added mile will also help me push forward just a bit and get back on track coming back from my shin issues in December. 

An additional benefit is the downhill nature of the 3M course which presents a great opportunity for me to practice racing downhill which is a much less publicized feature of the Boston Marathon course.  Even the most casual runner has heard of the famed “Heartbreak Hill” at Boston.

Downhill Finish!

What many Boston finishers will tell you however is that it is not the summit of Heartbreak Hill to be worried about, it is the constant and at times severe downhill nature of the first 15 miles at Boston that leaves undertrained quadriceps muscles fatigued to the point that the Newton Hills beginning at mile 16 through Heartbreak at mile 21 are the runners undoing.  In other words it is not the ups that get you at Boston, it is the downs.

There are a few other benefits to racing during your marathon training program:

  1. Shoes – For me this has long been resolved as the current version of Asics Gel Nimbus (now 11) work for my running style and footstrike.
  2. Socks – Thin, thick, moisture wicking (yes), thorlos, nike?  All great questions that practicing in a race environment will help determine.
  3. Body Glide – For me again a firm yes, but I learned during the Philadelphia Marathon that applying Body Glide between my toes was necessary to avoid blisters on the sides of my toes, not just the bottoms of my feet.  A lesson only learned by racing.
  4. Running Apparel – 45 degrees and clear, 52 degrees and rainy, 38 degrees and windy?  Do you know what clothing you will need to feel comfortable at the latter portions of the race?  Again, practice makes perfect.
  5. Pre-Race Evening Meal – this is another great opportunity to determine what kinds of foods give you the most energy as there are a lot of different ways to get Carbohydrates.  I try to keep my pre-race meal very plain to avoid any possible gastrointestinal issues on race day.
  6. Bed Time – Wake up call – How much time will you need on race morning to get ready, how long does it take you to fall asleep before a race?  For me I am not able to sleep much at all the night before a race, so I make sure to sleep a lot two nights before so I am rested.
  7. Race Morning Snack – For a marathon I like to have a banana and bagel 2 1/2 hours before the starting gun with my last drink of water 2 hours before the race.  This allows me to hit the port-a-potty 30 minutes before the start of the race and any fluids I consume on the course will pass as sweat with no additional potty-breaks.
  8. Hydration During the Race – I like to run with my own hydra belt during a race.  This allows me to drink when I want and how much I want without venturing through the water stops, struggling with foot traffic and of course spilling most of the water down the front of me.  I typically drink on the even miles and when I take gels.  2,4,6,8,10,12,14,16,18,20,22,24 and home!
  9. Gel supplements – this is another great opportunity to test out the various gels and supplements such as Clif Bloks or Gu.  The type and frequency is something that should be tested throughout training.  For me, I ingest 3 Clif Bloks (Black Cherry are my favorite) at five-mile intervals during a marathon chased with a few gulps of water.  5,10,15,20 – this keeps me from “bonking” during the run and also serves as a strong mental benefit giving me intervals to “look forward to” during the race – after all a Marathon is just four 5-mile intervals and a 10K right?
  10. Race Pace.

So the last one – race pace.  I really need to dedicate a post to this very important and somewhat difficult topic with as many theories and predictors out there as there are runners.  I plan on doing this when I myself determine what kind of race I really think I am capable of running at Boston mindful that 13 days later I will be again running 26.2 miles over the challenging Pittsburgh Marathon course for Dom.

Finisher's Medal

This weekend’s half-marathon will allow me in race conditions to try to keep my emotions in check and run a smart race.  A 7:20/mile pace would allow me to complete the 13.1 mile course in 1:36:04.  Very much in line with my previous training runs and a solid goal if I was actually “racing” this weekend to post the fastest time possible.  However, this week is simply a “training run” – meaning I am not trying to leave everything on the course as next week we are back to training for Boston – not putting our feet up and admiring our half-marathon finishers medal.

A pace of 7:35/mile would allow for a finish of 1:39:21 – this would simply be an extension of this past Sunday’s 11-mile long-run.  Now, I know myself well enough by now to understand that there is virtually no chance of that happening this weekend.  The simple matter of pinning a number on my chest and hearing the gun go off will make it extremely difficult to slow myself down and pace properly for a 7:35/mile pace.  I’m hoping however that I can race well, stay within myself and finish somewhere around 1:38:15 (7:20/mile).  So let’s go with that – this will serve as a great indicator as to what we will be looking for at Boston in April and help shape our tempo runs and subsequent long-runs over the next 12 Sundays.

Be sure to check back for a race report and photos from the 3M next week – thanks for reading everyone!

  1. tbrush3 says:

    Good luck this weekend Joe. I look forward to hearing how it went. I know what you mean about putting that race number on. It changes from a training run to a race in hurry!

  2. joerunfordom says:

    Thanks Trey! I’m more worried about that than anything! I’ll also be alone this weekend which also makes it feel like a “race” – I wish I had someone to pace with – but the folks waiting for me to go to breakfast at the end will be thankful if I kick a little assphault out there.

    Take care! Joe

  3. Jill says:

    Hey, I just came across this site and I think you ROCK! Awesome content and thanks for sharing. Good luck

  4. Holy cow, Joe, you have things totally figured out! Of course you do. Even your 10 benefits are well said. I never thought about the gel between the toes, or how to stop drinking water 2 hrs before the race, or even to specify my socks. I have so much to learn!!! Can’t wait to hear how it goes this weekend. I know you’ll be trying to hold back a little, go ahead and do that. 🙂

  5. joerunfordom says:

    Lara – thanks so much for the message – the one thing I know for certain is that I am learning new things all the time. I’m sure this two marathon in 13 day challenge is going to teach me a whole lot as well. That distance can really humble you – I’m just trying to get there as ready as possible.

    Thanks again! Best from Austin, – Joe

  6. Sarah says:

    WOW great information! As a new runner, I am learning so much from your blog that I had no idea about. Keep it coming! 🙂

  7. joerunfordom says:

    Thanks Sarah! I am so glad you are finding the information helpful, thanks so much for stopping by. I am virtually coaching a colleague through their first half-marathon and all of his questions are helping remind me of all the important lessons I’ve learned and hope not to “forget” while I am training for my races this spring.

    Take good care, Joe

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