The Tune-Up Race: Selecting the Right Distance and Timing for Proper Peaking

In boxing, fighters will often end a layoff from competition by taking a “tuneup fight” against a lesser opponent. Doing so allows them to work off the rust that inevitably builds up while on the sidelines. Oftentimes, a boxer will look lethargic and sloppy in these types of fights. But by getting the kinks out, they are razor sharp in their next outing. 

Runners can learn a lot from this competition-specific strategy. By scheduling a tuneup race in the buildup to your target race, you can maximize your performance on the day that matters most.  Knowing when and how to schedule these races requires a nuanced understanding of recovery time, energy systems, and more.

The Competitive Advantage

Competing – much like the motion of running – is a skill in itself. There are countless details that go into race day that simply can’t be replicated in training. Just a few of the race-specific variables that are difficult to mimic in training include: 

  • Navigating in and out of other runners
  • Starting your run at someone else’s signal, rather than on your own
  • Traveling to your race
  • Waiting in the heat or the cold for the race to start
  • Utilizing the adrenaline from a crowd, which helps you run at full effort 

As a runner, there are few things more disappointing than letting something other than fitness get in the way of your results. By taking a tuneup race, you can pressure test race-day variables and identify the chinks in your armor. In turn, you can patch up any holes in your game before toeing the line for your target race. 

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Picking Your Distance and Timing Your Race Correctly

The two biggest mistakes runners make in selecting their tuneup race is choosing the wrong distance or timing their tuneup incorrectly. In the buildup to marathons, for example, runners will sometimes race a 30K or 20-miler to ease their insecurity about attacking the 26.2 mile distance. Racing these distances in the same season as a marathon actually causes more harm than good because of the subsequent recovery period needed to fully resume training. 

Runners who train with See You At The Finish are given tuneup races as part of their long-term training blocks for a specific date. If you’re looking to time your own dress rehearsal, here are some guidelines to follow for each distance:

Goal Race: 5K

Best Tuneup Distances: 800m, 1,500m/Mile, 5K, 10k

Arguably the best way to get better at 5Ks is by running other 5Ks. The distance is short enough that you can race it regularly without risking burnout. And because of the technical nature of the distance, getting frequent race reps is necessary for knowing when to surge. 

But just about every distance short of a half marathon can help you prepare for a goal 5K. Shorter track races, particularly the mile, can help you immensely in developing your leg turnover and power output. A 10K in the buildup to a goal 5K may seem counterintuitive, but doing so can help you build strength, particularly for the 3rd mile of your 5K.

When to Run Your Tune-Up Races

A 10K and an 800m race are vastly different distances, so the timing of your tuneup races will vary based on the distance. 

  • You can run a shorter track race (mile or below) as close as five days out from your 5K, although you’ll optimally want to time them more than a week out. 
  • Running other 5Ks to prepare for a specific 5K race is best spaced out by a period of 2-3 weeks. If you’re looking to peak for a 5K, your final 5K tuneup race should generally be 2-4 weeks out. This time frame is largely determined by your individual recovery ability. 
  • A 10K tuneup should be done early in a 5K training cycle, preferably one-two months out from race day. When you decide to run your tuneup 10K will depend largely on your long-term training block. Unless you’re a college runner, you should avoid 10Ks in the weeks leading up to your peak 5K race. 

Goal Race: 10K

Best Tuneup Distances: 1,500m/Mile, 5K, Rarer Road Races like 4 milers 

Because a 10K race relies so heavily on your lactate threshold, the distance is arguably more similar to a half marathon than it is a 5K. As a result, your tuneup race options are generally limited to 5Ks, unless you can find a local track meet or an off-distance race (4-mile road race, 6K trail race, etc.). Cross country races, if you can find them, are an excellent way to build the power needed for the 10K distance, as the softer surfaces can help you develop your sustained muscular output.. A shorter track race will not be entirely applicable to your goal 10K, but it can help you work on your top-end speed and kick. 

See also: 10K Kick Reps Workout 

When to Run Your Tuneup Races

A shorter track race can be run at almost any point in your training cycle, as it will be more of a training tool than a direct dress rehearsal. Generally, you’ll want to avoid any races under a mile at least 10 days out from your goal 10K. A tuneup 5K, which is a fantastic distance to work out the kinks for your 10K, is best timed 3-4 weeks out from your target date. Off-distance races above 5K should be spaced out a bit longer from your big race day – generally at least a month. 

Goal Race: Half Marathon

Best Tuneup Distances: 5K, 10K

While a 5K race alone can help you develop your stride efficiency for a half marathon, you can get even more bang for your buck by adding half-marathon pace work after your run. The fatigue you generate from racing a 5K is an excellent simulator of the fatigue generated in the first 8-9 miles of a half marathon, so this workout teaches your body to run at half marathon pace on tired legs. A 10K is very close in nature to a half marathon, so using the distance as your final tuneup will help you work out any half-marathon specific kinks in advance. 

When to Run Your Tuneup Races

Racing 5Ks throughout the course of your half marathon cycle can keep you sharp for race day. Your final tuneup 5K should be between no less 2-3 weeks out from your target half marathon, and that time frame will depend on the context of your larger training cycle. A tuneup 10K should be run at least a month out from your half marathon, although you can cut that period to three weeks if you tend to recover quickly. 

Goal Race: Marathon

Best Tuneup Distances: 5K, 10K, Half Marathon

A 5K race is long enough that it can help you develop marathon-specific stride efficiency and power. It should be noted, though, that the distance is too short to serve as a true marathon tuneup race. A 10K is also a bit too short to serve as an ideal tuneup, but if there are no other races available to you in your marathon build up, the distance can suffice. The half marathon is the perfect tuneup distance for the full marathon. Not only can a half help prepare your connective tissue for the pounding of a full marathon – it can also help develop your aerobic/lactate threshold line, which is one of the most important factors in tackling the 26.2 mile distance. 

When to Run your Tuneup Races

Context is everything when choosing tuneup races for your target marathon. A proper marathon cycle can last 3-6 months, so you have more flexibility in choosing your races. One approach that works for beginner and advanced runners alike is increasing race distances throughout a long training cycle, starting with a 5K and progressing to a 10K and half marathon. 

Timing your half marathon is key in the build up to a marathon. My favorite approach is to use a half marathon as the culmination of the first phase of your training. With this strategy, you’ll run your half marathon tuneup 8-10 weeks out from your marathon, giving you ample time to recover and sharpen for race day. You can also take a more aggressive approach and race a half marathon 5-7 weeks out from your target race, although this method should only be done within a very targeted buildup. 

Some marathoners do well with a 5K or 10K around two weeks out from race day, but there are more specific workouts you can do for better preparation. A better approach is to run these distances at least three weeks out from your marathon so you can hone in on marathon-specific pace in your precious final few weeks of training.