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Master Back-to-Back Racing

Lionel Sanders hits the trails for speed work in Arizona.
Lionel Sanders hits the trails for speed work in Arizona.

– By Jasper Blake

Competing on back-to-back weekends poses an interesting challenge when it comes to figuring out what type of run training is possible between the two races. Prescribing run workouts during this time can’t be a “one size fits all” approach – it is important to consider recovery and the athletes’ “bigger picture” goals.

The ability to recover depends, in part, on several key factors including race experience, sport-specific age, chronological age, along with the length (and intensity) of the races. Sport-specific age refers to the number of years an athlete has specialized in (or has been training for) a specific sport. If an athlete has many years of training and racing in triathlon, recovery time after a triathlon may be shorter than for someone who is new to the sport. Chronological age is another important consideration. With age recovery times can increase. Younger athletes may be able to cope with a larger training load between races than older athletes.

The length and intensity of the back-to-back races is also very relevant. Some races generate less stress and, therefore, require less recovery time. A sprint triathlon may only take 48 to 72 hours to recover from, whereas it may take seven to 10 days to fully recover from a half distance. It’s also important to think about how the races fit into the athletes’ overall season. If the races are small pieces of a larger end goal later in the year, it might not be as important to get a lot of rest mid-week. If one, or both, of the back-to-back races are the primary targets for the season, then rest and recovery may be a top priority.

The first path applies to an athlete who recovers quickly or is doing two shorter races. Often a light, easy run the day after an event will help promote recovery (active recovery). In the 72- to 96-hour window following a race it is possible to do a workout that generates some stress load. This workout does not need to be as aggressive as it would be without races on both weekends, but can certainly include some shorter intervals that focus on increased leg speed. Doing this workout 72 to 96 hours after the first race allows at least that amount of time after the workout to recover before the second race. The addition of one or two more shorter, lower intensity runs during the week should be enough to stay activated while not compromising recovery.

For an athlete who is using the two races as stepping-stones to larger season goals, particularly if that is a longer event like an full distance, a short, easy run the day after a race can help speed up recovery. However, in this case, the inclusion of a long run during the week becomes very important. Racing back-to-back weekends can potentially lead to the omission of a longer endurance run given that many athletes usually do this on a weekend. If the two races are of the shorter, faster variety, creating space mid-week for a long run is important, or it may mean two-three weeks without this stimulus. The addition of one or two more easy runs with some light activation (strides or accelerations) nearing the end of the week would be appropriate.

The third situation applies to an athlete who may have a low sport-specific age, high chronological age or simply may not recover that quickly. In this case, there is very little that can or should be done mid-week. The top priority between the two races should be full recovery. The stress load generated at the races will be enough and, if recovery is not achieved, it could lead to injury or decreased performance on the second weekend. Two or three run workouts that focus mainly on recovery should suffice. These runs should not include much intensity or be too long. Some light activation (like strides or accelerations) later in the week heading into the second race is appropriate.

Racing on back-to-back weekends is not easy, but if the athlete recovers properly the fitness and tolerance gains from the first race can often lead to a very successful second race.