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How to Run Back-to-Back Races Without Killing Your Body

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Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

When I toe the line at the Walt Disney World Marathon in January, it will be just eight weeks after racing the Philadelphia Marathon in November. I'm not alone. Plenty of runners try to cash in on half marathon or marathon fitness by sneaking another race into their training cycles. Michelle Cilenti, an orthopedic and sports board-certified physical therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, says she routinely sees runners doing double duty, especially during fall and winter running season.

But if you—like me—want to avoid a trip to the PT, how do you prepare your body for the rigors of multiple demanding races just weeks apart? Carefully plan your entire training cycle, prioritize your goals for each race, strengthen your body over time, and—most importantly—pay special attention to recovery. Here's how. (Also check out these things all physical therapists want runners to start doing ASAP.)

Prioritize your goals.

How you tackle each race matters. "What are your goals for race one versus race two?" asks Cilenti, who's also a USATF-certified running coach.

While experienced runners can treat both events as goal efforts, it's not ideal nor recommended for new runners, says Cilenti. "If it's a runner who's only run one or two marathons, it's probably better to pick one as your top priority," she says. Even though Philadelphia will be my 10th marathon, I'll still heed her advice and use Walt Disney World as a fun victory lap. (Consider one of these bucket list–worthy half marathons.)

Half marathons make the feat a bit more doable—just make sure they're at least six to eight weeks apart, cautions John Honerkamp, founder and CEO of Run Kamp, a run coaching and consulting service. Even then, you won't see pros like Shalane Flanagan or Desiree Linden (the super-inspiring winner of the 2018 Boston Marathon) planning back-to-back races in advance.

The better option is to make the second half marathon your "A" goal. "You can use race number one for training and race number two for peak performance," says Honerkamp, who has coached thousands of runners, working with companies like New Balance and New York Road Runners. "The first half marathon won't take that much out of you, so if you have four to eight weeks until the second race, you'll be okay."

But when it comes to marathons, the opposite is true. "I typically tell my runners to race marathon number one and do marathon number two as a fun tour of the city or countryside," says Honerkamp, who has tackled double dares twice using that strategy, running the first marathon for himself, then pacing celebrity athletes like Olympic short track speed skater Apolo Ohno and tennis player Caroline Wozniacki.

If you're mixing distances, an ideal one-two combo is a half marathon tune-up race followed by a marathon three to six weeks later, says Honerkamp. Treat the week after the half marathon as recovery before diving back into training.

Time it right.

Runners with eight weeks to spare can actually get back into training between events, whereas shorter gaps between races should be considered recovery/maintenance mode. (See: How Long Should I Take Off of Running After a Race?) That's the shortest amount of time you need to make any progress, says Cilenti—with at least two weeks each for recovery and taper, and a block of training in between. "It takes two weeks to get gains from your last long run, so that's why there's no point in doing a long run the week before your marathon," says Cilenti. Unless you've got that full eight weeks between races, neither Honerkamp nor Cilenti recommends doing any challenging workouts in between. Focus instead on easy to medium efforts.

You could structure your weeks in limbo like so: Spend the first week or two resting, easing back into gentle runs in the second or third week, suggests Honerkamp. By week four, aim for a regular training load with easy workouts only. In week five, tackle some quality and longer runs—but only up to a medium effort, says Cilenti. By the sixth week, start cycling down into your taper until your next race at the end of the eighth week.

If you have fewer than eight weeks between events, keep all the recovery and taper days, but cut down running workouts as needed. If you feel like moving but don't want to jeopardize your recovery, try spinning or swimming: "I also have my runners do more cross-training, so they can tap into their cardio without beating up their legs," says Honerkamp.

Plan ahead.

Ideally, plan both races as part of one larger training cycle. "You have to think about everything together," says Cilenti.

If racing again wasn't initially part of the plan, think about why you want a rerun. If you raced in bad weather, with a cold, or dropped out early in the game, you could try again, Cilenti and Honerkamp agree. Case in point: Galen Rupp dropped out of the nor'easter-plagued 2018 Boston Marathon with symptoms of hypothermia, then regrouped to win the Prague Marathon (with a personal best time!) three weeks later.

But if your fitness was to blame, reconsider. "I would encourage runners to figure out why they had a terrible race," says Cilenti. "If it's an issue with your training, a couple weeks won't change much, so maybe it's not the best idea to run another one so quickly." (You should also consider these things before racing with an injury.)

Honerkamp says he tries to talk his runners out of impromptu do-overs after a bad race. "This rarely works or ends well," he says. "It is so hard to get up for another marathon both mentally and physically just a few weeks later."

And beginners, listen up: If you just finished your first half or full marathon and are so excited you just can't wait to do another, keep reading.

Build your body.

Before tackling back-to-back half marathons or marathons, make sure your body is ready to go the distance by strength training. "Strengthening is the number one thing most runners do not do," says Cilenti. "We'd like to see more true resistance training—actually using weights at the gym, targeting the hips, core, and quads. Typically, when runners come in for physical therapy, those are the major muscle groups that are very weak." Adding one or two simple exercises to your warm-up or gym routine can make a huge difference, she says. When in doubt, consult a coach who can help tailor a strength program for you.

Above all, make sure you put in the work in the months and, yes, years before "twofer" race days. "If you're going to do back-to-back long-distance races, you should have a nice training base and some experience with the distance you're racing to begin with," says Cilenti. Notch a few solo half marathons or marathons before contemplating multiples in one cycle. "You really should have a good running background before you start running distance. For back-to-back races, you should have even more experience."

Recover right.

Whatever you do, make recovery your top priority. "Recovery is the most important thing you can do," says Cilenti. "If you put in that training—a 16-week, 20-week program—theoretically, your body is trained to run your second race a couple weeks later." (Be sure to follow these to-dos for marathon recovery and half marathon recovery.)

Don't stress over fitness; you won't gain any speed benefit in those few weeks anyway, says Cilenti. Instead, focus on bringing your body back to a primed and rested race-ready state. Prioritize nutrition, hydration, foam rolling, and sports massage so you can run your second race with as much energy and fuel as you ran your first race, says Cilenti. "All that training goes out the window if you don't."

Any period shorter than four weeks between events should focus solely on recovery, says Honerkamp. "A lot depends on how you're feeling," he adds. "I typically don't give my runners an actual plan each week until I see how they're handling recovery."

To gauge your progress, do a body check. If you twinge when you go down the stairs, walk down hills, or commute to work, Cilenti says you're not ready to forge ahead. "After you've run a marathon or half marathon, you're going to feel run down. It's normal to feel aches and pains," says Cilenti. "If after one or two weeks, you're still feeling lingering discomfort, you need more time." Consider seeing a physician or physical therapist before your next race.

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